ARTS 634
Post-War/Postmodern: American Design from Retro to Neo-Retro

Mel McCombie

Course Description

This course explores industrial and household design in postwar America from a variety of perspectives to frame postwar culture and examine its icons—from Tupperware to tiki bars and bachelor pads, automobiles, toys, and household appliances. We will examine design using methodologies that fuse art historical analysis, social and business history, anthropology, feminism, and post-structuralism. How is the transformation of wartime industry into postwar consumption framed in light of sex and gender, race, and the Cold War? How did American culture and its consumer products function as weapons in the Cold War?

At the end of the course, we will examine the growing phenomenon of postwar design templates as re-invented by contemporary designers in an attempt to understand why these icons of the baby boom have come to roost in contemporary culture.

Course Schedule
September 12

The postwar landscape and the creation of suburbia
Tupperware as instrument of social cohesion

Reading: Populuxe, pp. 3-57 (“Taking Off;” “The Luckiest Generation:” “A New Place”)

Populuxe, pp. 59-81(“Design and Styling”); 107-122 (“The Boomerang and Other Enthusiasms”)

Emailed pdf: Becky Nicolaides,“How Hell Moved from the Cities to the Suburbs,” from Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue,eds, The New Suburban History (Univ. of Chicago, 2006, pp. 80-98)

September 18

What’s cooking? Kitchens, gender and national identity
Cookbooks; Kitchen Debate; Spam and cargo culture; Tiki bars

Ellen Lupton, Mechanical Brides

Laura Shapiro, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (NY: Viking, 2004)

Photocopied: Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV, “Women’s Work,” pp.73-98

Emailed: Jeffrey Makala, “Consuming Paradise: Polynesian Restaurants in Postwar America,” conference paper delivered at the American Studies Association meeting, November 2005

Populuxe, 123-138 (“Just Push the Button”).

September 26

Postmodern backlash in the Kitchen?
Supermarketing and fast food

Download from JStor: Marcy Darnovsky, “The New Traditionalism: Repackaging Ms. Consumer,” Social Text, no. 29, 1991, pp. 72-91

Images online: Mary Ellen Mark,

Photocopied reading: David Halberstam, The Fifties, ch. 11, pp. 155-172 (on McDonald’s)

Paco Underhill, “Shoppers Move Like People,” from Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, pp. 75-85

Recommended:: Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation

October 3

Discussion of papers
(paper due)
Follow-up on last week’s topics

October 10

Auto Opium: car design, from Model T to tailfin

Reading: Auto Opium, ch. 1 (pp. 1-14, “The Aesthetics of Fordism”); ch. 3,4,5,6, pp. 39-181 (origins of car design through the 1950s)

Populuxe, pp. 82-106 (“The New Shape of Motion”)

Photocopied: Virginia Scharff, “Reinventing the Wheel,” from Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (Albuquerque: UNM Press) 1992, pp. 165-175

October 17

Design for Boomers: from tailfin to TT

DVD: “Design for Dreaming”1956; “Two Ford Freedom” 1956

Reading: Auto Opium,  ch. 7, pp. 182-225

Photocopied: David Gartman, “Three Ages of the Automobile: The Cultural Logic of the Car,” from Theory Culture and Society, v. 21 n. 4-5 2001

Chapter 20, from Phil Patton, Bug: The Strange Mutations of the World’s Most Famous Automobile, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2002)

October 24

The Malling of America: the invention of America’s most original architectural form

Photocopied: Margaret Crawford, “The World in a Shopping Mall,” from Variations on a Theme Park, ed. Michael Sorkin, pp. 3-30

Photocopied reading: Mel McCombie, "Reading the Mall"

October 31 Second paper due; paper discussions
November 7

Shopping today: entertainment retail and the lessons of Niketown

Download from JStor: Stephanie Dyer, “Designing ‘Community’ in the Cherry Hill Mall: The Social Production of a Consumer Space,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, vol. 9, 2003, pp. 263-275

Photocopied reading: Paco Underhill, “The Postmall World,” from The Call of the Mall, pp. 201-211

Recommended reading: The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping

November 14

Learning from Las Vegas

Reading: Populuxe, pp. 139-165(“Lost in Space”)

Photocopied: Alan Hess, “The Recent West in Corporate Splendor,”, pp. 100-113; “Strip City,” pp. 114-123 from Viva Las Vegas

Photocopied reading: Mel McCombie, “Art Appreciation at Casears Palace” (from Popular Culture: Production and Consumption)

Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens, “The Allure of Gambling,” from Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City (Blackwell, 1999, pp. 88-93)

November 28 Class Presentations
December 5 Class Presentations

Final work will be due no later than December 17th


You are expected to master all readings prior to class and be ready to discuss. Since this is a graduate class, a large part of the intellectual transactions derive from our discussions. In addition, you must write two short papers; and either write a final research paper or conduct a final project. This is a class in which though we have a lot of historical information, we do not have totalizing answers—particularly to the questions of why the renaissance of postwar design has come now.

Digital Resources

You will notice that some of the required reading is online at JStor (Journal Storage). If you are not familiar with using the wonderful digital resources available, you must make an appointment ASAP with a reference librarian and learn the system. It will take little time and will open a world of material to you.


