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  • Mid-Century Fetish: The Best Of Everything

    Posted on September 13th, 2009 Toby Weiss 8 comments

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    The Best of Everything is a rich chocolate sundae of Hollywood melodrama and mid-century modern design, with Miss Joan Crawford as the cherry on top.

    Filmed and released in 1959, the movie is based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Rona Jaffe.  The book is a really great read because it’s far more than a soap tale of 3 girls coming to New York City to find love and good fortune; it is a realistic snapshot of how post-WW2 cultural and corporate standards demanded the creation of Women’s Liberation.

    The dramatic and/or tragic stories of the girls’ journeys through sex and career were obvious bait for Hollywood, who added spoonfuls of glamor sugar to make the medicine go down, and this lesson was clearly understood and aped by both Cosmopolitan magazine and, later, Mad Men.   I’d make a bet that Matthew Weiner has seen this movie even more times than I have, if only for set design research purposes.

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    Along with Hope Lange, Barbara Lamont and Suzy Parker (above center), the Lever House should have been billed as a co-star, because it actually appears on screen as often as Joan Crawford.  It appears so much because it’s caddy corner on Park Avenue to the building where our heroines work…

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    … the Seagram Building.  So within the first 15 minutes of the film, you know you’re in for a rich and gooey mid-century modern treat.

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    The main character, Caroline Bender, comes to her first day of work as a typist and secretary at Fabian Publishing Company.   She arrives early to absorb the place, and the camera pans over this Mondrian-like office set.  The film’s art direction is primarily by Lyle R. Wheeler, who had already worked similar magic on films like The Long Hot Summer, Peyton Place, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Bus Stop.  For the Fabian Publishing set, he used door colors to signify which level each inhabitant occupied on the corporate totem pole and adhered to tight grids in the typing pool to symbolize the rigid class distinctions between executives and the female typing pool.  If – without seeing the move – this set looks familiar to you, it may indicate that you…

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    …watch Mad Men. During the first few episodes of the first season, I was vaguely disappoint in how refined the sets were, until I realized that I was instinctively comparing their sets to The Best of EverythingThe people responsible for the Mad Men sets have essentially created the accurate, real-world version of of Hollywood’s glossy interpretation of late 50s/early 60s corporate world.

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    Caroline Bender  (above) has ambitions to become an editor but first assigned secretary duties to editor Miss Amanda Farrow (Miss Crawford, below right).

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    The Mad Men character Peggy Olson is a perfect compilation of these two characters.  Peggy “before” is Caroline, all freshly scrubbed from a small town looking to make it in the Big City, and her quick learning curve and natural talent moves her quickly up the ladder.  If you’d like a sneak peak at Peggy “after,” see this movie and keep an eye on the Amanda character.  And look at those chairs!

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    This is the office of Fabian editor-in-chief Fred Shalimar, and dig the wall of built-in book shelves holding the paperbacks he’s overseen.  As in Mad Men, actual work takes a backseat to drinking, smoking and carousing, so the office needs to be comfy and stylish.

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    Hollywood depicted the bustling employee cafeteria inside the Seagram building as a mod fantasy of vivid aqua, yellow and purple, which stood in stark contrast to the marble and glass lobby that couldn’t be glossed into submission.

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    When the action leaves the office, we get a wide sample of the different aspects of mid-century modern residential design.  Above is the work-a-day kitchen in Amanda Farrow’s apartment, and below is the penthouse of rich playboy Dexter Key (played by Robert Evans) who will do terrible things to one of our heroines.

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    Eventually, Caroline becomes second-in-command at Fabian and gets this spacious new office.  It  does a better job of expressing the character’s reactions to her rapid rise than the actress does, which pretty much sums up the movie.  As often happens, Hollywood sucks the soul out of a book for the sake of selling tickets.  In the case of The Best of Everything, the sets and the costumes are the reason I watch this movie so often, and the reason I get an extra kick out of Mad Men.

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    Mid-Century Fetish: Down With Love

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  • Mid-Century Fetish: Down With Love

    Posted on April 13th, 2009 Toby Weiss 9 comments

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    Down With Love, released in 2003, is a homage to classic Doris Day & Rock Hudson films of the 1960s, starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger. It works as both a tongue-in-cheek commentary and earnest love letter to that style of romantic comedy film.

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    Critics buried the film, and basically no one but me and my Mother saw it in the theaters. But two crew members did get nominated for a few independent film awards, and rightly so, because they were the meat and potatoes of this venture.

    Costume designer Daniel Orlandi totally nailed the spirit of a typical Doris Day wardrobe, which was fabulous! Production designer Andrew Laws studied the sets of the original Day-Hudson films, then injected them with the revival of mid-century modern design that was foaming to a head, and thus created the ultimate fetishistic object for MCM design fans.

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    The lobby of Know magazine

    Over the years, I have seen Pillow Talk – where Doris Day plays an interior decorator – easily 40 times. The sets are just as important as the actors and the plot and, for the last 10 years or so, I watch the backgrounds more than the foreground. So when Down With Love set decorator Don Diers said their sets were intended to be a “distinct character in the film,” my applause is deafening for a goal perfectly achieved. As with Pillow Talk, I can watch this film with the sound down and still be wildly entertained.

