1957 chevy adWhen it comes to studying interior design in the 1950s, the ideas captured in this 1957 Chevy ad certainly are memorable: A rainbow of eye-popping pastels, design that is long and low and angles and flourishes that suggest speed and even, flight. But just like today, there wasn’t just “one” look in the 1950s — there were several. Some looks gained popularity consecutively, as technology, tastes and social mores evolved… while some ran concurrently, recognizing that the U.S. is a diverse, individualistic, creative nation. In this “What’s Your Major?: Retro Renovation” post, I create my own categories out of seven major interior design trends that I have identified from the 1950s. That said, these are big, non-academic buckets. — I’d love to hear your ideas and analysis, too.

early american interior design1. Early American all across the U.S.A.

Today, when the mass of shelter media talk about “mid-century” they usually focus on the “modern.” But I believe that in the immediate post World War II-era and well beyond, Early American interiors were far more common. I’ve talked a lot on this site about the influence of Royal Barry Wills and his Cape Cod homes. This style of home was massively popular for many years following the war. True ranch-style homes in the Cliff May style took much longer to take hold and even then, merchant builders all across the country designed ranches with Cape Cod and Colonial design touches. And inside, we often saw: Ranch-style floor plans with Early American interiors. Key elements of an Early American interior could include: Paneling, brick fireplaces with colonial-style molding, maple furniture, Americana wallpaper, plaids and traditional prints, and heirloom pieces from… Colonial days! Here are three more of my favorite stories about Early American design and decor:

2. Do It Yourself with Knotty Pine and Resilient Floor Tile

In the same vein as the massive trend to Early American interior design, we saw millions of kitchens with knotty pine kitchens and basements, attics, sunrooms and even main living areas paneled with knotty pine. However, I think this particular design cue was not just about the colonial, but as much or more about the: Do It Yourself. In the aftermath of World War II, Americans did have money to buy homes, but from what I’ve read, they were very conservative about parting with their hard-earned cash. They had the famous Depression mentality. They also had woodworking skills and tools. These factors led them to do a lot of the interior finishing work of their homes themselves. For example: Quite famously, 1.5 story Cape Cod homes — like those at the original Levittown — often were sold with the top story unfinished. Homeowners knew they could finish that space later, as their families grew. Knotty pine fit with the Early American aesthetic of the time, and was relatively easy and cheap to install upstairs. Here are a few of my favorite stories on knotty pine:

I also will put resilient floor tile into this DIY category. It was versatile, functional and easy-to-install. In fact, marketers often targeted the Mrs. of the house to do the installation herself. Here are some of my favorite stories on floor tile:

kroehler sofa and chair ad3. Heywood-Wakefield and Kroehler Streamline Moderne

At the same time Early American decor was popular, we also saw strong consumer interest in what I will call “Heywood-Wakefield and Kroehler Streamline Moderne” style interiors. These particular pieces, with their bulky, rounded edges, are carryovers from the pre-war Streamline era. The way I remember what “streamline” is, is to recall it’s like a Streamliner train — meant to look like it’s moving, even when it’s standing still. In a way, this is not really 1950s style — it’s 1940s style. But, when World War II was on, manufacturing of discretionary items like furniture ground to an almost complete halt. In the immediate aftermath of the war, manufacturers just pulled out their designs from before the war and started producing them to meet immediate demand. It took a while for new design looks to be introduced. Here are some favorite stories about the streamline look that was still popular from around 1946-1953:

1950s pink bathroom4. Pretty in Pastels

The author Thomas Hine dubbed the years 1953-1963 the Populuxe years in a book of the same name. It was an exuberant time — and that led to exuberant colors inside the home, and out. If you have read this blog for more than a week, you know that I love to talk about pink bathrooms. Not necessarily because they are my favorite — I love all the midcentury pastel bathrooms — but because they are “emblematic” of the period. That is: In one little room, they capture the optimism of the 1950s — and they have a story that even includes Mamie Eisenhower. At the same time, though, the pink is not well understood among the mass of homeowners today — which puts these sweetheart bathrooms at risk. Emblematic = Learn about the pink bathroom and you can begin to understand an entire era. More pastel loveliness:

1954 mid century modern bedroom designed by armstrong floors5. Full-on Midcentury Modern

