Youthquake: High Style in the Swinging Sixties

Mitchell Owens, Architectural Digest

Tuesday, February 21, 2012Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
David Hicks’ drawing room, Britwell Salome, England

David Hicks’ drawing room, Britwell Salome, England

Cecil Beaton’s bedroom, London, England

Cecil Beaton’s bedroom, London, England

Roger Vivier’s salon, Paris, France

Roger Vivier’s salon, Paris, France

Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of “Vogue,” coined the term “youthquake” in 1963 to describe the 1960s fashion, musical and popular culture movement. “Vogue” declared that the longhaired, miniskirted and bellbottomed movement leaders are “the zingoes who bolted the pack, crashed out of the mold and smashed it to smithereens … invented their own look, their own sound, their own age.” Mitchell Owens will present the surprisingly elegant and sophisticated interiors inspired by the trendsetters who dominated the fashion and music scene. The inspiration, perhaps from Haight-Ashbury hippy digs, made its appearance in ultra-chic, high-end New York apartments and London flats.

The epicenter of the youthquake was London, home to Carnaby Street, James Bond’s gadgets and the Beatles’ Abbey Road studio. The name, and appearance, of the miniskirted supermodel of her time, Twiggy, said it all for the new androgynous, youthful look. While Mary Quant and Betsey Johnson designed the era’s iconic clothing (and San Francisco’s Levi-Strauss clothed the masses), Andy Warhol depicted the youthquake’s ethos in paint, poster and film.

The British influence cascaded into a tsunami as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The United States entered a period of unprecedented post-war prosperity, and met the pent-up demand for housing, furnishings and, of course, automobiles and the network of interstate highways on which to drive them. The staid Eisenhower years gave way to the brief, but symbolically enduring, Kennedy years. The “silent generation” of the fifties was supplanted by an exuberant, less serious and more vocal generation as America elected its youngest president, accompanied by his glamorous, sophisticated wife and attractive children.

Mitchell Owens’ response to people who claim that they can’t put together a room, is a quip that links clothing to cupboards. “You got dressed this morning. If you can get dressed, you can decorate a room. It just takes a little longer.” The youthquake’s refreshingly anarchic attitude toward clothing was also reflected in the decade’s most admired decors. Although the trendsetters who occupied these stylish houses and apartments may not have always been as chronologically young as their denim-clad comrades, their approach to living was perfectly attuned to the Age of Aquarius —- fresh, idiosyncratic and nose-thumbingly defiant of the historicism that had preceded them.

From photographer Cecil Beaton’s zesty revamp of his London townhouse to socialite Talitha Getty’s inspired renovation of a traditional riad in Marrakech, the youthquake interiors of the 1960s rejected the well-mannered taste of the recent past and embraced the unexpected. Those earthshaking interiors remain touchstones of glamor today, influencing and inspiring a new generation of aesthetes with the mindbending individuality of the “me generation.”

While each new style necessarily rejects the past, the youthquake was notable for the tender age of its trendsetters. Their Sixties style was not formulaic. The exuberance of the youthquake was reflected in bold blocks of colors in startling combinations, and the freewheeling use of innovative materials and shapes. There was no allegiance to one - or any - historical period. Sophisticated was mixed with ethnic, acrylic with artisan, and modern with antique.

Mitchell Owens, special projects editor for “Architectural Digest,” is in a particularly good position to offer insight into the youthquake. After studying English literature at Coker College in South Carolina, Mr. Owens wrote for the “Texas Monthly,” “Elle Décor,” “American Home Style” and “Traditional Home.” He has served in editorial capacities for “Elle Décor” and “Architectural Digest.”

Mr. Owens has also edited Elsie de Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Design (2005) and Jansen (2006) about Maison Jansen, the first international design firm, best known for its nuanced assemblages of 18th century neoclassical styles, 1920s Hollywood glamor and country house touches. He recently published In House (2009) and is writing a biography of Pauline Rothschild, the 1960s tastemaker. His insightful writings have also appeared in “The World of Interiors,” “Departures,” “Town and Country,” “Travel + Leisure,” “The New York Times” and the “International Herald Tribune.”

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Join the Mod squad by bringing back the sixties: posters, record albums, Giocometti bronzes (late works only please), Parsons tables, Indian bedspreads, Eames chairs or a Heath Ceramics table setting. Bring a photo album to relive the youthquake. You’re also welcome to dress up in your best Pucci or vintage Chanel, or get comfortable in your jeans and tie-dyed tee-shirt. Love beads are optional.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.