The Modern and the Mundane: The Nifty Fifties, Biomorphism and Space

Fern Prosnitz, Walnut Creek, CA

Tuesday, January 12, 2010Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pmGould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor
Legion of Honor
Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen

Egg Chair, originally designed 1958 by Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen and still in production

Model of Sputnik 1

Model of Sputnik I launched October 4, 1957. Photo courtesy of NASA

What did Senator Joseph McCarthy have in common with Elvis Presley? Television—-the medium in which the Senator accused entertainers and artists of being Communists and Ed Sullivan’s initial presentation showed Elvis only above his gyrating hips. The senator from Wisconsin and the singer from Tupelo, Mississippi also shared melamine, pantyhose, Sputnik, “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Blob.” All of these cultural phenomena are inextricably part of the 1950s in America, a watershed decade when the term “popular culture” took on a new meaning. As the Cold War developed from the ashes of World War II, America became the epicenter of mass culture as a powerful homogenizing global force in the “free world.” Fern Prosnitz will place mid-century design in America within its larger cultural and historical context.

Ms Prosnitz’s presentation will emphasize that the decorative arts of the 1950s were shaped by three particular developments in the American consciousness. Post-war Americans were fascinated with space—-both outer space and inner space (the latter, a friendly term for particle physics and molecular biology). Second, Americans renewed their interest in a trend that began in the 1930s, biomorphism (as presented by Dr. Jeffrey Meikle in February, 2009 in “Streamlining: The American Contribution to Modernism”). Third, Americans looked backward, as well as forward, in a reverential nostalgia for America’s rugged, individualistic past expressed in Wild West motifs—-in John Wayne movies and television shows featuring Davy Crockett and the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa.

While these ideas “shaped” the Fifties look and style, the material was frequently a synthetic, easily molded material for fabricating domestic goods: plastics (later lampooned by poolside advice to young Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate”). While the majority of Americans had been ambivalent towards modern design since its arrival in the 1920s and 30s, the plastics revolution combined with a growing sociological trend towards a more casual lifestyle gave modernism that extra needed boost to make it into the mainstream of our domestic environment. Modernism came home, winning a presence in our kitchens and breakfast nooks, and even our living rooms and dining rooms.

Fern Prosnitz is an independent decorative arts historian specializing in American decorative arts and visual culture. She received her bachelor’s degree from Tufts University, her law degree from Northeastern University and, after retiring from a 25-year legal career, her master’s degree in the history of American decorative arts from the Smithsonian Associates / Parsons School of Design in Washington, D.C.

Ms Prosnitz has taught courses at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and the Fromm Institute for Life Long Learning at the University of San Francisco, where her spring 2010 offering is entitled, “Swigging, Slurping and Sipping through the Ages: The Material Culture of Beverage Consumption.” She has developed collections-based, weekend intensive seminars for the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art in Denver. She has written articles for the American Art Pottery Association Journal and for Style 1900, most recently on Cincinnati as a destination for Arts and Crafts aficionados. Ms Prosnitz is currently researching Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery and preparing to teach a course on American decorative arts at the Dominican University.

7:15pm mini-exhibit

That “Fifties look” describes a distinctive visual culture of form, color and motif. This is the mini-exhibit for baby boomers to relive their childhoods —- and classic mid-century design. Bring an Eames chair (or a biomorphic knock-off), Russel Wright pottery (or plastic dishes), Sascha Brastoff enamels, paintings or posters, or a Howdy Doody doll. Wear vintage clothing —- and share your concern for the growing influence of the “military industrial complex” by sporting an “I Like Ike” button.


Gould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, San Francisco. Enter at the west side lower level near the café, or through the main entrance for day-time events.