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 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 .
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.
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.
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.