Friday, April 3, 2009

Livable Modernism

I just finished a book called “Livable Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression”.

Most people have ideas of the Great Depression drawn from Dorothea Lange photographs of migrant workers, John Steinbeck novels and Annie, the Musical. I know I did before reading this book. The fact is though, 12% of the population at the height of the Great Depression was unemployed, which granted, was horrible for those families that were affected. But that also means that 88% of the population was employed. Perhaps their hours had been cut or they’d taken a lower salary to keep their business afloat, but for the great majority of the country, life remained less changed than we might realize from our vantage point 70 years into the future.

The history of decorative arts is such a fascinating subject. Sure, we can study the Great Depression in history class as kids or in economics class as university students, but textbooks and economics professors generally don’t tell very good stories. For me, one of the most revealing cultural tells is furniture advertising. Take a look at this ad from 1935 for the “Coronado glider”.

Not only does it showcase the aesthetic sensibility of the day (which, sure, may leave a little to be desired to the modern eye), it shows the price (average: around $40) and the tagline: “There’s a Hettrick Glider for Every Purpose and Every Purse”. Though the ad displays a sensitivity to perhaps straightened circumstances, look at the imagery and the language. The “Coronado”: a warm place with beautiful beaches in the promised land of California; the cactus: popular imagining of California from the point of view of the company in Ohio or the advertising agency in New York; a speeding modern metal train: ready to catapult you out of the past and into the future.

But most of all, this is outdoor furniture. This isn’t a bed, a dining room table, a sofa—anything resembling essential furniture in a home. Yet it is priced for a middle class consumer who is budget-conscious, but not unwilling to pay quite a bit of money for what most would consider, even today, to be a fairly frivolous item.

Though Livable Modernism does spend a bit of time chastising the past for its traditional gender roles and the inability or unwillingness of “modern” designers to view the woman’s role in the home as anything other than somewhere between homemaker and servant, which didn’t seem fair to me, it still presents a unique view of a time in our history that most of us probably feel like we know by heart. But, like any good exploration of the history of decorative arts, it shows that we might not know quite as much as we think we do about how our ancestors really lived.

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