25 September 2009

Shall We Dance?

Decades after this promotional film was made, it could qualify as performance art. At once simple and esoteric, graceful and mechanical, literal and symbolic: Enjoy your journey back to the wonderful world of appliances, circa 1957.
[Do not view this clip while drinking liquids, or your screen may suffer. You have been warned.]


  1. Ah, Friday. I'm embarrassed to say that this made me feel warm all over. As usual, everything you said was perfect and to the point. (No pressure.) And wasn't that a delightful smile at the beginning with just a hint of trepidation as she reached the danger point backing up? All it needed was a panel of judges — 9.9, 9.7, 9.2 (the Soviet judge), 9.8, 9.9. In 1956 I was old enough to know how silly this was. But, was I wise enough? It was all so intoxicating. Did you notice the popcorn pot starting at 0:44?

  2. The popcorn pot! Yes!
    "The Sheer Look is Here". What? Where? Why?

  3. 1. The "SHEER LOOK" seems like a non sequitur unless you know what the other look was. Without that, you can't know what was at stake. The key is in the model's hands. They form a sharp, right-angled corner. Alas, you are too young to remember, but if you made a chronological study of the 50s — people tend to think of them as a single moment in time rather than the lengthy, sometimes painful process that they were — you would know that this new look was a daring step forward. Since it caught hold, since its principles continue into the present, we think of this look as a given. Oddly enough, we think of it as going back as far as we go. In other words, we have difficulty seeing it at all.

    However, people did not wake up one morning to discover themselves examples of mid-century modern. The 40s lingered into the 50s just as the 50s watched with disbelief as the 60s unfolded. The 60s did not begin to exist on their own until they were over. The sexual revolution, war protests, student uprisings, drugs, com­munes — however you choose to define the 60s — were simply what people felt compelled to do. For me, the 60s began in 1969 when I began recognizing names in the Army Times Obituaries. By then, refrigerators were all like the ones in this video, except they were available in brown and gold. The average refrigerator of the 50s was roundish, thick and substantial. If you had to pick one style and one only to describe them, it would probably be Art Deco.

    These Frigidaire appliances have sharp corners and thin walls. No more bulge to the door, no more layered roundness. The panels are flat and light. They're as light on their feet as the dancers in the film. But, which decade are the dancers from? Why, from the 30s and the 40s, of course. They're from the recent past and they're pleased as punch about the future. To the dealers watching this film, wondering if they could sell such appliances to people with houses done up in Traditional or Early American, they say, "Of course you can. These appliances will make every kitchen happy just by looking at them. In fact, they'll make you feel so good you'll feel like dancing."

  4. 2. When I read the words "simple," "esoteric," "literal," and "symbolic," I felt like saying, "Stop. You had me at... esoteric." The model is not wearing thick leather gloves, she is wearing long "sheer" gloves. She is also wearing a sheer gown. The word "sheer" has interesting connotations. A sheer cliff is a straight drop. In other words, a cliff that is vertical and flat. It also suggests unmitigated, as in sheer nonsense, or sheer beauty. In other words, utterly simple and without frills. So the sheer walls are like thin gloves forming right angles. The gloves are also black, which allows for the possibility — there is one example — that black will be the wave of the future. Of course, they were almost right. The future turned out to be rainbow colored.

    There's an interesting site for a business in Tuson, AZ called Antique Vintage Appliances. Their inventory changes, so I won't reference anything in particular, but if you'll look through the 50s refrigerators (restored and unrestored) and compare them to the products in the film, I think you'll be very surprised to find that they exist in the same era. The Frigidaire products may look old by today's standards, but you would not call them "vintage" or "retro" in appearance.

    So that's some of what's going on with "THE SHEER LOOK IS HERE" and possibly an explanation of why I felt warm all over when I watched the video. The esoteric and symbolic use of curves in industrial design is an enormous but semi-secretive topic. Why does a Bentley look like a Bentley? How can you tell from a distance that a Lexus costs more than a Toyota? Why did the world almost stop with the unveiling in 1958 of a dark purple Cadillac El Dorado convertible? Because the back was round and it had tiny fins? Because it was half again longer than the average car? Because it was purple? If you answered all of the above, move to the front of the class. And then tell me why kitchens now tend to be flat.

  5. Flat surfaces = cheaper to [mass] produce.
    Flat surfaces = standardization, uniformity.


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