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How the television transformed our homes

TV’s entry into our living spaces began a nationwide conversation about where the sets should go and how they should look

A collection of ten television sets, of various shapes and sizes, all from different eras of design. Illustration.

Since the “Big Three” networks and basic cable gave way to streaming services, TV viewers have had access to a dizzying variety of on-demand offerings in increasingly specific genres. As a result, we’ve drifted further and further away from the shared viewing experiences of previous generations, like the Season 3 Dallas cliffhanger in 1980 that left millions of viewers asking “Who shot J.R.?” all summer.

This diversification is as true for the devices we use to consume TV programming as it is for TV’s content. At various points in its nearly 100-year history, the television has been an item of furniture designed to match a living room set, a high-tech piece of media equipment, and just one of the many functions of a computer or a smartphone. Soon, television will even be wallpaper: In January of this year, LG announced the Signature OLED TV, a new product line that will allow consumers to roll a device onto a wall anywhere they choose. The Victorians would no doubt be confused, but perhaps also impressed.

The history of television’s place in domestic interiors fits into a much larger story about the look of technology in the home. Are pieces of consumer technology machines, furniture, or something else? In the second half of the 19th century, when the Singer Corporation began developing the sewing machine as a consumer product, it found that models that looked too industrial—that is, too much like factory equipment—failed to spark shoppers’ desire. Singer added decorative touches that gave sewing machines the look of Victorian furniture, with gold decoration on the device itself, and a dainty, carved stand for the cast-iron treadle that powered it. In order to be appealing to consumers, the machine needed to be disguised.

A portable radio with a red handle on top, two knobs and a round dial. The body is dark gray, the speaker is red and white striped, with red knobs and handle.
The Patriot Radio, designed by Norman Bel Geddes for Emerson Radio and Phonograph Corporation, 1940.
Collection of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

The first commercially available television sets, too, took another home object as their model: the radio. These mass-media devices preceded the television in conquering the home front, and they did so with a few different design strategies. Phonographs and radios, like the Orthophonic Victrola Credenza from the turn of the 20th century, disguised their technological inner workings with elegant walnut cabinet decorated with tooled leather panels. A typical tabletop Philco radio from the early 1930s had a wooden exterior styled a bit like a skyscraper, giving the device the same look of progress conveyed by the new Art Deco skyline. Norman Bel Geddes’s “Patriot Radio,” designed for Emerson in 1939, made use of a plastic called Opalon, which is similar to Bakelite, and allowed the designer to introduce bright colors, presaging their more widespread use in later decades.

Early televisions had to do more than conceal their electronic innards and echo current design trends. They also had to frame and highlight the pictures they transmitted, and allow consumers to position them where people could watch, not just listen. While it was true that families tended to gather around the radio the way they had once gathered around a piano or crackling fireplace in the parlor, televisions now commanded visual attention in a way no home appliance ever had. They also had the ability to connect family members across generational lines inside the home—a major preoccupation of the postwar era. Lynn Spigel, a professor at Northwestern University, makes the case in her 1992 book, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, that the device’s entry into the family home began a nationwide conversation, particularly in decorating books and women’s magazines, about where the family television should go.

An important moment in the history of domestic leisure came, Spigel says, when designer George Nelson and architect Henry Wright coined the term “family room” in their 1946 book Tomorrow’s House: a Complete Guide for the Home-Builder. Nelson and Wright identified this new kind of space as a “room without a name,” envisioning a place where parents and children could relax and play side by side or together. Better Homes and Gardens would call it the “Family-Television Room” in 1950, Spigel writes. Fairly quickly, from the “den” or “family room” to the “rec room” and beyond, televisions began appearing all over the house, and their design adapted accordingly. TV skyrocketed in popularity in the postwar years, and ideas for how to position a TV set, or how to decorate around it, proliferated. Some developers even worked TVs into larger designs: Spigel writes that in the 1950 iteration of the standard Levittown house, all new homes had an Admiral TV set built directly into the living room wall.

