Modern style in the mid-20th century

March 12, 2009 at 6:41 am (Retro Favorites) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Mid-Century modern is an architectural, interior and product design form that generally describes pre- and post- second world war developments in modern design, architecture, and urban development from roughly 1933 to 1965. Mid-century architecture was a further development of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s principles of organic architecture combined with many elements reflected in the International and Bauhaus movements. Mid-century modernism, however, was much more organic in form and less formal than the International style.

Scandinavian designers and architects were very influential at this time, with a style characterized by simplicity, democratic design and natural shapes. Like many of Wright’s designs, Mid-Century architecture was frequently employed in residential structures with the goal of bringing modernism into America’s post-war suburbs. This style emphasized creating structures with ample windows and open floor-plans with the intention of opening up interior spaces and bringing the outdoors in.


Many Mid-century homes utilized then groundbreaking post and beam architectural design that eliminated bulky support walls in favor of walls seemingly made of glass. Function was as important as form in Mid-Century designs with an emphasis placed specifically on targeting the needs of the average American family. Examples of residential Mid-Century modern architecture are frequently referred to as the California Modern style. Pioneering builder and real estate developer Joseph Eichler was instrumental in bringing Mid-Century Modern architecture to subdivisions in California and select housing developments on the east coast. Eichler style, the epitome of mid-mod design Joseph Eichler was a California developer with a very particular, social vision. As millions of soldiers returned home from World War II, Eichler was determined to create a better living environment for the common man. He envisioned modern homes that incorporated various architecturally distinct elements that would appeal to the average family — and an average family income. When Eichler homes were first on the market, their average sale price was $12,000.


Eichler Homes, built over 11,000 homes in Northern California and three communities in Southern California, along with 3 homes in Chestnut Ridge NY. These homes came to be known as “Eichlers” and changed the California lifestyle. The essence of the Eichler design was inspired by Joseph’s two year stay in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. He wanted to bring some of similar features from that home, such as indoor-outdoor living, to the middle class. He wanted to build homes with that open, flowing, modern style of architecture. In 1949, Joseph founded Eichler Homes, Inc. He first hired the Bay Area architecture firm of Anshen and Allen to create these affordable modern homes. The firm came up with houses that had an open plan, post and beam construction, whole walls of glass, and radiant heating. These were features you might have found in an expensive, custom-built home at the time, but certainly not in a house built for the masses. At the time, this would have been an insane concept to most developers, who would not have seen the sense and profit in hiring architects to design tract housing.


But Eichler had ideas on how to make his vision a reality. It was through careful refinement, that Eichler honed his manufacturing process. He was able to produce homes in a cost-efficient way. As in an assembly line process, he had parts constructed at a central location and then shipped to the building site. He also made use of standard building materials in a creative way. Joseph Eichler was savvy to the dawning of a new age of post-war marketing in the 50’s. He launched a sophisticated and aggressive marketing campaign to introduce his homes to the American public. For the first time in advertising history, homes were featured alongside models, posing as homeowners- looking happy and perfect in an Eichler paradise.

In today’s housing market we are inundated by such imagery. But up until then, architectural photography had been traditionally stark and cold. Eichler had his mind set on presenting these homes as fresh: warm, livable and desirable. Eichler homes seemed destined to attract niche market. Despite his efforts to appeal to the masses, the homes were never popular on a wide scale. At the time they were built, they attracted an interesting subset of people– architects, engineers, designers and modern arts lovers. Although he did not get the mainstream popularity he was aiming for, Eichler garnered a slew of awards for his work: The Life Magazine Award of Merit in 1953; the National Association of Home Builders Award in 1954; Living Magazine Award in 1955; and the American Institute of Architecture Sunset Magazine Award in 1956, 1957 and 1959. Today there is a great resurgence of interest in the Eichler home and an almost cult-like following by those who dwell in them. Eichler’s original design elements have withstood the test of time. Flat, low sloping roofs, open-plan living, the blurring of the lines between indoors and outdoors with atrium’s, window walls, skylights and sliding glass doors—these elements have an appealing and classic California modern character.


And these are just a few of the features that make Eichler homes so very popular today. Classic Eichler materials have also come back into vogue: Radiant heating, cork floors, wood paneling and vinyl tile. Of the 11,000 original Eichler’s built, many are in the San Francisco Bay Area: San Francisco, Sacramento, Marin County, the East Bay, San Mateo County, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and San Jose. The Southern California Eichler communities are in Orange, Thousand Oaks, and Granada Hills. Recently a decision by the National Park Service has placed two Palo Alto subdivisions on the National Register of Historic Places. The 243-house Greenmeadow tract, and the 63-house Green Gables enclave, are the first subdivisions ever to be placed on the register. Eichler homes, beyond the ongoing flux in housing trends, will now have permanent historic value.


