Living in the Atomic Age
Feb 12, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
There are so many vintage terms that get bandied about these days. Terms like retro seem ubiquitous. In fact, a recent stroll through Target revealed many examples of nostalgic wares and fashions. Everyone seems eager to embrace “retro chic.” While a term like “atomic age” may not be as familiar to our modern lexicon, its style remains iconic. But what exactly defined the atomic age? What sets it apart from the general term of “retro”? When did it occur? Why did it trend in the first place? Let’s unpack and learn more about this era. Join me as we see what it was like for folks living in the atomic age. Firstly, let’s orient ourselves on a timeline. Most historians agree that the age lasted for about two decades, between the 1940s and 1960s. Looking back this was a time of unprecedented scientific discovery, set against the backdrop of global conflict and contrasted with periods of great hope. During the early 1940s humanity was scrambling to end a second world war. Alliance, unity, and a sense of “make do and mend” abounded in the cultural mindset. Within a few years, with the end of the war barely in the rear view mirror, that sentiment turned to competition. The prize was the heavens itself. I’m referring to the great space race that culminated with the moon landing in 1969. Turns out the abrupt shifting of passions and pursuits is not just a sign of our times, it’s been a sign of the times. Now, back to the atomic age and the event that triggered its inception.
The images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 stunned the world. The atomic bomb brought an end to WWII but ushered in a new fear and those scars have never fully healed. This mixture of emotions must have been difficult to define, let alone process. But there were members of the global community that were ready to bring meaning to this complicated time. You may wonder who these folks were. They were the artist, the architect – the designer. People trained to seek the beauty in any situation and that calling hasn’t changed from the days of Michelangelo and it won’t shift any time soon…
Designers responded to scientific discoveries by distilling artistic expression to its core elements: shape and color. It sought to address issues in the home with a technological solution. Geometric patterns and organic shapes invaded every artistic medium. Fashion designers like Pierre Cardin incorporated industrial materials and synthetics into his work. Folks like George Nelson brought the celebration of the atom into the home with his ball wall clock. Looking at these designs today you may find them joyful, cheery, or even a bit silly. And that’s precisely the idea. The threat of nuclear war loomed large during these years. Scientific experiments went from something to be in awe of to something to be afraid of. Designers sought to steer that narrative toward something that freed people, rather than paralyzed them. It must be said that many of the furniture pieces or clothing from this time wouldn’t have been possible without the huge advancements in manufacturing, engineering, and chemistry. That, for me, is part of the poetic beauty of this movement. Standing on the shoulders of the scientific community, the designers channeled these developments into human-scaled artifacts. Every portion of the domestic landscape was reconsidered: wallpaper, pencil holders, chairs, counter-tops. Nothing eluded the grasp of the atomic age.
Designers during this era bravely re-imagined the future. They saw a time of blended ideas where scientists, sculptors, or novelists were piggybacking off of each other’s discoveries to create the most good for the most people. This was the era of re-purposed materials that were quite literally stretched to their limits, this was the era of democracy in furniture design, this was the era of the case study homes. For the folks living in the atomic age this was their time to steer their destiny. Is it any wonder that this is when we gazed up to the stars and set our sights on that giant glowing orb in the night sky? Yes, for some the atomic age designs might seem a bit “Jetsons” or too silly to be truly futuristic. But for me I find the art produced during this era to be messengers, symbols of delight and wonder. William Morris once said “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” As one of the founders of the Arts & Crafts movement, we’ll never know how he would have viewed the futuristic charm of the atomic age. Yet I feel his quote reflected here. Atomic age designers addressed real-life needs while refocusing the achievements of their generation. Tell me, dear reader, is there another design movement that changed the cultural trajectory as much as the atomic age? Please let me know in the comments because I’m at a loss!