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Jennifer Greenburg: The rockabilly design aesthetic

rockabillies-on-amazonJennifer Greenburg’s book, The Rockabillies, will be published later this month, and those of you in Chicago can go to her book signing at thet the Museum of Contemporary Art this week, Tuesday, Jan. 26. After publishing my first feature on The Rockabillies, I asked Jennifer to answer a few questions about the Rockabilly interior design aesthetic. These are our retro kin — is it possible that we all shared past lives together? Read on.

I served up the following questions to Jennifer:

1. Is there a “rockabilly interior design aesthetic”? If so, can you describe it?

Certainly. I think it is best described by my photographs! My book, The Rockabillies, contains 55 images and I would say 2/3rds are of interiors depicting this aesthetic. To put it into words, it is wistful, exaggerated, and joyous; Majestic Z Lamps, Heywood Wakefield in champagne, Haegar Pottery, chartreuse, turquoise, bamboo and chrome~! You step from the depressing aesthetic of Anywhere U.S.A into a photograph from a 1950’s Life Magazine. It is the kind of interior work that transports you to another place that is calm, stressless and visually seductive.

2. I’m interested in the notion of how tiki, rockabilly, and the explosion  of artists (such as on etsy.com) who are using “found materials” are sort of merging… What do you think of that idea?

Are they merging? I am not sure the etsy craze is the same thing. Etsy seems to be about transforming found objects into something new. Rockabilly and tiki is more about finding things that are in disrepair,  forgotten, or even perfect sometimes, and returning these found objects to their original context, as opposed to recontextualizing. And it’s an amazing skill. It takes a lot of foresight to look at something like a chartreuse green lamp of a dancing lady with an exaggerated tiki shade and know that when put with a bamboo living room and a bright chartreuse wall that magic will happen, like in the photo of Mr. & Mrs. Hughes in their Living Room. When sadly placed in a dusty corner of a thrift store, it is hard to imagine the possibilities. The Rockabilly aesthetic isn’t afraid to commit to bold decisions in order to give an object its original vitality.

3. Let’s get deep. After all your research and immersion, why do *you*  think folks get drawn into the aesthetics of the postwar lifestyle? My readers and I are, to some degree. Your subjects are. You are, it sounds like.  Do we all share some personality dynamic – and if so, what do you think it is?

As I have mentioned in other interviews, one of my most conservative subjects thinks we share a past life experience. I am not sure I can agree with that, but it is an interesting idea. I feel that most people are looking to belong to a community. Organized religion seems to be unable to offer most young people what they are looking for. People no longer make friends with their neighbors. Our melting pot has made ethnic affiliations no longer relevant. SO what’s left?  Subculture. And this particular subculture is a great one. I can travel to any place in the U.S  and I know I have a good friend to hang out with and stay with.  And who doesn’t want that. Friendship and community are the fabric of personal happiness. As for why this specific connection? I think most people drawn in are extremely visually sophisticated. Furniture,  cars, etc., were designed by skilled and trained designers. Things were not moved through factories at the same rate as today. Design was king and manufacturing was done with pride. There was no Ikea culture that buys today and throws out tomorrow. And anyone visual would be hard pressed to not be turned on by the design aesthetic. As for the connection to the era… I think it is easy to forget all the negative things that were realities in that era and replace them with cartoonish dreams birthed by things like Life and Look Magazines.  If you look at the political climate or at the position of women and minorities,  no one would ever long for the post-war American era. But we forget those things.

Thank you, Jennifer. Every time I look at your photographs, I am more and more mesmerized. You get my vote (so far) for Retro Renovation Book of Year. I can’t wait to get my copy. I think that what you say about the visual sophistication of rockabilly folk also is very applicable to readers of this blog. Many readers are graphic designers, editors, artists, or otherwise very visually attuned. Lots of car and appliance collectors, too. And, like rockabillies, I think that this shared interest — along with the ability to connect via the internet — is creating a vibrant subculture. Like you, I know I have friends in cities all across the country. It’s amazing really. It’s interesting to hear your take on the etsy phenomenon. I still tend to think there is a link, even if at its most basic, it’s a shared respect for objects — including ephemera — from the past. Again – many thanks, and best of luck with the book and your teaching.

Links: Jennifer Greenburg’s website, including a larger gallery of photos.

Readers, if you’d like to order the book, I’ve put it in my Amazon store / Reading list.


  1. Fiona - Notorious Kitsch says:

    I love the look of this book. I don’t necessarily call it a Rockabilly lifestyle as I associate Rockabilly as a musical style however I do see that it’s called this now so often that I’ll go with the flow.