The postwar boom made TV ubiquitous: In 1950, 3,880,000 households in America had a TV—about 9 percent of the total population. By 1960, 90 percent of all households had at least one. This was the golden age of appliance marketing for all kinds of durable goods, from cars to dishwashers, and television marketers initially took a curious tack with their wares. While the auto industry and manufacturers of coffee makers and cooktops positioned their products as accessible components of a high-tech future, the makers of television sets often sold their devices as elegant pieces of contemporary or even classic furniture.

A television screen is inset into an avant-garde cabinet for music called the Kuba Komet.
Kuba Komet, designed by the KUBA Corporation, 1957, Wolfenbuttel, West Germany.
AP

Some space-age-style sets, like the 1957 “Kuba Komet” from West Germany, positively reveled in their own novelty. That the “Komet” was designed in West Germany in the mid-1950s is striking, because just one year earlier, a young Dieter Rams, while working for Braun, had designed a record player, called the SK 4 Phonosuper, whose aesthetics represented a firm rebuke to space-age flair. Nicknamed “Snow White’s Coffin,” it had a radically pared-down appearance compared to other record players of its time: It’s mostly white and gray, with light-colored wood panels at either end and a transparent lid. There was nothing inessential about the SK 4, and it definitely didn’t look like old-fashioned furniture. Like his sleek and straightforward FS 80 television set from 1964, and countless other consumer machines he designed for Braun, Rams’s vision for the SK 4 gave electronics license to simply be themselves in a domestic setting.

When portable TVs came on the market in 1960, they tended to be styled with a higher-tech look, with metal casings rather than wood. But most domestic TV sets had wood or faux wood surrounds, and were offered in a range of styles from somewhat modern to practically Colonial Revival. A General Electric print ad from 1960 offered a new set in three styles to appeal to consumers with different tastes. The “Danish Walnut” has a geometric outer casing, styled for the photoshoot with a folk art bird figurine. It would look right at home with a nice midcentury wall unit. Below it we find the “Colonial Lo-Boy,” which has turned legs like those you’d find on a Windsor chair. To the left of the Lo-Boy, the “French Provincial” set has delicate cabriole legs and a cherry veneer exterior. A Philco brochure from the same year offers an even wider range of sets across the spectrum from country chic to midcentury modern.

Better Homes and Gardens’ Decorating Ideas, published in 1960, offered readers design advice about how to live with and design around a television. In a section on furniture arrangement, the editors write: “Even if you have a selector system, you’ll probably want to adjust the television tuning yourself from time to time. Place a chair near the set for comfort. Make the set an integral, unobtrusive part of your decorating; incorporate it in a grouping. Here, chairs, mirrors, and pictures keep it company.” The image shows the TV set flanked by a pair of modern captain’s chairs and with a selection of antique mirrors on the wall behind it. The set itself sits on the floor and, like a coffee table, supports a bowl of fruit and some brass decorative objects. The idea of sitting right next to a TV set—facing away from the screen—because it’s “easier” doesn’t seem like design advice from someone who watches a lot of TV.

A print advertisement from 1960 featuring three photos of General Electric television sets.
GE Print Ad, 1960

The Practical Encyclopedia of Good Decorating and Home Improvement, published in 1970, has an entire 12-page section on television, subtitled “The Right Type and Size for You, and Where to Put it.” What a difference a decade makes: In this early 1970s volume, the solutions are all architectural, and there are no attempts to use a TV set as an erstwhile coffee table. Storage wall units are perfect places to tuck a medium-sized set, while sliding or folding doors on a cabinet conceal the TV as desired. There’s even a spread featuring a set of framed prints on a wall that slide to reveal a hidden TV.

