For this exercise I've been asked to study the 1950’s period and although I enjoy many modern interpretations of the era I hadn’t previously looked into the history of the time in detail until now, making this was an interesting subject for me to get my teeth into.
The first stage was to gather visual references to sort into the following categories:
People & Costume | Architecture & Interiors | Art | Graphic Design
Advertising | Transport | Film & TV | Surface Patterns & Decoration
It was initially daunting to cover so many areas of culture across such a busy period of history, so I began using Pinterest and Google to gather up initial ideas by using each category as the starting search terms. With each result I gained more ideas for avenues I could explore further, for example the returned images from 1950's Surface Patterns & Decoration lead me on to focus my results into specific areas for 1950's fabric patterns, 1950's carpet design and 1950's wallpaper respectively.
I repeated this method for each of the other categories and throughout the image gathering process, I was also searching for written material that could support my research. I found several articles that covered aspects the decade as a whole as well as from specific perspectives such as retrospective looks at the fashion industry and fine art world during this time period.
At times I had difficulty validating my sources as the results of many online image searches are either modern reproductions in the 1950's style or uncredited, making them not authentic enough to relate to what I was looking for. The task suggested that I try and use as many sources as I can, so I went looking for physical books that were written either during or about the era to help give me some more accurate context.
As I went looking for books as I remembered that my family has a small library of vintage books they have collected over the years including magazines and manuals that cover areas that interest them. Some of these are various editions of National Geographic magazines, five of which are dated from 1957-1959 that when examined offered a fantastic wealth of visual and written information across many of the cultural areas that I needed to look at.
Today, National Geographic offer an online digital archive for all of their previous articles and editions as part of their magazine subscription service, but for me to be able to have direct access to original physical copies is a rare privilege that I am very grateful to have had as a resource.
With this invaluable first hand snapshot of the era, I looked through each magazine extensively, marking colour coded areas of interest that I could then scan images of to include in my moodboards. Throughout the articles and advertising segments, I found that they covered a number of prevalent topics focussing on themes of transport, travel, scientific advancement and daily life that were relevant to my research.
I also found some documentaries produced during the 1950's that were also fascinating glimpses into life at the time, such as Linkspan, a 1956 British Transport film that follows 24 hours in the life of three British Railways Channel ferry services. As well as having a heavy emphasis on transport, films like this one spill into other areas of culture by also showcasing fashion and social habits.
Although still not completely exhaustive for all the areas I needed, I now had a better visual understanding of authentic material from the time and I could now finish developing my moodboards much more comfortably and when I returned to finish my internet research, i found that I was able to filter down to the essentials across all of the categories.
I printed off my mood boards to annotate and collect together my notes from my reading and used those points as a basis for the next part of the task, writing a short review of the visuals from 1950’s by accumulating everything that I have learned in my research.
The 1950’s from a visual perspective
The 1950’s was an optimistic era as a conscious effort was made for people to move away from the effects of WWII in order to look towards brighter futures. Comfort and luxury were high priorities and as the economy improved so did the technology of the time. Cars became readily affordable for the middle class and as black and white and some colour television sets made their way into the home, more media outlets were opened up for the widespread advertising that lead the way for new trends in all areas of life.
Men were seen in sharp business suits as the head of the household, but with more casual clothing styles emerging to be worn during leisure activities. For women, in contrast to the self-sufficiency they had during the 1940’s, there was more of a focus on family and beauty roles. Maintaining a good appearance was socially considered important for women and multiple options opened up for self-expression through bright clothing designs and accessories that created a sense of sophistication and elegance.
As younger children were mostly dressed to match the appearances of their parents, the concept of the teenager developed along with their own style as influenced by popular celebrities at the time such as James dean and Elvis Presley that carried the “greaser” look synonymous with the growing popularity of rock and roll music.
Western capitalism was in full effect and magazine illustrations were often painted using stylised realism as accurate figure drawings demonstrated lifestyle improvement products through dynamic storytelling scenes. The fonts were playful, yet also clear to read and page layouts were streamlined towards delivering positive information as directly as possible. In western media such as comic books, images frequently showed anti-communist propaganda as the threat of a nuclear war loomed. Many of the graphic design choices that were used during the 1950’s are still recognizable formats used in advertising today, such as double page spreads and methods of photo manipulation to create layered images.
On television, advertisements began promoting idealistic family values around the home by using snappy catchphrases and jingles with memorable slogans between programs. The focus began moving away from cinemas as the main form of entertainment as studio’s were formed to focus on creating shows made specifically for television. Children’s entertainment was a new market and animation studios such as Hanna Barbera were established to lead the way in influencing visual culture. Towards the end of the decade programmes such as Blue Peter had started a weekly variety format that would continue to flourish well into the 60’s and beyond.