    I do agree with Jennifer about the subculture side of this, as someone who has been part of the UK scene for the past 20 years, it is a huge community, I feel I can go anywhere in the world and find someone who I have this in common with, & someone who will help me out as I belong to this subculture.

    Of course the fact that it is so stylish helps immensely!

    Can’t wait to see the book and see if I recognise anyone in it!

  2. Julie says:

    Lots of gorgeous pictures of very interesting people! I find it really fascinating how people latch on to retro at different immersion levels. You have people like the “Rockabillies” (yes, I’m with Fiona, I think of that as a genre of music rather than a style of dressing, although many of my friends who are into Rockabilly music also dress the part), who not only embrace the interior design aesthetic of the 50’s, but the clothing, hairstyles and even the cars! Then you have people who are into what I call the “Atomic Ranch” (after the magazine) aesthetic, who are so into the mid-mod interior design that they turn their houses into amazing museums of mid-century design and detail, but dress in a contemporary manner. And lastly you have the camp that over many years of mid-century decorating obsession I have found myself in: Mid-century house and mid-century furniture and accessories mixed with modern and contemporary furnishings. But I think we all find a sense of community from our shared love of classic design, no matter how that manifests itself.
    As an aside, I can’t believe that people are able to find working tvs from the period! They look so amazing, but I am spoiled by high def flat-screen. I can’t imagine going back to watching movies and trying to read subtitles on those tiny little vintage tvs! But they sure look great!

    Wow, didn’t mean for that to be so long, this post just really got me thinking!

  3. LornaLou says:

    As a person of that particulary subculture, I agree with Fiona that the term “rockabilly” is really an association with *music- specifically, and the lifestyle that follows that.. Not always to be linked with lovely vintage furnishings, tho I could see how the blanket term came to be.
    Don’t get me wrong, the photographs are gorgeous, the interiors are inspiring.. I just have issue with the title, I guess. In other words, people aren’t “rockabilly” because they buy colorful cool vintage things to decorate their house. They are rockabilly because they enjoy that particular MUSIC.

    A devoted retrorenovation reader,
    ~L.

  4. pappel says:

    Would it be possible to identify the television cabinet in the third picture? Manufacturer? Any information? I love it.
    Thank you!
    A devoted daily reader.
    P

  5. Love the photos and I’m looking forward to the book!

    As for the TV, I believe it’s a one of the Predicta televisions (a remake of the old Philco models). I wrote a lengthy piece about new vintage style TVs for my film & television blog last year that might be of interest and it has lots of info about Predicta TVs as well as other models. If anyone’s interested you can find it here: http://cinebeats.blogsome.com/2009/04/07/we-are-controlling-transmission/

  6. MrsErinD says:

    The pictures from the book on her site are wonderful!! I think I will have to get the book.

    I agree with her about etsy. In my opinion, it’s neat to see old things used on etsy but I do get sad when things that are perfectly usable in the way they were intended, like a barkcloth curtain(s) then all cut up to make something else, when people like me are looking and looking for curtains to put up as curtains! It’s one thing if a curtain or something is so worn and unuseable. But everyone is different. I guess I am like she says, I want to make it like it originally was and use it that way. And I like to bring vintage in my life in all possible ways, decor, dress, etc, hopefully someday in a car too, Hubby would love to restore a Belair.

  7. susieQ says:

    I can only speak for myself but I love seeing the images of people today who look as though they stepped out of the 1950’s.When I was younger(I was born in 1950) I avoided all references to the 1950’s and was obsessed with a much older era but every time I would walk into a time capsule type house of any era (I was a Realtor for many years) I would “feel” the vibes from that other generation and be so fascinated I could barely tear myself away.I would wonder ,but never aloud, if other people felt these same things about a supposedly inanimate objects.After reading this blog for several years I know there are many others like me and even though I have yet to talk to any of you in person it’s nice to know I’m not alone with this insight.I totally respect others desire to put thier own brand of design and individuality on old objects but I truely love to see the old things used just as they were and let them speak for themselves.So bravo to all the young people out there bringing some joy to the rest of us.I lived through the 50’s and yes there were problems as there are today but for me it was a gentler period in so many ways and I’m so glad some people have not forgotten and thrown it all away.

  8. Dix says:

    Rockabilly today has definitely expanded beyond music into a lifestyle. Yes, it started out as just a music genre, but the “rockabilly lifestyle” is, what–1950’s, but with more tattoos? There are midcentury style enthusiasts who are not into rockabilly, too, so the two are not synonymous.

    Even people my age (born in the mid-Seventies) grew up watching midcentury cartoons, which were still shown very commonly on network television, and many of our parents still had midcentury furnishings in their houses, so the aesthetic style is familiar enough to us to seem accessible, but outdated enough to feel quirky and fun.

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