50 Favorite Rooms By Frank Lloyd Wright
Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream
Eichler Homes: Design for Living
Little Boxes: The Architecture Of A Classic Midcentury Suburb


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Collectors wound up over vintage robots

February 1, 2009 at 2:37 am (Retro Favorites)

Tin Toy Robots

Tin toy robots were generally built with squarish parts. They normally come with a square tin head with some robotic feature or another. The robot bodies were also square or rectangular. I guess this is because mass producing square shaped tin parts were simpler and helped keep the cost down. As production methods improved, tin toy robots of various shapes and sizes started to hit the shelves. Rounded shapes started to become common and more complex functions for a tin toy became the norm.

The simplest tin toy robots were basically a tin cube with movable appendages bolted on. The attraction came from the painted features of the tin toy. Wound up springs and some simple gearing gave other tin toy robots limited mobility. You just needed to wind up the toy and set it on the ground. The tin robot would walk in a straight line most of the time. It did not matter that most robots tend to veer a little to one side because suddenly, you are the master of a little tin Frankenstein monster!

Manufacturers became more and more creative over time. As a result, more nifty features were added onto tin toy robots. There were robots that would walk after being wound up and then pause for a short while to emit sparks from their mouths. Some tin toy robots had multi-colored gears mounted on the front panel of their tin bodies that would rotate while the tin robot was in motion.

Tin toy robots could also take a fair amount of abuse. Rough play will result in scratches and dents but the tin bodies offer a decent enough protection for the tin robots to keep on functioning. Nowadays, tin toy robots are a collector’s item and can fetch a good price on the tin to collector’s market. Excerpt from About Tin Toy Robots by Arturo Ronzon


Vintage Toys Tin and windup robots

Vintage Toys: Robots and Space Toys (v. 1)

Toys have reached unprecedented levels of popularity among collectors and this book captures the beauty and the appeal of these timeless collectibles in a way never before seen. Packed with beautiful, large color photographs and encyclopedic-style details, this volume a must-have resource for collectors and nostalgia buffs focuses on tin toys manufactured from World War I through the 1970s. This book tells a fascinating story of toymaking impacted by forces as divergent as changes in technology and the outbreak of war. American, British, French, German and Spanish robots and space toys are featured, but special coverage is given to the creative Japanese tin toys that flourished after World War II. More than 300 different items are illustrated and profiled. For each, a description of features, variations, manufacturer and place in history is provided, along with up-to-date collector values.


Blast Off! Rockets, Robots, Ray Guns, and Rarities from the Golden Age of Space Toys

Who could have believed that a toy robot made in Japan from scrap tin would one day fetch nearly $70,000 at a Sotheby`s auction? Blast Off! chronicles the golden era of space toys, an age of imagination unbound by the more mundane realities of space travel ushered in by Sputnik and the Space Age. Containing hundreds of striking color photos of some of the most beautiful and ofttimes bizarre toys ever created — many never before seen in print — Blast Off! unearths the nearly lost histories of these space treasures and the companies that created them. Not limited to the presentation of these unique and fascinating playthings of the past, Blast Off! includes one-of-a-kind prototypes, original packaging and instructions, glimpses into ultra-rare Japanese robot catalogs, long-lost advertisements, vintage comic-strip and pulp-magazine art, and items of every description from every corner of the globe. Blast Off! covers extensively some of the most profound toy and space phenomena of the era, from Buck Rogers to Flash Gordon to the Space Opera programs of the infancy of television to a blow-by-blow account of the greatest Tin Robot auction in history. Blast Off! is an essential resource not only for the collector, but for anyone with an appreciation of pop culture — or just plain fun! * Introduction by award-wining author, futurist, and cultural commentator Harlan Ellison. 

Toy robots have certainly come a long way from Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanical duck over two centuries ago. They are a more common sight nowadays, and it is without a doubt that we will continue to see more of toy robots in the years to come.

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New wave of retro-inspired designs make a big comeback.

November 15, 2008 at 10:33 pm (Retro Favorites) (, , , , , , , , , )

It’s no surprise that retro-inspired designs are making a strong comeback. We’ve seen it everywhere—in fashion, art, and in business marketing.

As the economy worsens and people struggle to make ends meet they tend to draw together and remember the past, when times were a bit simpler. For many this means the 1950s and 60s. So it’s no wonder that many of us are drawn to that retro look. I am. A child born in the mid-fifties this style is familiar and comforting.

Younger generations are now embracing this look as hip, modern and cool…especially those fantastic mid-century modern designs in furniture, housing, art, and housewares. From kitsch to cool, retro-inspired designs are everywhere and marketing businesses—agencies and design studios—are clambering for graphic elements in this style.