The aesthetics of product design also began to take a new approach. Homes were created to be open plan and furniture and decorations became more minimalist than they had been previously by featuring simpler forms that combine sharply defined edges with smooth curves. Vehicles also shared similar bodywork structures and are widely recognised as the most visually recognisable icons of the decade. As family cars and luxuriant sports models were now manufactured with in a range of colour finishes, bright red and chrome remains as the defining look for a 1950’s car. All together this image of state of the art living promoted the mid-century modernism that many still find so appealing today.
In the art world, Avant-Garde movements from the 1920’s such as abstract painting and surrealism made a resurgence as efforts were made by artists to break away from traditional painting techniques. A growing interest in atomic energy fed into Salvador Dali’s paintings. Abstract expressionist ‘action paintings’ and ‘colour field’ images by artists Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock can commonly be seen in 1950’s interior design as accessories to compliment the colour palette of a room. The early emergence of early collages by Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton would also inspire the further development of the ‘Pop Art’ movement in the 60’s and artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol made use of images from the time in the decades to come.
In contemporary culture, the 1950’s is often romanticized as a golden age of social prosperity and it has formed a long lasting visual legacy. A continued desire to own 1950’s items has led to an active trade in vintage fashion and interior design and many of the same style choices are still employed in new products. In other media, the singer Lana Del Rey, the video game series Fallout and the television show Twin Peaks all lean heavily on 1950’s and 60’s nostalgia in their work despite each of them being set across alternative timelines. This trend continues to be popular as artists continue to draw inspiration from this time period.
The final part of the task was to channel everything I had learned into an illustration of someone sitting in a chair, surrounded by 1950's imagery.
Using my mood boards as guides, I experimented with some practice sketches of some of my favourite objects that I could use to arrange into a scene. I was inspired by the ink advertisements I saw in some of the later National Geographic's and tried to work in some of those design decisions into my own style.
After mocking up several compositions I decided on a scene of a man and woman sitting in their living room. I then built this using blocks and figures on my desk in order to photograph them as drawing references. Although the figures are not anatomically correct, they are close enough that I could get the base poses that I need and improvise the character details over the top of the layout.
Once I had a composition I liked, I set about constructing my line drawing using black ink pen I used my model photos as a basis for my structure then overlaid 1950's clothing and faces using the line style I had practiced before.
At first I was unsure if I should use digital colour or pencil crayon, so I scanned a copy of my line drawing before attempting with pencil crayon first. This turned out to be a wise decision as the pencil colours were too inconsistent for applying the sold but textured block of colour that I wanted. I returned to my original scan to continue the rest of the drawing digitally, cleaning up and adding additional elements through Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.
I'm pleased with how this has turned out as I wanted to create something that doesn't completely look like it was made in that era, but still captures the spirit of the time period. The advertising style alongside the rougher line work and textures that I've used have hopefully helped to sell that idea to the viewer and in the final version as a bit of extra nostalgia, I ran a noise filter over the image to give it a slightly grainy texture.
I've enjoyed this exercise but did find it difficult at to distil down the bulk of information from such a large period of time. I enjoyed looking at each section but found myself having to pull away from some areas so that I could give the rest of the decade a fair amount of attention too. Although I don't yet consider research tasks to be a strength of mine, I've felt an improvement from completing this one that has left me more prepared for the ones up ahead.
architecturaldigest.com. ‘1950s Midcentury-Modern Design and Architecture’ In: Architectural Digest At: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/1950s-slideshow-122007 (Accessed 22/08/19)
BFI Screenonline. TV in the 1950s At: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/1321302/index.html (Accessed 22/08/19)
Illustration history.org. ‘The Decade 1950-1960’ https://www.illustrationhistory.org/history/time-periods/the-decade-1950-1960 (Accessed 22/08/19)
Maria, R. ‘The Story of 1950’s Art’ In: Widewalls At: https://www.widewalls.ch/1950s-art/
National Geographic Society. (1957) National Geographic Magazine Volume CXII Number One Washington: DC
National Geographic Society. (1957) National Geographic Magazine Volume CXII Number Three Washington: DC
National Geographic Society. (1958) National Geographic Magazine Volume CXIV Number Three Washington: DC
National Geographic Society. (1958) National Geographic Magazine Volume CXIV Number One Washington: DC
National Geographic Society. (1959) National Geographic Magazine Volume CXVI Number One Washington: DC
Reddy, K. (2019) 1950-1959 At: https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1950-1959/ (Accessed
Rosenberg, J. (2019) A Brief Timeline of the 1950s At: https://www.thoughtco.com/1950s-timeline-1779952 (Accessed 22/08/19)
The Art Story. Top 50 Works of Modern Art At: https://www.theartstory.org/top50.htm (Accessed 22/08/19)
Wilson, B. (2010) Graphic Design Through The Decades Series: The ’50s At: https://inspiredology.com/graphic-design-through-the-decades-series-the-50s/ (Accessed 22/08/19)
(Work In Progress, 1951)