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The Beat #10: Modernism Hits the 'Burbs Issue

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Topics: Volkswagen Beetle, Little Richard, Las Vegas, Eichler Homes

Illustrations by Greg Chinn at The Local Brand Co.

Modernism was the defining base for the American 1950s aesthetic. By the time it hit the suburbs (which it was partially responsible for creating), modernism had become pop and pop had become ubiquitous. Houses, cars, music and fashion all pulled from the same sleek, polished ethic. Whether the lines were long and low or big and curved, they shared a vision of the future and immense optimism.

Volkswagen Beetle

When we think of the 1950s cars of America, we think big — tail fins, huge sloping fenders, enough chrome to sink a ship. We don’t really think…Volkswagen Beetle. And the advertisers who helped push the little bug that could over the transom for US consumers knew this. That’s why they started with the eye-catching, brilliantly executed “Think Small” and “Lemon” campaigns, which helped position the little Volkswagen for the decade to come, when it would be ubiquitous on American roads.

Little Richard

Elvis may have stolen the spotlight, particularly in the white suburbs, but he drew much of his style and stage persona from the one and only Little Richard, the self-described “King and Queen of Rock ’n Roll.” His sheer talent and discipline made him great, and his flamboyant personality, impeccable voice and healthy ego shot him into the stratosphere. Whether it’s “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” or “Long Tall Sally,” his songs have been ripping it up for more than 60 years, and they don’t show any signs of stopping.

Las Vegas

Paiute land that would be colonized by a dubious array of settlers, politicians, gangsters, lounge singers and tourists, Las Vegas as we know it today really began to boom in the 1950s. Bugsy Siegel may have died (in a hail of gunfire) in 1947, but his Flamingo was joined in the late 1940s and early ’50s by the Sahara, the Sands, the Riviera, the Tropicana and more. By 1954, 8 million people visited annually, taking in the grand lights and part with some $200 million. In 1954 dollars. In 1959, Betty Willis’ gorgeous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign went up, perfectly capturing the dazzling lights and mod Googie craziness of the city.

Eichler Homes & California Modern

Last week we talked about how Case Study Houses were designed with the intent of bringing high modernism to regular people. But it was Joseph Eichler who struck the perfect balance of streamlined design and accessibility with his subdivisions. Eichler homes as they’re known, are known for their post-and-beam construction, long lines, open floorplans and vast expanses of glass. Influenced by the Case Study architects, these houses embody the design and egalitarianism of California Modern design.


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