Digitized, vectorized, stylized, modernized.
Seen recently are reworked original fifties illustrations, digitized, vectorized and slightly modernized to be used in today’s digital media. Here’s an example of typical 1950s advertising art illustration done by J.D. Rich, an art director at Safeway, Inc. in California.

Vintage scratchboard illustration of 1950s housewife.

Vintage scratchboard illustration of 1950s housewife.

This work was illustrated using scratchboard techniques combined with pen and ink. similar illustrations were commonly used in newspaper ads of the 50s, prior to perfecting the use of halftones in the printing process. The work has been scanned and vectorized and can be found at Shutterstock for download by creative professionals.

Also popular are the “neo-retro” stylized illustrations that are clearly inspired by illustrative styles of the past but have an updated look and color palette. We’re seeing these elements everywhere today. Online and off, in just about all media. They can convey a hip and fun feel across many product lines or a more auster modern look depending on the audience.

Fun illustration like this cocktail series seen at are cropping up on invitations, book cover, magazine spot illustrations and more.

Example of vector illustrations submitted to iStock.

Example of vector illustrations submitted to iStock.

Retro-stylized patterns have been around for awhile with some fantastic illustrators out there recreating elements from the past and reinventing the classic retro-look. These design elements are being used in everything from fabric to product design. Check out this chic speaker ipod dock from Scandyna. New technology in a retro-inspired classic 50s design.
vintage style ipod dock

Classic elements of 1950s retro style, atomic stars and boomerangs and geometric shapes are turning up everywhere. Here’s a great example of reproduction fabric design clearly inspired by the barkcloth of the fifties as seen on

retro reproduction fabric

retro reproduction fabric

Retro Style: Re-Discovering Vintage Barkcloth Fabric

Barkcloth gets its name from a primitive fabric which is made from the fibers of tree bark found in tropical and subtropical countries. The outer bark is stripped from the tree and then the inner bark is separated with the outer bark. Next the inner bark is beaten with wooden beaters or steel tools on an anvil to spread the fibers. Often water and soaking may be introduced to soften the fibers. Larger cloths are made by layering and felting smaller pieces together during the beating phase. Sometimes a starchy glue-like substance derived from tropical plants is used to attach small pieces together. Primitive barkcloth was used for clothing and wall hangings. Barkcloth made is way to France in the 1920’s and was made using cotton mixed with rayon. Our introduction to barkcloth was the imported material from France known as cretonne, a woven cloth with a nubby texture. By the late 1930’s barkcloth was being manufactured in America. During the colorful era (1940’s-1950’s) barkcloth, a generic term to describe nubby fabric with a bark-like texture dominated American households. From upholstered furnishings to window treatments barkcloth was favored because of its durability and dense weave. I have heard people claim that barkcloth is so strong that it is cat proof. ….I have my doubts.

Florals, country scenes, geometrics, abstracts, botanicals, landscapes, leaves and birds are all common designs found on barkcloth. Today there are many design houses reproducing barkcloth using older designs. When buying barkcloth be sure to ask if what you are buying is vintage or new. Atomic era barkcloth with geometric and abstract designs by noted artists in large quantities is very hard to find. If you discover a website that shows so much inventory that you think you have gone to heaven and back…beware…you are probably looking at a reproduction studio. Most times, you will find a yard or two here and there. It’s not common to hit the jackpot anymore with these vintage textiles. -C. Diane Zweig

Illustrator Diana Rich displays on her shop designs on all types of merchandise based on barkcloth fabric from the fifties. You can find her shop at Check out the cool mousepads, t-shirts and other merchandise in the NeoRetro Section.

Barkcloth-inspired designs printed on mousepads

Barkcloth-inspired designs printed on mousepads

Vintage domesticity

Elements of 1950s kitchen kitsch are prevalent as well. In housewares and fabrics, nothing harkens back to a simpler era that the fifties kitchen as seen in graphic elements like this series of kitchen kitsch…
retro inspired kitchen kisch illustrations

and 57 Chevy mug…
57 chevy mug

Or how about this very amusing calendar I found on called Retro Mama 2009 Wall Calendar Planner (Calendar) that includes the classic fifties housewife and some very irreverent remarks about life and motherhood. This is a great example of using vintage fifties imagery with a modern twist.

Retro Mama Calendar 2009

Retro fifties styles are very popular. They’re a great way to capture the past and get a unique look. To get a retro fifties style, look for things with the classic streamlined 1950’s look, in popular bold colors and shiny chrome. Whether you follow this trend by redecorating your kitchen or living room, wearing fifties-style clothing, or buying classic toys for your children, you are sure to be in style when following mid-century trends.

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