The Atomic Era

March 13, 2016

 Atomic Era image montage

Here at InkaBilly, we are slightly obsessed with1950’s American culture! It informs a lot of our designs (some already designed, printed and selling … and many, many more on the back burner itching to be realised!) and it also inspires the way we dress and the way we decorate our home.

 Although, I wouldn’t say we are Rockabilly purists in any sense because we love to mix up our Retro! I am just far too excited by colour and pattern to ever restrict myself to one era! Mid century in it’s broadest terms is probably the safest way to describe our melting pot of vintage interest.

 But, back to the 1950s, (you can’t get more mid century than that!) … I have decided to start writing a blog dedicated to exploring this particular era in history … and it’s art, product design, architecture … I am also writing other posts in our blog about our other strands of design inspiration, but if you’re a 50’s buff, hang on in here for the good stuff!

 Starting with my favourite-favourite ….  The Atomic Era!

You can’t really talk about the Atomic Era without also talking about it’s sibling, the Space Age. Both took hold of America from the late 1940’s to the 1960’s, but I’m going to concentrate more on the imagery and colours of the Atomic era in this post, keeping the sizzling Space Age for another time!

 Post war America found itself caught between anxiety and optimism. The technology that had won the war also held a threat of Armageddon. The austerity of the war was replaced with prosperity and huge developments in technology. People needed a boost after the war and they were certainly going to hang onto anything that would provide it, even if it did hover over them with, you know, only a threat of total annihilation!



1950's atomic era image

 So, after the detonation of the first atomic bomb, and these huge developments in science, technology and space travel, it’s no surprise that American artists and designers became unavoidably fascinated by molecular structure, atomic imagery and space exploration.

 They were also moving away from the geometric forms of the previous era, the Machine Age. During the war, mass production of bombers, aircraft carriers and tanks had created great faith in machines and the public had regarded technology with ambivalence … but this soon became replaced with a love of organic forms and a plundering of technology.  

 And so we find the curvaceous boomerang and iconic kidney shaped coffee tables. Patterns featuring technological symbols, atomic and molecular structure, star bursts, rockets and bullet shapes ….

Atomic product design, examples of the use of atomic elements and organic shapes

 Technological developments in new materials also informed what could be done with product and interior design. The plastics of wartime transformed into what became every house wife’s best friend –Tupperware! The moulded plywood which had been developed by Charles and Ray Eames during the war for splinting injured soldiers would go on to inspire their iconic furniture. And of course new materials such as melamine, formica and laminate would all inform the new shapes and colours. Smooth lines, sleek glossy surfaces …. All shiny, shiny and new, new, new!

 The first mass produced acrylic paints arrived in the 1950’s too, bringing in colours that were more saturated and more singing ….

 There were three major colour trends in the 1950’s; Pastel, Modern and Scandinavian. We’re all aware of the popular pastel shades of pink, turquoise, mint, green, pale yellow and blue, but there was also the ‘modern’ shades of vibrant yellow, electric blue, orange, red and black and white. The Scandinavian palette enveloped the more organic shades of brown, cream, grey and green - not colours that spring to mind straight away when you think of classic 50’s design and patterns, but then if you start looking into barkcloth fabrics and you can really see these colours being used.

 A totally iconic American colour scheme of 1950’s kitchens combines colours from a couple of these trends …. The superbly stylish turquoise and red! And the black and white of American Diner checkered floors.

 1950s american kitchens and diners

 Over in the Architecture camp, elements of the Atomic and Space Age were brought together in the Googie design movement in commercial buidlings and signage in the USA . You know the style – kinda looks like a flying saucer just landed by the side of the road! Bold boomerang angles, signs shaped like rocket ships, everything had fins and wings, but again, that’s a subject which requires it’s own post …. another one for another time! ….

 If you’d like to do your own further research into Atomic Age product design, check out a few of my personal favourite designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Arne Jacobson (egg chair), George Nelson (ball clock, wire shaped pendant lights), Metamec (British clock designers who produced iconic clocks of the 50s & 60’s), Robert Kaufman (fabric) .. to name but a few …


Atomic Era Product Design


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