By Donald-Brian Johnson
“The Wheel of Fortune goes spinning around;
Will the arrow point my way?
Will this be the day?”
–“Wheel of Fortune”
Bennie Benjamin & George Weiss, 1952
For the first wave of baby boomers — those making their debut in the early 1950s — that arrow on life’s “Wheel of Fortune” was definitely pointing in the right direction. Following the deprivations imposed by World War II, the surges of creative energy which occurred in the early 1950s were an explosive embrace of life’s endless possibilities. Freed from wartime constraints, designers, manufacturers, and buyers now reveled in a popular culture that was colorful, affordable, and fun. Optimistic new trends emerged that, during the previous years of self-denial, would never have seen the light of day. The fabulous ‘50s had arrived … and consumers were ready to celebrate!
Just for fun, let’s take a single year in the early 1950s, and journey back for a look at what was happening then. We’ll set our time machine dial for . . .well. . . how about exactly 60 years ago? Seat belts fastened? All right, then: next stop, 1952!
In 1952, adults could look forward to living just over 68 years, and the average yearly income was in the neighborhood of $3,900. Now, to today’s ears, that sounds well below the poverty line — but let’s take a closer look at everyday expenses:
• Gas: 20 cents a gallon
• Rent: $80 per month
• A first class postage stamp: 3 cents
• A ticket to the movies: 70 cents
• Hamburger: 53 cents per pound
• Bread: 16 cents a loaf
There were, of course, major expenditures, too — but even those now seem mind-bogglingly low: a brand-new car could be yours for $1,700; a brand-new home for $9,000; and a year’s college tuition (at Harvard, no less) was just $600!
1952 was also the year “we liked Ike.” Dwight D. Eisenhower won the Presidential election, buoyed to the top by his legendary military career (and aided by an infectious campaign song, plucked from Irving Berlin’s stage show Call Me Madam). The first “Holiday Inn” opened its doors to weary travelers (the chain’s name, also Berlin-inspired, came courtesy of his movie hit from the 1940s).
And what else? Well, in 1952, Kellogg’s introduced Frosted Flakes® and kids across America were soon agreeing with Tony the Tiger: “they’re grrrrreat!” At the movies, Singin’ in the Rain was packing them in, and voluptuous beauties such as Ava Gardner were winning new fans (Ava also won Frank Sinatra). In sports, those “damn Yankees” were once again the World Series champs.
It’s hard to believe, but it was also 60 years ago that perennially youthful Dick Clark first brought us American Bandstand, launching a pop music hosting career that lasted until 2012. Crooners still ruled the music charts, and 1952’s top-sellers included Kay Starr’s “Wheel of Fortune,” Jo Stafford’s “You Belong To Me,” and Eddie Fisher’s rendition of “Wish You Were Here.” More energetic music, however, was just a hip-swivel away: in 1952, DJ Alan Freed put together the first-ever concert dedicated to what he billed as “rock & roll.” Teens went wild (and so did their parents). Kids took to the dance floors in droves (that is, when they weren’t perusing the latest issue of MAD magazine, which also premiered in ’52).
On the design front, many artisans who would, by the end of the decade, be household names, were enjoying their first flurry of success. Joining them: designers who had established themselves during the 1940s and were still riding a postwar production high, their supremacy not yet threatened by overseas imports.
In 1952, it was “out with the old, in with the new” as the new broom of postwar culture swept aside staid and dusty conventions of artistic expression. Up-to-the-minute interpretations took center stage, combining the best techniques of the past with the best visions of the future. Here are a dozen that still resonate with today’s collectors:
• The Designer As Star. By 1952, who created a product shared equal billing with what that product was; many commercial designers became as sought after as their work. A prime example: Sascha Brastoff, whose skill at self-promotion (he billed himself as “the modern Cellini”) at times threatened to outshine his prodigious talent. Adept in varied media, Brastoff specialized in colorful ceramics lacing theatricality with whimsy, and churned out over 400 different products annually. In 1952, work on his massive 35,0000-foot Los Angeles studio was nearing completion.
• All-In-One Décor. Design firms made consumers (and accountants) happy by selling the concept that “one” of anything was never enough. If an Oriental figurine, for example, proved a best-seller, why stop there? The same idea could service an entire line of planters, bowls, vases, ashtrays, wall pockets, candlesticks, candy dishes, and soap trays! Showing the rest of her all-in-one competitors “how it was done”: Hedi Schoop. The grande dame of California ceramics, in business since the early ‘40s, ruled supreme over the field of multi-use giftware. Schoop continued to tower over her counterparts during 1952, and well beyond.
• Abstract Artistry. For many commercial designers of the early 1950s, capturing photographic reality was no longer paramount; capturing the essence of reality was the goal. A zealous proponent of abstract artistry: ceramist Howard Pierce, known for his depictions of birds, animals, and humans. Pierce’s subjects are reduced to their defining elements, soft matte glazes accenting their minimalism. His abstract blends proved an ideal complement to spare 1950s-modern décor.
