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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. Angela says:

    I don’t think it’s a “rockabilly design esthetic”, I think it’s a 40s-50s design esthetic. My house looks like this and although I love rockabilly music (all kinds of music really), and wear a vintage 50s dress almost everyday (in warm weather) I wouldn’t call myself a “rockabilly girl” or living the rockabilly lifestyle. That’s a whole different thing.

    I loooove these pictures & the people and would love to buy the book, but I don’t think their houses are any different than all the 50s lovers I know.

  2. lsaspacey says:

    I want to know more about that glass lamp in the first photo! Does anyone have information on those? I have a similar one in amber with extra globe at the bottom that contains a night light but I don’t know the date it was made or anything about the style, such as the name they go by. if anyone can offer information, please email to me at metamorphpursuit(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thanks!

  3. bombshell says:

    I’m in agreement with Dix. I am a MCM follower in my early 30s and I don’t feel as if I’m a “rockabilly” because I don’t follow that type of music, but I do identify with the aestetic value.

    Throughout my entire design career, I’ve always had collegues who loved mid century style based on how we feel it really does represent the best of American design. 1950’s clothing was flattering and some of the best silhouettes that come out every season are always based on their look, and the homes had such beauty in their design and are constantly seen as inspiration for new design. I have enjoyed seeing a resurgance in design since the ‘green movement’ in the past few years. So much of the products are clearly mid century influenced.

  4. Kim Mulligan says:

    What I get from this is Rockabilly is a bit tongue in cheek. The devotees may not see it as high art, but a heck of a lot of fun. We have so many stores here in Seattle for this kind of kitsch and Ballard Garage sales, especially Olympic Manor was a haven for picking up some of the bargains 20 years ago. Seattle is a great place for this aesthetic and for Rockabilly music. Here is the link for last years ball: http://highway99blues.com/calendar.html?view=event&id=148:26th-annual-rockabilly-ball-friday&evr_id=0
    Thank you for showcasing such a fun and eclectic style.

  5. Krissie says:

    There’s a BIG difference between Rockabilly and mid-century vintage styles. The music scene is part of it, but it’s not the whole culture. Rockabilly is the bad boys and girls of 50s culture. It’s hot rods and Greasers, it’s purposefully “low brow” and kitschy. Rockabilly girls don’t dress like Betty Draper, they dress like Wanda Woodward. Bettie Page, not Grace Kelly. The style is based on the aesthetic of the time, but it’s decidedly wilder. In the play/movie Grease, Sandy was the classic vintage good girl, while the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds were the rockabillies. Maybe what we refer to as MCM is based on the style of the parents of the Greasers. 🙂

    That being said… I want this book!!!

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