David Gartman, Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design  (Routledge, 1994)  ISBN (paper) 0-415-10572-2

Thomas Hine, Populuxe (Knopf, 1990)  ISBN (paper) 0-394-74014-9

Ellen Lupton, Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office (Princeton, 1993)  ISBN (paper) I-878271-97-0

Laura Shapiro, Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (Viking, 2004)


JoAnne Meyerowitz, Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America (Temple; 1994) ISBN (paper) I-56639-171-7 (For a variety of essays on topics from labor and politics to television)

Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago; 1992)  ISBN (paper)  0-226-76967-4 (Funny and well-researched on the roles of television in the postwar household)

Jane Pavitt, ed., Brand.New (V &A, 2000)  ISBN 185177 324X (British museum catalog of an exhibition dealing with brand identity and retail)

Jeffrey L. Meikle, American Plastic: A Cultural History (Rutgers, 1997) (A carefully researched business and sociologic history by one of my dissertation advisors!)

Eds. Chuihua Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, Rem Koolhaas, and Sze Tsung Leong, The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (Taschen, 2001) (A thrilling, 10-pound tome with amazing photographs and cutting-edge thought about contemporary retail)

Eds. C. Lee Harrington and Denise D. Bielby, Popular Culture: Production and Consumption (Blackwell, 2001) (Essays range from Elvis to rock and roll to Las Vegas, the latter by yours truly)

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) (You will never eat fast food again)

David Halberstam, The Fifties (Villard, 1993)  (Easy to read chapters dealing with everything from the Kitchen Debate to Holiday Inn)

Annabel Jane Wharton, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (Chicago, 2004) 

Also: hang on to mail order catalogs that seem relevant—from Martha Stewart to Restoration Hardware. Please bring them in and share.

Other readings will be photocopied and handed out. The books mentioned above are available at the Wesleyan bookstore. I also suggest looking at internet booksellers, particularly <> and <>. They often have better prices.

Paper One: Due October 3rd


One: choose one or two cookbooks in your collection and examine them in light of their social agenda. What does the selection of recipes and advice on preparation and serving tell you about the intended audience of the book—that audience’s social class, education, sex, family arrangement, etc?  Some excellent possibilities include any Junior League cookbook; cookbooks for bachelors or single women; cookbooks tied in with television shows. 

Two: analyze your own kitchen: its arrangement, its contents, its sociological implications. What’s in your fridge and cupboards? Look at it as an outsider, a sociologist. What does it say? Please include snapshots. 

Three: did you grow up in a suburban housing development (like Levittown, Ryan Homes, etc.)? Using the same kind of analysis as above, look at your natal land and analyze. Photos would help if you have any. 

Four: do you read so-called ‘shelter magazines’ (e.g., House Beautiful, Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Metropolitan Home, Martha Stewart Living)? This offers the opportunity to consider your reading in a critical light. Taking one issue or two, examine editorial and advertising content. What assumptions are implicit about income, gender, education, etc.? How is ‘taste’ defined? What do these magazines tell you that you may have overlooked in the past? What is their agenda? 

Paper length: 3-6 pages (remember the adage, “if I’d had more time, I could have made it shorter”). Worth about 15% of the grade.

Paper Two: Due October 31st


One: for car lovers, this is your topic. Choose a contemporary car that consciously looks to the past for its styling and marketing (examples include the Audi TT; Harley Earl for Buick; the BMW Mini Cooper; the new VW Beetle; or others you may find). Analyze both the car and its advertising; what do you think it is really selling, and how well does both the car and the marketing work? 

Two: Carefully review “Design for Dreaming,” the 1956 film touting the GM Motorama. This film sells a lot more than cars. What else does it sell? Examining the woman protagonist in the film and her roles is particularly juicy material.  

Three: Building on our examination of “the new traditionalists” and nostalgia, try option Four above. (do you read so-called ‘shelter magazines’ (e.g., House Beautiful, Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Metropolitan Home, Martha Stewart Living)? This offers the opportunity to consider your reading in a critical light. Taking one issue or two, examine editorial and advertising content. What assumptions are implicit about income, gender, education, etc.? How is ‘taste’ defined? What do these magazines tell you that you may have overlooked in the past? What is their agenda?) 

Paper length: 4-6 pages. Worth about 20%.

Final Paper or Project: Due no later than December 17th

This is your chance to really dig into something related to the course that you find worth your while. You can do a research paper, which usually ends up around 15-20 pages, on a topic of interest; OR you can do a creative project that deals with an aspect of the course. Projects can take many forms: videos; photographic documentation; performances; diaries; etc.  

Topics can be anything related to this course, such as: fast food; car design; women and kitchens; TV and its place in the household; shopping malls or individual stores; gambling, particularly the sites here in CT; catalogs and internet shopping; shelter, sex, and space (e.g, the bachelor pad or single gal’s apartment; compare the movies “Pillow Talk,” 1959, with “Down With Love,” 2003). I am open to any idea you have that relates to the course. You must discuss it with me for approval and keep in touch with me during your work on the project. 

If you do a paper, you may turn it in up until Dec. 17th  and present it as a work in progress in class (up to 10 minutes). If you do a project, I ask you to present your work in progress in class at the end of the semester, with the full understanding that you may still be thinking about it and working it through (class comments can be wonderfully helpful); you may submit it in final form by Dec. 17th.  

Worth about 50% of the grade. The rest is based on in-class work.