The 1950s were glory days for proponents of full-on mid century modern design. To me, the key determinant of what’s MCM is that it lacks unnecessary ornamentation — focusing first and foremost on the function. “Form follows function.” Also important: Using newly available technology to develop new solutions… And then, there is a whole artistic side to things, such as referencing nature and organic shapes. Above: From Armstrong Floors. More:

boomerang formica samples colors and virrvarr are now discountinued

6. Better Living through Technology

The invention and mass merchandising of plastic countertops — like Formica — was a big breakthrough for American homemakers. Plastic surfaces were much easier to install and clean, and this was a big deal in a nation where things like automatic washing machines and dryers were will still not accessible to the masses. Ask any woman from back in the day about “washing day” and watch her cringe — it was arduous, to say the least. Things that could make keeping house easier were a BIG DEAL. Gas and electric stoves… refrigerators… dishwashers… air conditioning… vacuum cleaners… even INDOOR PLUMBING… made their way into the majority of American homes only after World War II. Into this “Technology” bucket, I also will included products, through their styling, that reflected the Atomic Age. We saw lights that looked like flying saucers… cabinet pulls and doorsets that looked like starbursts…. and those boomerangs on the Formica are organic shapes.

7. William Pahlmann Eclectic

Of course, no one is forced to follow any single design trend religiously. My favorite new interior designer from the postwar era is William Pahlmann, who is recognized for introducing “eclectic” into the world of interior design. For example, he would put European antiques and ancient South American pottery into a room with a long, low modern sofa… he would mix things up. The room above is not his (as far as I know), it is from a 1950s paint advertisement. It’s always been one of my favorites. And interestingly for this story, it includes a bit of most every trend (although no Streamline) that I’ve talked about. Early American: In the painting and paneling. Resilient floor: In the kitchen. Pastels: On the kitchen cabinets and far wall. Full-on Midcentury Modern: In the furnishings. (Although that lovely dining room table adds Shaker-esque cues to the MCM. Me like.) Atomic: In the light fixture. There’s even a European porcelain coffee pot. A timeless room.

What do you think, fellow Retro Renovators?
Did I capture the biggies?
What did I miss?
What do you love best about 1950s style?

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  1. pam kueber says:

    Hi Helen, it’s great to lure you out of lurking status! I would put Danish Modern in the 1950s – but yes, I think that in terms of this story, I was making one broad category “Full-On Modern.” Goes to show: There was more than one kind of modern. Hey: An idea for another story!!!

  2. Jeanne says:

    Love these old pictures! It is my in-laws house! They have knotty pine everywhere except the bedrooms! AND they still have the green counter tops and peach tile back splash. We inherited the orange chair in the next picture for our first apartment! It was that bright orange.
    The pink bathroom reminds me of the pink my Mom painted the outside of the house in the ’60’s. She had extra so she painted the upright piano too. Fun stuff!

  3. Syd says:

    What a refreshing read! I’d been casually scanning Pinterest for 1950’s interior design ideas for months because we’re getting ready to remodel our kitchen and bathroom and I wanted to bring back some design elements from the home’s original era (built in 1950). I knew there was more to the 50’s than pastels (which I’m not into… And as a realtor I can vividly imagine the horror in potential buyers’ eyes) and mid-mod (which I love but doesn’t fit with our very traditional house and furniture). This article gave me a whole new perspective on and appreciation for 50’s design. Thank you for your very thorough analysis!!

  4. Heidi E. says:

    I also think, though there must have been some hostility to it in some respects, there also was a certain uptick in the use of Asian decor items picked up by soldiers returning from WWII and Korea? At least that’s what I remember from my grandparents’ home chiefly. Also it seems to me that Asian items from that era have a little different look and ‘feel’ to them than just classical Asian. Every generation that reinterprets a style puts their own twist on it in some way even when they see themselves as being historically correct.

  5. Peg says:

    Hi,
    I have quite a bit of mid century furniture, appliances and a complete set of Astro Franciscan Ware with 12 place settings. I know that there are people who would love to have this but am at a loss how to connect with them. Please advise.
    Thank you in advance
    Peg
    Ps: All items are in pristine condition and I will provide pictures if you’d like.

  6. pam kueber says:

    Peg, you can sell these on ebay, etsy or craigslist. If any of the pieces are of particularly high value, you may want to have them appraised / work with a knowledgeable local company to help you get the best price. Good luck.

  7. KIM C LINDSEY says:

    Hello,

    I will be moving into a house from the 1950″ and I want to know what is the metal piece with the design pattern, the piece that holds up the upper roof over the front door. I think more aluminum. They are place on both ends of my porch, the color is white. Can you please email with an answer.

    Thanks you.

  8. Anna Gunm says:

    Born 1946 with military father just out of wwIl both from Appalachian TN smokies.
    Hard working very little money and finally built there home. Furnishing was shy but finally a piece at a time. Every thing in your article brought back so many sweet memories. Thanks Anna

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