American Kitsch 1940 – 1960

“Kitsch” is a German word meaning “in bad taste.” In the arts, kitsch is used to describe art that is pretentious, vulgar and displays a complete lack of sophistication. On the other hand, camp—the idea that something is so bad that it’s good— is an accurate description of 1950s American Kitsch.


The Art Deco influence of rounded streamlined forms and enthusiasm for modern ideas continued to inspire design of all kinds for many years after the 1930s. Design in the 1950s took futuristic styles even further with dramatic curves and space-age forms.

The 1959 Cadillac Eldarado Seville

The development of US space exploration resulted as much from this futuristic fervor as from political concern over the Soviet Union. After World War II, the US and USSR engaged in an ideological struggle between communism and capitalism, sparking what has become known as the “Cold War.” The two countries never clashed directly, but expressed their conflict through propaganda, espionage, a nuclear arms race and technological competitions, such as the Space Race. As a consequence of the fervent exploration into outer space and the inner space of the atom, Americans embraced everything atomic in the 50s .

needle package

atomic clock

The Barbie Doll, invented in the late 50s, and still as popular as ever, displays the same dramatic curves as many other designs from this era.

Pin up girl

1950s pin up girl

Barbie Doll

The Barbie Doll

Gina Lollobrigida was a popular actresses and an iconic sex symbol of the 1950s.

Gina Lollobrigida was a popular actresses and an iconic sex symbol of the 1950s.

Dramatic, futuristic curves, combined with casual script typography are a hallmark of American Kitsch style.


The postwar increase in marriages and the “baby boom” created an expansive housing market and the consequent rush to the suburbs, where the automobile was an indispensable piece of household equipment. The heavy concentration of middle‑class consumers encouraged urban retailers to establish branches whose proximity to the suburbs and large parking lots offered an alternative to long commutes into congested cities. The core of many suburbs became the strip of retail stores, eateries, movie theaters, and small businesses whose colored, illuminated, blinking and revolving signs created a dense, graphic corridor of commerce.

Franchises that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s incorporate novelty rooflines and futuristic signs to compete for motorist attention. The result is the visual chaos of the commercial strip.

Route 66

Before the interstate highway system was developed, U.S. Route 66 was the only roadway that provided a direct route between Los Angeles and Chicago. The highway, which ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, ending at the Pacific Ocean, became the twentieth century version of the Oregon Trail, the golden road to the promised land. John Steinbeck called it the Mother Road. It provided hope to the farmers of the dust bowl era going west to find a new life. It served our country during time of war. In optimistic post W.W. II America, Route 66 defined a generation looking for adventure and freedom on the open road. Route 66 has inspired nostalgia ever since. Google “Route 66 + kitsch” and you’ll find over 15 million related links.

American kitsch is not recorded as a distinct style in art history books, and it’s rarely taught in design schools. Yet contemporary graphic designers have a deep affection for this graphic style.

Web Resources:
Retro Clip Art:
Rewind the 50’s:
Retro Clip Art:
Film title in style of American Kitch: Imaginary forces constructed a rich and poignant title sequence using actual contest forms, prizes, images and ads from the 1950s to re-create the era in which the prize winner of defiance, ohio takes place. Client: dreamworks.
Tourist icons: Native American Kitch, Camp, and fine Art along Route 66:

9 Responses to Kitsch

  1. I really liked the blog. Very useful.Thank you for sharing it!

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  3. Marion Lindsay says:

    Facebook has a site called Mid Century Modern Kitsch. Join us !

  4. Graphic designers continue to enjoy Kitsch … I don’t see it used much in contemporary design, but many of us have a shelf full of bobble-head dolls, wind-up toys, Cracker Jack prizes, and other kitschy memorabilia.

  5. likalaruku says:

    Kitsch was still widely used in the mid 70s to mid 90s; Memphis Milano & retrofuturism for example.

  6. I’ve taken your suggestion and added many more images. Come take another look.

  7. Thank you Jalisa. That’s a good suggestion. Let me know if you find video on any of these historical periods and I’ll consider adding them.

  8. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is fundamental and everything. But imagine if you added some great images or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and video clips, this site could undeniably be one of the greatest in its field. Good blog!

  9. Awesome site you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any forums that cover the same topics talked about here? I’d really like to be a part of online community where I can get comments from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Cheers!

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