By the mid-1970s, it seemed consumers mostly wanted to hide their TVs from view, or pretend they were furniture. But some technology companies, especially the Japanese firm JVC, offered viewers the opposite: TVs that were far-out, space-age design objects. JVC’s “Videosphere,” which was on the market from 1970 to 1981, was part of a larger movement in design to incorporate space-race aesthetics into everyday objects. Vico Magistretti’s 1967 “Eclisse” lamp (“eclipse” in Italian) was meant to evoke the moon during an eclipse with a shade that consumers could draw across the bulb. Emilio Pucci’s air hostess uniforms for the Braniff Air stewardesses had translucent “space helmets” recalling NASA space suits, as did André Courrèges’ spring 1964 collection. In 1968, moviegoers saw astronaut Heywood Floyd make a video call to his daughter back on earth. The very next year, Americans watched the moon landing on their own TVs. So when JVC introduced the Videosphere in 1970, with a rounded screen that resembled the visor of a space helmet, it was tapping into the design zeitgeist.

1980s interiors had to juggle multiple screens as personal computers joined TVs in domestic spaces. TV sets themselves became grotesquely personified in dystopian narratives like Videodrome (1983), in which television sets pulse with life and menacingly beckon human beings. In Max Headroom (1984), an artificial newscaster with a plasticized appearance cracks jokes from a black plastic TV set as pink, yellow, and pale green stripes animate the digital background behind him. But for most consumers, TVs started to look old-fashioned again. While oatmeal-colored computer monitors proliferated, TV sets with faux bois plastic surrounds became the norm. A 1982 Zenith print ad pairs one of its high-tech System 3 sets with a houseplant, and the TV’s casing looks like a slightly updated version of a 1960s GE Danish Walnut.

A round television set. The base is red and the sphere where the television sits is black.
Videosphere Television, Made for Victor Company of Japan, Ltd., 1970
Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

As flatscreen TVs proliferated in the early 2000s, the practice of hiding TV sets in cabinets with folding doors or even in antique armoires (for those with a Laura Ashley aesthetic in the 1980s) became less necessary. Instead, mounting a TV in a logical spot, like above a fireplace, became a standard feature of contemporary interiors. Though it was played for laughs in Back to the Future Part II in 1989, the idea of a TV that displays art or scenic photographs when not in use—a natural outgrowth of putting the TVs themselves in more publicly visible spots—became a reality.

Today, Samsung offers the Frame TV, designed by Yves Béhar’s studio, Fuseproject. The Frame has a setting called Art Mode in which it displays a rotating gallery of works of art. Not sure how to curate art for a TV set? There’s the Art Store for that, where you can get help choosing works of art to suit your taste, shop by color palette, and even peruse Magnum Photo’s catalog of iconic images. The option to mount the TV in a wooden frame and set it to display personal photos makes it virtually disappear into an interior, as though there were no TV at all, or it was cleverly hidden inside a cabinet.

A mother, father, and child play with toys in the living room of a house. There is a flatscreen television on the wall which is showing artwork of a black and white photo of a zebra.
The Frame TV, designed by Yves Béhar’s studio, Fuseproject, for Samsung.
Samsung US

In the mid-19th century, sophisticated interiors were stuffed with interesting things from around the world, ornately carved furniture that was a bear to clean (a sign that you could afford help), and wallpaper with a dense foliate design—not inexpensive to print. We’ve preferred minimalism, or something close to it, on and off since the second half of the 20th century. But as TV comes ever closer to becoming wallpaper, will we channel our 19th-century counterparts? LG describes its new OLED technology as “rollable,” as easily installed as a removable wallpaper tile, and this might mean that the TV is used differently, as both entertainment portal and art display. If and when rollable sets become commonplace, will people have more than one, arranged in a gallery wall formation? Like Yves Béhar’s’s Samsung Frame, will the TV become a vehicle for viewing art as well as bingeing our favorite streaming series? It’s an old question: Is a TV decor, a machine, or something else entirely? Perhaps the options afforded by the Frame are a sign that we still can’t decide.

Sarah Archer is the author, most recently, of The Midcentury Kitchen.