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“This is highbrow! Breakfast at Tiffany’s stuff!” sniffs Travis Smith. “Populuxe,” a sale and exhibition of midcentury decorative arts he curated for the Rockville Arts Place, is about stability, comfort, respectability, cocktails, and people with taste. “This is not a sock hop.”
“There will be no poodle skirts” at his pricey show, declares Smith, 37, an interior designer whose credits include upscale pool hot spots Bedrock, Atomic, Carpool, and Buffalo Billiards. But at his opening-night cocktail soiree, even with Henry Mancini on the hi-fi, he ended up with models with Minnie Pearl-style tags hanging from each piece of vintage clothing spinning on a makeshift runway, martinis in Dixie cups, and a guy playing the themes to Mr. Ed and Hawaii Five-O on a Theremin.
Even without poodle skirts, in the garage-sale section upstairs the atmosphere is more Breakfast at Aunt Flo’s than Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There are some of those old chrome chairs with sticky vinyl seats that make your butt sweat your pants on a summer day. Matinee movie posters cover the walls. Their chalky illustrations depict voluptuous women with rosy cheeks and shiny legs. “He swore he’d never touch her again—” reads the poster for Of Human Bondage, “but then she whispered his name and he was lost.”
Kim Timmerman steps from the concrete floor to the plywood runway, quickly covers its 6-foot length, and slowly spins in a black-and-white large-plaid party dress. She flicks her shawl to show some shoulder and smiles, looking every inch a Korea-bound GI’s rosy-cheeked dream.
“She should have some crinolines under it. That’s what we wore,” Cindy Calahan, an artist from Rockville, mutters under her breath to no one in particular. “I lived through the ’50s.”
In contrast to the American Graffiti-fueled ’50s revival of the 1970s, which emphasized youth culture, diners, and drag strips, the current vision of the decade maintains that there’s no cause for rebellion—and no rebels, either. These revelers aren’t acting out James Dean, the Fonz, Richie, or Potsie. They’re dressed up as Howard and Marion Cunningham and Ward and June Cleaver.
“Everything was just so…positioned,” back then, says Jeff Todd, 36, an interior designer and collector of cars from the ’50s and ’60s, explaining his taste for the era’s visual culture. “I mean the exuberant style of cars with tail fins, cars with bigger bullets on the front bumpers—and women with more architecturally correct bosoms.”
“Populuxe,” a term introduced by architecture critic Thomas Hine in his 1986 book by that name, refers to the look and style of the American Century. “The decade from 1954 to 1964 was one of history’s great shopping sprees,” Hine wrote. “Women in magazines were always stylishly and impractically dressed. In advertising, they sometimes wore a glove to press the button of the latest household machine. More often than you would expect,” he added, “they were shown striking poses in the kitchen while wearing a tiara.”
Politicians equated freedom and consumerism. In the “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow in 1959, Vice President Nixon argued with Soviet premier Khrushchev that the abundance of American household appliances demonstrated democracy’s superiority to communism.
One of the reasons the Populuxe show isn’t simply another tag sale resides downstairs at the Arts Place, in the basement of a strip center that from its parking-lot entrance looks too much like Romper Room. It turns out the gallery is a playground for adults. Track lighting illuminates a 4-foot-tall metal question mark. There are small-waisted, big-hipped vases and ceramic salt and pepper shakers with architecturally correct bosoms. A series of paintings pays tribute to ’50s radios, chairs, and comic-book characters.
These are works “inspired” by the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and they’re weirder than what you’d find in the bargain bin at a thrift store. The artists who made them don’t just want to have ’50s artifacts around, they want to use them to create evocations of an idealized era.
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“Isn’t that just a goddamn fucking beautifully designed vacuum cleaner? When’s the last time you said, ‘Eureka!’?” exclaims Rick Singleton, 32, a lighting designer, as he points to one of his latest creations. Part of it is a rejuvenated black-and-chrome fire-hydrant-size sucker-upper that looks like Marvin the Martian wearing formal armor.
Today, Marvin is the base of a chrome lamp. Straight out of his head shoots a shower-curtain rod terminating in a silver garden-hoe-halogen-torchiere thing. It may conjure images of a Strategic Air Command bomber, but the assemblage really looks like an illuminated rake for cleaning cobwebs out of distant ceiling corners.