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    Catcher Block's office

    The movie begins with this narration:
    The place: New York City
    The time: now – 1962. And there’s no time or place like it.

    Diers confirmed this by saying, “Our New York exteriors existed in the back lot world of Universal. We made a concerted effort to recreate a 1963 Hollywood New York, as opposed to anything that might have been mistaken for reality. Through Fox Research, we searched a lot of old movie stills for just the right tone.”

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    Barbara Novak's Manhattan penthouse apartment

    This level of fantasy detail is supremely delightful. Bringing to life idealized versions of what 1962 surely looked like is thoroughly satisfying and can be a time-consuming hobby.

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    Here’s a piece on how to re-create the Barbie doll feel of Barbara Novak’s penthouse apartment.

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    The bachelor pad of Catcher Block

    The bachelor pad of Catcher Block

    And here’s a piece on how to get that “woman’s man, man’s man, man about town” look for your bachelor pad.

    Another view of Cathcer's apartment

    Another view of Catcher's apartment

    Catcher's fireplace and vintage stewardess

    Catcher's fireplace and vintage stewardess

    As much as I genuinely love and strive to document real-world examples of mid-century modern architecture and design, I do get uneasy about the fetish aspect of it. The definitions of “fetish” succinctly explain my uneasy feelings:

    1. an object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency

    2. Any object, idea, etc. eliciting unquestioning reverence, respect or devotion

    3. Any object or nongenital part of the body that causes a habitual erotic response or fixation

    Cubicles of secretarial pool at Know magazine
    Cubicles of secretarial pool at Know magazine

    Finding evidence of a design time period and collecting the items and/or trying to recreate that look is a time-honored tradition. Early American architecture was founded on the revival of most every European building style of most every century. So, reverential recreation of mid-20th century design is a natural progression, and may be the only thing that finally preserves the best examples of such for future generations.

    Lobby of Novak's Now magazine

    Lobby of Novak's Now magazine

    But there does exist unrealistic expectations among those cultivating a mid-century way of living. The most intriguing example comes from the stories of a realtor friend who specializes in finding St. Louis MCM homes for her clients.

    Coming into Barbara Novak's office

    Coming into Barbara Novak's office

    In a nutshell, some folks want to live in subdivisions with homes like these, but they want it to look exactly as it did when first built. They look at what 40+ years of inhabitant’s remodeling did to the place and just don’t want to deal with the effort required to restore it to that original state.

    Novak's office

    Novak's office

    Remodeling industry figures show that the average homeowner remodels at least the kitchen and bathroom every 10 years, and that when someone moves into a pre-existing home, some form of remodeling will take place. This is a psychological, aesthetic and functional desire to erase previous footprints and mold the home to your wants and needs.

    Waiting area at Now magazine

    Waiting area at Now magazine

    If the house is over 25 years old, it’s going to automatically need upgrades to systems, roofs and exterior finishes. Maintenance is an on-going chore for a house of any age.

    It is easily understood that the purchase of a period home is going to require a lot of work. Whether wanting to totally modernize it or restore it to its original state, it is the equivalent of a second full-time job until the job is done. Wait, the job is never truly done, so scratch that. It’s more like raising a child.

    The Pan Am building is real, the rest is Hollywood

    The Pan Am building is real, the rest is Hollywood

    A house built in the 1950s or 60s is now, technically, a period home. Aside from the maintenance and repairs it will require, if you want to take it back to the original form, it requires remodeling. Many homeowners – especially first-time buyers – understandably don’t want to deal with this much work and expense. If that’s their mindset, then walking into a 1960s ranch that only looks like that from the outside is a major bubble pop, and disillusionment thwaps hard upside the head.

    But what is it about mid-century architecture that makes it harder for us to accept the remodeling realities of a place that has been normally remuddled over the decades? Why do we expect these period homes to be like a perfectly preserved dollhouse?

    Set for the closing credit musical number

    Set for the closing credit musical number

    Maybe it’s because it is the recent past. The second half of the 20th century went by at lightening speed; 25 years can feel like only 5 years gone, and how much can you mess up something in that short period of time? A home built in 1912 is an antiquated beast requiring massive work to bring it to current standards. But a 1950s ranch has central air conditioning and drywall, so we recognize it as “of our time.”

    Then we see something like Down With Love, where they wave a magic Hollywood wand and create a mid-century Xanadu. Target lets us take home credible recreations of that era. Dwell shows regular people living in that world. It’s as easy as populating a dollhouse, right?

    If only.

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  • Barbie’s Malibu Dream House

    Posted on March 12th, 2009 Toby Weiss 4 comments

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    In honor of Barbie’s 50th birthday, they created a real-life Barbie Dream House on the Malibu beach.  Click here to see a photo gallery of this fantabulous place.

    I’m getting all 3rd grade on ya, and sayin’ I love every single thing about this house. Everything! I would not change a pillow or wall hanging.  I thought Elle Wood’s apartment in Legally Blonde 2 was the ultimate, but nope! It’s gotta be Barbie’s Malibu Dream House.

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    You gotta check out the shoe closet, and don’t be drinkin’ or there’s gonna be a spit take.  For reals. Seriously, this is the ultimate pad for the girl on the go. No, seriously. It is!

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