• Alternate Realities. Consumers of the early 1950s, perhaps influenced by the new emphasis on futurism (and reports of “flying saucers”), were willing to take “one step beyond” in enhancing their environments. Among those happy to oblige was ceramist Marc Bellaire. By 1952, the former protégé of Sascha Brastoff had popularized an illustrative style relying heavily on elongated figures, some with oversize domed heads, others featureless, or with huge, blankly staring eyes. Coupled with dramatic color contrasts and darkly exotic themes, the results would have been right at home in the latest sci-fi double feature. Consumers loved it, and Bellaire, promoted as “the crown prince of ceramics,” even authored “how-to” books, so amateur artists could try their hands at his other-worldly stylings.
• Asiatic Motifs. Although Asian art was centuries old, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that the Western world capitalized on its basic elements. Buyers soon found Asian-influenced giftware irresistible. Although almost every design firm included at least one “Asian” entry in its inventory, Roselane, the Pasadena ceramics venture headed by Doc & Georgia Fields, made it a primary emphasis. Roselane’s lineup of sinewy dragons, Balinese dancers, and “Lotus Ladies” is best defined by its use of broad sculptural strokes and soft glazes. The “boneless” shapes of Roselane figurines took the edge off Modernism’s starkness.
• Folk Art, ‘50s Style. In the early 1950s, “real” folk objects — handmade artifacts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — were just a bit too close in time, and a bit too rustic in intent, to be generally accepted as integral elements of home décor. However, modern designs with a folk overlay were more than welcome. One such purveyor: The California Cleminsons. The firm’s array of down-home ceramics successfully combined attractiveness with usability, making them a “must” for ‘50s homemakers. There were Cleminsons pie birds and trivets, darners and blade banks, often festooned with salt-of-the-earth mottos (“A kitchen bright and a singing kettle make home the place you want to settle”). The Cleminson output charmed mid-century buyers who liked things modern (but not too modern) and folksy (but not too folksy).
• Statuesque Statuary. Big rooms in a ‘50s modern home needed decorative focal points to be even bigger. One firm accepting the challenge: Haeger Potteries. Haeger’s boldly modernistic sculptures were oversize enough to catch the eye, no matter how soaring the ceiling, or endless the glass wall. In 1952, Haeger’s “Style by Jury” promotion presented what the company billed as “the year’s most notable art expressions.” Today’s collectors continue to be captivated by Haeger’s large-scale artistry, whether “panther” TV lamps (starring a 28-inch long panther), towering two-foot fish planters, or three-foot geometric lamps.
• Tile Assemblies. Before Harris Strong, ceramic tiles were just an afterthought. Strong’s jigsaw puzzle-like tile assemblies essentially created, then dominated the market for this mid-20th century interpretation of ancient mosaic art. In addition to a prolific output of lamps, dishes, and ashtrays, Strong gained acclaim for his framed ceramic tiles (some single, others grouped to create pieced illustrations) used as wall hangings. The 1952 opening of “Harris G. Strong, Inc.” meant that ‘50s decorating schemes could now be enhanced by tile accents, filled with vivid color and rich detailing.
• Lady Head Vases. Vessels in the form of Gay ‘90s ladies and other period beauties, with openings in their hats for flowers, were all the rage in 1952. No one did “lady head vases” better (or more elaborately), than Betty Lou Nichols. Instantly recognizable, thanks to their sweeping dark lashes and cupid’s-bow lips (even her nuns have them), “Betty Lous” were a boon to early-‘50s florist shops; only a few blossoms were needed to fill each “head”. Nichols’ head vases proved an effective and profitable mix of glamour and whimsy.
• Plexiglas® Lamps. By 1952, metal household lamps were “old hat.” Instead, lamps fashioned from that new miracle product “Plexiglas” (actually introduced in 1934), brightened many a forward-thinking household. Leading the way: Plexiglas lamps by Moss Manufacturing of San Francisco. Known as “the lamps that spin,” Moss releases were distinguished by their incorporation of revolving ceramic figurines. For the more adventurous, there were Moss lamps that served dual purposes: bars, radios, clocks, intercoms, fountains, and even aquariums!
• Breathtaking Lucite® Bags. Who says innovation has to end at the front door? Sometimes clear, sometimes glittery, and always impractical, Lucite “fantasy purses” reinterpreted the handbag in futuristic-‘50s terms. Lucite could be tinted, in shades ranging from rich root beers to pearly grays. It could be carved, giving the effect of etched glass. It could be left clear, then layered, and filled with such elements as metallic confetti. The Lucite handbag could even, on extra-special occasions, be put to its intended use, making a uniquely 1950s fashion statement.
• Extravagant Eyewear. The early 1950s also saw the rise of wearable art, such as “high-brow” eyeglass frames. Plumes, fans, feathers, and even bird and butterfly wings were recreated in plastic and liberally adorned with rhinestones, turning mundane vision helpers into tiara-like “face furniture.” Swooping brow embellishments limited everyday-wear possibilities, but why quibble? If you want to live modern, you have to look modern!
Twenty-cent gas and 70-cent movies are now just misty memories, but fortunately, the design treasures of 1952 continue to endure and delight (at surprisingly affordable prices). May we all look so good 60 years on!
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on mid-20th century design, including “Postwar Pop: Memorabilia of the Mid-20th Century.” Please address inquiries to: email@example.com.