Also in the gallery is a montage of records-cum-wall-clocks. Gallery director of programs Matthew England, 35, who shares credit with Smith for the concept and design of the show, is selling some of his own works. They’re made from early-’60s LPs and record jackets with names like “Tropical Moonlight,” “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” and “Ritual of the Savage” boldly printed on them. The album-cover clocks feature Dick Van Dykelike young executives and pretty girls in flowing silk.
Sometimes there are awkward consequences to the manufacture of vinyl timepieces. One weekend, England was selling his clocks at Eastern Market. A woman came up and insisted that he sell her Black Satin, an album by an obscure orchestra with a Sophia Loren look-alike smiling from its cover.
“She wanted it really bad. I think it was part of a series,” England says. But he had to tell her he had turned it into a clock.
Raised a Mormon in Utah, “where they preach Ozzie and Harriet from the pulpit every Sunday,” England says he grew up “with a notion that life is sweet,” and never dealt with its reality. Until reality got to be too much for him, that is, and after living as an ideal couple with his wife over the course of a three-year marriage, he came out of the closet. Despite his break with the straight and narrow, England says he really loves the advertiser’s facade of the ideal family, which he finds “comforting” instead of alienating. This aesthetic, of course, is pre-Stonewall.
As clocks, his works truly fail. The hands are short, making it hard to tell the time, especially against the backgrounds of smiling musicians or silken models. The gizmos are really an excuse to have Johnny Desmond clapping for you or Polly Bergen looking at you with glee, and to install a promotional vision of a cheerfully chauvinistic world on your wall.
“In some ways it is a lie,” England says. “My naive view of the ’50s is that people lived by the rules, and there were set rules—maybe they were wrong, like racism was—but they were very entrenched. Then, with the ’60s, a lot of the rules were broken, or changed, and that’s certainly troubling for me.” Especially since those rules excluded and shamed him as a homosexual, and although he works to achieve familial stability in a relationship today, they’re rules that he has had to reject and break himself. “It’s something I have to deal with all the time, showing up in a society that had really strong rules, realizing that they don’t apply.”
England is ambivalent about retro. “That era said, ‘This is life. This is the happy life. This is what we all strive for.’ They didn’t confront us with thoughts.” When pressed, England compares the appeal of Populuxe to Hitler’s appeal in 1930s Germany. “When everything is in chaos, people want someone to rise up and say, ‘These are the rules.’”
“Who defines what these things are?” asks Singleton about the lighting fixtures he has made out of other appliances and found objects. In addition to making lamps out of vacuum cleaners, trucks, coffee pots, Erector sets, and egg-poachers for this show, he’s done the innovative and far-out lighting at Planet Fred, The Big Hunt, Meep’s and Aunt Neensie’s, 15 Minutes, and State of the Union. Next he says he is going to make wall sconces out of coffee cups and saucers—a cupful of light when you flip on the lights.
“These cups and saucers are from a ’50s diner,” Singleton reflects, “and there’s an attention to detail in their crafting that just doesn’t happen today. There wasn’t anything extravagant about these in their day, or amazing about their design, but today there is.” Besides, he doesn’t drink coffee, and can’t imagine using them for drinking water or iced tea. “Instead, I can think of them as a million other things. Part of it is they’re just fucking cool.”
So he is going to drill a half-inch hole in the bottom of each of them and figure out how to bolt them to a wall. Although he admires the design of Populuxe goods, his way of relating to the aesthetic is, as England does with his LP clocks, to alter the original object, perhaps rendering it useless from the standpoint of the product’s original designer, turning whatever it was into a mere sentimental representation of an era indelibly colored by the advertiser’s four-color fantasy.
The crash of Populuxe, of happy-family neutrality, came when the ’65 Mustang debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and civil rights activists used the car as a backdrop for a high-profile protest. Hine summed up the mood of the new times: “In 1959 Nixon could use a washing machine to symbolize America and it was a masterstroke, but in 1964 it would have been ridiculous….The crusade for black legal and economic equality, which had been fought out on the streets of Southern cities and in the courts during the previous decade, finally penetrated the national consciousness.”
Today, despite his claims about loving the style, Singleton is selling his furniture, all of it Populuxe, at the show. He has discovered he likes his apartment bare.