Cold War on the Home Front
The Soft Power of Midcentury Design
Minnesota University Press 2009
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in ArchitectureNew Books in ArtNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network May 7, 2010 Marshall Poe
If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s in suburbia, you probably lived in a smallish ranch house that looked like this. That house probably had an “ultra modern” kitchen that probably looked like this. I grew up in such a house and it had such a kitchen. In fact, I think my mom, sister, and self were models for this ad. (Or may be not. My mom never baked, had a job, and generally dressed in what she called “slacks.” Very modern indeed.) Anyway, we didn’t know it, but our house, kitchen, and “life style” were fighting the Cold War. You can read all about it in Greg Castillo’s fascinating new book Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design (Minnesota UP, 2009). The leaders of both the Capitalist and Communist worlds claimed to be able to afford their citizens a superior way of life and in the post-war world “superior way of life” meant more, better stuff. So these same leaders enlisted industrial designers in their struggle for supremacy. The West had ranch houses, avocado kitchens, and pink telephones; the East had neo-Classical apartment blocks, reading-corners, and built-in radios (pre-tuned, of course, to official stations). In the end, I suppose, the West “won,” but as Greg points out it did so with a kind of domestic architecture and interior design that has now become so bloated that it is, economically at least, unsustainable. The average ranch house was about 1000 square feet; today the average new home in the U.S. is around 2500 square feet. Al Gore’s house is 10,000 square feet (not counting the guest and pool houses). Inconvenient, but true.
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