Cassette At Work

1950s Graphic Design and the American Dream


Pop Art changed American culture in such a profound way that it is still being produced and studied to this day. The style began as a rebellious shift away from abstract expressionism, an art form considered by many to be pretentious and overly grandiose. The cult term ‘camp’ entered the American lexicon, an esoteric description of something so bad that it’s good. The word ‘kitsch’ is German for ‘in bad taste’, and in the 50s ‘American kitsch’ was the label of what we now refer to as 1950s art.

The history behind the art

To understand the influence of 1950s graphic design, we must delve a little into the history of its evolution, as there were many historical factors that influenced the progression of art in those times. The American mindset in the 1930s was one of patriotism, hard work, and striving for the light on the other side of the dark tunnel that was the American Depression. In the 1940s, the American focus was on consumerism, the beginning of feminism, and Pearl Harbour. By the time the 1950s rolled around, the idea of futurism and the shiny clean smell of boundless opportunities emerged as the themes behind the new American Dream.

In the 50s, everything was glossy bright and alive with hope. Music took a wild turn with performers such as Elvis Presley, Dizzy Gillespie, and James Brown; literature was expanding with Jack Kerouac and the counterculture beat generation; films produced larger-than-life icons like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Marlon Brando; and art moved away from the abstract to the figurative with pop art featuring propaganda and advertising as its main subjects. From there, Andy Warhol emerged as the most recognisable pop artist.

The movements behind the art

The Cold War produced the arms race, space race, and their resulting propaganda, both of which were reflected in the atomic and futuristic trends of the time. The postwar baby boom created a demand for housing, suburbs, and franchises to service the sprawling neighborhoods. Restaurants, retail stores, strip malls, movie theaters, and other small businesses popped up with their tall, revolving, and blinking signs competing for attention; the beginning of the illuminated commercial strip.

Television ushered in a new age of advertising and consumerism. Products that were once scarce during World War 2 were once again plentiful, and television became the medium through which advertisers featured their products. Because of the urban sprawl that exploded in the 50s, demand rose dramatically for kitchen appliances, furniture, electronics, and TV dinners; products that increased individual productivity and leisure time. Soft drinks, records, magazines, and clothing advertising targeted newly affluent teens and children.

At the start of the 1950s, about 59% of American families owned a car. As a result of a gigantic advertising push, automobiles became a necessity for every family, and by the end of the decade, almost every family owned at least one car. Automobile designs changed yearly, and a “keeping up with the Jones’s” attitude was propagated by advertising the car as an extension of its owner, causing people to constantly upgrade their vehicles to keep up with the ever-changing models and styles.

The themes behind the art

Helvetica script typeface, loud and gaudy logos, and dramatic space-age curves were the hallmarks of American kitsch. Big box advertising, on the other hand, was characterised by geometric layouts and sans serif fonts, which all promised you the American Dream if you were to just buy their products. Pop art reflected the leisurely activities of the time, when people enjoyed watching television and reading magazines and comics. The 50s are often referred to as a time of innocence, and this era of innocence continues to inspire a kitschy nostalgia within many graphic designers to this day.