6 min read

By Thomas Wagner.

A fairy tale of the stylish life.

Americans love the freedom of personal choice. The 1958 promotional film „American Look“ is all about the highly stylish life and about ongoing progress through design. It’s ideological, dramatic, kitschy and absolutely fabulous.

Fanfares and choirs herald something truly great. The start of the 1958 half-hour promotional film “American Look” sounds like a Hollywood romcom, like “Houseboat” with Sophia Loren and Cary Grant, which was released the same year. Or “Pillow Talk”, another title in the happy-family genre released just one year later, starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day. “American Look” presents itself as a serious homage to the men and women in the world of design and sings a paean of praise to all those who work with lines, shapes, textures and colours in order to make all the things we (Americans) need and want in our everyday lives more beautiful, graceful and elegant.

As such, the opening image is of the typical American housewife in her elegant sitting room, lounged on the floor, using the phone – a red telephone whose rotary dial (the very latest design) is concealed in its base. The narrator explains in a serious yet silky voice how the items we surround ourselves with can, through the artistry and craftsmanship of the designers, reflect our own moods and desires and express all of the colour that signifies pure joy.

Insights into a highly stylish paradise

Let’s set the scene: children are playing in a beautifully staged setting; an older boy is messing around with a soapbox car patriotically adorned with white stars on a blue background; another is jumping into a pool – and, of course, the family picnic on the grass is styled to the nines, as recorded by Daddy on his cinecamera. Wherever you look, it is always Sunday in this highly aesthetic paradise, and the photos depicting it are as mouth-watering as the sausages on the barbecue. In terms of composition, the film focusses on styling, adeptly underlining the contributions of interior designers, industrial, product and automotive designers to the “Populuxe” era (Thomas Hine), where luxury goods and mass consumption came together in style in the late 1950s. Filmed in Technicolor and Superscope, the film premiered in 1958 at the conference of the American Society of Industrial Designers.

Anyone who wants to learn more about the true spirit of mid-century design and the prim beauty of American consumer culture is in the right place.

The true spirit of mid-century design

The homily continues with elation: design continually contributes to the lightness and elegance of American living. The things that “we have in America” changed constantly and “our stylists’” studios and workshops provided a consistent supply of service and artistry. Usefulness, comfort, beauty, elegance, glamour – violins diligently provide the musical score for images of cups, glasses and cutlery, while the perfectly designed home with the Bertoia side chair and Barcelona chair is praised for its new layouts and “new patterns for living”. Anyone who wants to learn more about the true spirit of mid-century design and the prim beauty of American consumer culture is in the right place.

Whether it’s a lamp, the pattern of the curtains, or the kitchen, functionality is always paired with beauty, with “our homes” continually demanding grace, glamour and comfort. The overall effect is an ode to consumerism, a paean to the “basic freedom of the American people” and the “freedom of personal choice”. The hand mixer spins, the rotisserie chicken turns, the electric can opener whirs and the vacuum cleaner roars – the song just doesn’t want to end.

The pinnacle of a society at leisure

The narration of the beautiful new world of work is highly recognisable and modern. The new office is bright, open and inviting, with the modern designer creating beauty through simplicity by adding a casual touch to what could otherwise be merely businesslike. America itself is being redesigned: enormous machines remodel the landscape on a grand scale, while lawnmowers remodel smaller areas. The country promotes sports and leisure time – motorboats, sailing boats, water skis and glass-bottomed rowing boats – all of them strive for a fun look. Baseball, golf, camping, the beach, bowling – in the pinnacle of a society at leisure, design was already celebrating itself and hastened from one triumph to the next.

Where dreams become reality

Once all of the beautiful products have been presented, the viewer obtains an insight into the “Studio of Design”, an inspirational place where talent is shared and efforts are pooled, where women and men with style and imagination work together in an artistic setting in order to make their dreams a reality. Having said this, the look is highly formal – the men are in suits and ties, while the boss smokes a pipe. After all, creating a new design is a complex process and an enormous challenge on top of that – one that takes place behind closed doors.

Once the requirements of the new product have been explained and a realistic goal established, the only thing that matters at the outset is the creativity of the stylists – their ability to “dare to dream”, as they say. However, knowledge and experience are also important. Once the initial concept has emerged, this is followed by draft after draft until a single one is selected, honed, reviewed, enlarged and a life-size prototype is made. The scene has now been set at the new technology centre of General Motors in Warren, Michigan, where we see how the 1959 Chevrolet Impala is designed.

The promotional film uses the happy design genre to present itself as a “tribute to the men and women of design”, but, at its heart, is actually a cleverly constructed piece of propaganda …

Cold War propaganda

A little giddily, we realise that, at the end of the 1950s, design was a major factor in a stylish lifestyle based on consumerism (and not only in America). It was in this same year, 1958, when Jacques Tati released “Mon Oncle”, a satirical film about the presumed blessings of this modern lifestyle, that “American Look” was also released under the aegis of Chevrolet. Both films consider contemporary society from opposite viewpoints and both provide us with insights into the defining design philosophy of the era. The promotional film uses the happy design genre to present itself as a “tribute to the men and women of design”, but, at its heart, is actually a cleverly constructed piece of propaganda that praises the American way of life during the Cold War between the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union.

This fairy tale of the highly stylish life cheerfully and ebulliently hurries along – with nary a thought of exhaust fumes, pollution or waste, and only seemingly apolitically – from one point to the next, until the viewer is left with the promise of an even better and brighter future. Dumbstruck by this incredible, dramatic, kitschy panorama of a capitalism that is just as confident as it is overflowing with blessings in the form of its products, there is only one thing left to say: if they are still alive, they are still dancing as a couple in silhouette to the violins that herald the stylish perfection of progress.

American Look, 1958

Sponsor: Chevrolet Div., General Motors Corp.
Production Co.: Jam Handy Organization.
Directors: W.F. Banes, John Thiele.

Camera: Roger Fenimore, Pierre Mols, Robert Tavernier.
Art Directors: Robert Mounsey, Charles Nasca, Otto Simunich.
Music: Samuel Benavie, James Higgins, Milton Weinstein.
Editors: V.L. Herman, Harold Rogers.
Transfer Note: Scanned from a 35mm print held by the Library of Congress.
Running Time: 28 minutes.

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