Eames, Knoll, Saarinen, Mies, George Nelson: the midcentury architects and design icons worshipped by fans were clear signifiers of taste and class from the moment they arrived, self-evidently the most stylish furniture available. Design curator Donald Albrecht believes the real story is slightly different.
"Modern architecture itself may have left the public cold, but modern architecture in the movies caught its imagination by embodying . . . their fears, hopes and aspirations," he wrote in his book Designing Dreams.
Worldly as we believe ourselves to be, cinema's cultural impact popularizes trends, and that was certainly true in the '50s and '60s. Midcentury design and architecture, which arrived brimming with optimism and new ideas, and was used by directors, set designers and stylists to symbolize the forward-thinking, modern, nature of those on screen. From classic films to modern period dramas made today, the sophisticated silhouettes of this era of design symbolize the same ideas today. Here are some of our favorite films, from classics to recent period dramas, where midcentury and modern style play an important role.
Image via Weinstein Company
A Single Man (2009)
Partially shot inside the 1949 Schaffer residence in Los Angeles, a midcentury dream house designed by John Lautner, Tom Ford's directorial debut finds the fashion designer gorgeous recreating midcentury élan. "It was incredibly curated, there wasn't an object that wasn't studied or considered," says Amy Wells, a set design expert who worked on this film, and had previously worked on Mad Men. "Everything winds up being exactly what Tom wanted." The interiors also go a long way in establishing character. The impeccable home of George (Colin Firth) exudes the same refined elegance as the main character, who had recently lost his lover, Jim, in a car accident, while the home of George's friend Charley (Julianne Moore), exudes a certain tired, baroque decadence, a look as over-exuberant as her mood.
A Star is Born (1954)
This classic Hollywood parable, famous for its high cost, initially cold reception, and stories of Judy Garland's temperamental backstage behavior, also gave a trio of visual designers license to create a early color masterpiece. Director George Cukor, special visual and color consultant George Hoyningen-Huene, a top fashion photographers, and production designer Gene Allen excelled at capturing then cutting-edge style, especially in the home of Vicki Lester (Garland). During a scene where she sings "Someone at Last" while dancing around her home, she positions a bar cart/camera on her "stage," flanked by what appears to be a Barcelona chair and tri-cone lamp.
The Fountainhead (1949)
Ayn Rand's tome about Objectivism and an egotistical architect seems ready-made for stunning set design. Yet, in a ironic twist recalling Rand's own "integrity to the idea" philosophy, Frank Lloyd Wright, an inspiration for the central character of Howard Roark (played by Gary Cooper in the film), balked at the low fee he was offered to participate in the motion picture, so set design duties fell to Edward Carrere. It was quite a knockout job for a rookie designer. True to the story's protagonist, Carrere's design was geometric and forward-thinking, an angular mixture of Scandinavian and International motifs, with some holdovers from the Bauhaus era thrown in the mix. Showcasing an ahead-of-its-time look at high-rise living, Carerre's work was as pointed and daring as Roark's rhetoric.
Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
In retrospect, it's an odd description: a romantic comedy featuring Vertigo power couple Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart as an odd couple, with Stewart figuratively falling for Novak this time due to her secret identity as a witch. For the sake of the design-minded, Novak's character, Gillian Holroyd, runs an African art gallery, and her office, an admirable assembly of Danish modern furniture, is as enchanting as the plot.
Pillow Talk (1959)
Popular culture had already been introduced to/seduced by the concept of the bachelor pad when this Rock Hudson vehicle was released in the late '50s. And while the premise is undoubtedly of its time—composer and playboy (Hudson) mingles and falls for a neighboring interior designer (Doris Day) since they're forced to share a telephone line due to high demand—the lead actor's bachelor pad offers some forward-thinking touches, including a sleek spiral staircase
Diamonds are Forever (1971)
Of course, no discussion of bachelor pads is complete without mention of Mister Bond. A style icon of his time, 007 has seen his share of posh interiors and villain's lairs, which form a case study in the way set designers equated midcentury cool with cold and calculating evil. Perhaps one of the signature sets from the franchise would be the Elrod House, a John Lautner beauty in Palm Springs that serves as the winter retreat of billionaire Willard Whyte. The home's circular shape and dramatic ceiling, interspersed with "folds" of concrete that allowed in indirect light while blocking the harsh sun of the desert, was a nod to the site and its climate. Its appearance in this film, however, gave the home a bit of a reputation for flamboyant design.
