Atomic Age design – A love affair with the molecule

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Petra Bjelica
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The Atomic Age is the period between the 1940s and 1960s when the threat of nuclear war was looming over Western society. People were inspired by the technological progress and innovation that had led to the creation of the atomic bomb but simultaneously frightened by the devastating consequences of its impact. Thus, the time was dominated by concerns about a potential nuclear war during the period also referred to as the Cold War.

There was a palpable fear of the apocalypse and an urge to secure safety and preserve commitment to conservative values in American society. Furthermore, it was a time of obsession with space, atomic science, and human achievement.

These sentiments were all encapsulated in the aesthetic of Atomic Age design. This style was very influential back then, imposing itself on architecture, and interior, commercial, and industrial design, as well in fine art and fashion. Today, its contemporary revival is so prevalent that it now goes by the name of Retro-futurism.

Los Angeles International Airport’s “Moon Rocks” theme building, Author: Payton Chung, CC BY-SA 2.0

Primarily, the greatest inspiration of the aesthetic of Atomic Age design was was atomic particles and patterns. Atomic power was regarded as a source of great potential good but also an unpredictable and dangerous menace. On the other hand, the human body was regarded as an ultimate form that was a unifying constant. Its abstract organic forms were used as a core motif for design patterns or as models for some pieces of furniture.

Vintage Philco Transitone (Flying Wedge) Table Radio, Model 48-230, Broadcast Band Only, Brown Polystrene Cabinet, 5 Tubes, Made In USA, Circa 1948 Author: France1978 CC by 2.0

Free organic shapes found in nature – the forms of living entities – cells, amoebas, and plants seen through a microscope also acted as design inspiration. Their main characteristic was that they were changeable and mutable. However, as a result of exposure to radiation, disturbing and mutant forms (such as the image of the mushroom cloud or disfigured human bodies) came into the collective consciousness in addition to the playful forms of atomic structure.

In general, Atomic Age design shares many elements with Mid-century modern style and Googie design, combined with some aspects of earlier movements such as Art deco, vitalism, and Surrealism. Two principal items representing the novelty of speed and communications that brought nations together under the same ideology were the automobile and television.

The 300 Bowl building, Author: Marine 69-71, CC BY 4.0

 

Closely tied with emerging pop culture, it was a way of spreading the influence of the space age design into a broad range of mainstream phenomena. Architecture, arts, commercial design, and fashion were reflecting each other, capturing optimism and faith in technology. In fashion, designers such as Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne were using synthetic, industrial, or everyday materials for clothes and fashion items, while architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames or Richard Neutra were pioneers in organic design.

Atomic Age atom-shaped ceiling light fixtures, Author: On the White Line, CC BY 2.0

Housing was cheap in the post-war United States, and the general optimism during the period was seen in kitsch for popular buildings such as diners, bowling alleys, and shops. Furthermore, since materials such as aluminum, steel, wood had been critical to the war effort and short in supply following the war, other materials such as plastics, plywood, and fiberglass emerged.

These pliable and malleable materials became the primary tools for most post-war product design. The fact that they were easily shaped into free forms was used to adapt these objects to the human body. The famous Eames chair was made of molded plywood and used for injured soldiers. A wall clock in the form of an atom orbited by electrons representing the hours was designed by George Nelson, and Tupperware plastic products are still in widespread use today.

The space age design Keraclonic Sphere television, Author: Arenamontanus, CC BY 2.0

The Cold War’s influence, on the other hand, brought a contradictory future in which family stability and conservative values were American society’s best defense from the rising nuclear threat. The pursuit of comfort in both domesticity and technology was all reflected in architecture, design, and the pop culture of the era. In that sense, the Atomic Age was one of the defining periods of American identity and was the source of many influential designs for decades.