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Making a commodity of Modernism

review

Design In The Fifties: When Everyone Went Modern by George H Marcus. Prestel, 1998. 160pp. £14.95

'Drink cranberry juice for breakfast; it's modern to be different,' ran an American advertisement quoted by Christopher Alexander at the head of his article 'The Revolution finished twenty years ago' in the Architects' Yearbook (1960). George Marcus's Design in the Fifties combines object- oriented design history, popular culture and kitsch, recycling the revolution with a sizeable slew of cranberry-juice Modernism.

In Europe, the revolution did finish in 1939 in many ways, but the 1950s turned it into a commodity, above all in America, where the 'long 1950s', from Hiroshima to Dallas, defined an era of world power and confidence - a period we may no longer find politically and socially appealing, whatever its nostalgic allure. It is sometimes said that many of those under 30 have only the vaguest idea of historical events before the Second World War, and this book tends to reinforce such amnesia, in which the developments of the later 1930s, which were essential to the emergence of the 1950s style, are almost completely lost to view.

The book is strongest when it comes down to the level of popular dissemination of Modernism in the States, in Levittown and in newspaper advertising. There are some interesting comments on pirating of famous designs by Noguchi and Robsjohn Gibbings which made modern design at affordable prices, to the chagrin of Knoll and other manufacturers of the real thing. In today's collectors' market, it is essential to know the difference, not because it's modern to be different, but because these pieces are now traded as antiques - quite the opposite of what their designers intended.

For an incisive and entertaining overview of different styles within the fifties, there is still nothing to beat Lesley Jackson's The New Look (1991), but George Marcus offers the cheap and cheerful alternative. As the advert for a fake Noguchi table said in 1955, 'Its unique modern lines will impart exquisite individuality to your home.'Alan Powers is an architectural historian

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