French director Jacques Tati's masterful, medium-format look at a world overtaken by Modernist design includes some of film's most elaborate set pieces, such as a legendary extended intermingling of characters and staff at a restaurant that takes up most of the second half of the film. But the scene that sticks out for those looking for sleek, modern interiors may be the apartment shot, which, via a camera positioned on the street, turns the audience into voyeurs watching a grid of four families interacting in their living rooms. While other directors celebrated the sleek and new, Tati strove to show the alienation caused by the rigid and the modern, a theme he would also focus on for Mon Oncle.
North by Northwest (1959)
Alfred Hitchcock obsessed over architecture, or at least, gave that impression in his work, where cameras could communicate tension by lingering over windows and buildings. In North by Northwest, the famed Vandamm house, a Wright-inspired, cantilevered beauty partially constructed in Culver City (a locale meant to suggest the top of Mount Rushmore), instantly suggests modernity. The set design crew of Robert Boyle, William A. Horning, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvey continue the theme inside, with typical signifiers of late-'50s style (low coffee tables, geometric wall art and Edward Wormley-type furniture). As Steven Jacobs writes in The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, this is the sole example of high-modernism in Hitchcock's body of work, and, like many other filmmakers of the era, the modernist look sends a signal that this is the home of someone not to be trusted.
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Cincinnati serves as a simulacrum of '50s New York in director Todd Haynes's remake of Patricia Highsmith's lesbian love story. Inspired by period colors and the street photography of Saul Leiter, the film's designers strove to recreate early '50s style, from the opulence of Carol's (Cate Blanchett) slightly dated New Jersey home, to the motel rooms where the two lovers stop during a road trip out west. The reimagined Manhattan in the Midwest offers a portrait of the more buttoned-down part of the decade, where the muted tones of the post-war era begin shifting towards the more exuberant shade of the prosperous '50s and '60s.
The Moon is Blue (1953)
Famous for mounting a challenge the restrictive production code—a reviewer at the time quipped the story, which finds a young woman entering a bachelor architect's pad, was a "glib little tract on maidenly virtue"—this Otto Preminger movie also features some early examples of modernist furniture on film. The architect's apartment, a sleek, minimal bachelor pad, has numerous hallmarks of the style, including a Saarinen Womb chair and Eames wire chair.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Dude's rug may tie the room together, but the real scene-stealing interior in the Coen Brothers's classic may be the ostentatious home of pornographer and loan shark Jackie Treehorn. The magnificent residence, with a geometric concrete roof and dramatic overhang framing the pool, has quite the architectural pedigree. Designed by Wright associate John Lautner in 1963, the Sheats Goldstein Residence offers a stunning example of indoor-outdoor living in the Hollywood Hills, complete with a series of miniature skylight in the ceiling made from 750 drinking glasses pressed into the ceiling.
The Best of Everything (1959)
A proto-Working Girls offering a glamorous take on the realities of being a working woman in '50s New York, the movie provides vintage shots of a few key examples of midcentury architecture, including the Lever House and Seagram Building. The period-specific interior of the Fabian Publishing Company (supposedly a recreation of Pocket Books, the company that published the Rona Jaffe novel upon which the movie was based), where the key group of friend work for Joan Crawford, is filled with bold colors and Mondrian-esque shapes. It could be a fitting space for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
The Incredibles (2004)
A tale of a nuclear family finding each other, dressed up in capes and a superhero storyline, starts with the Parr/Incredibles family living what seems like an average existence in the town of Metroville. But the sleek lines of their angular, Eichler-like home, as well as the Danish-style furniture found inside, speaks to production designer Lou Romano and art director Ralph Eggleston's focus on midcentury style. The curvaceous villain's lairs found later in the film seen straight out of a period spy movie, offering plenty of nods to Niemeyer and Saarinen.
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