Oh So Retro
The nuclear suitcase, the repository of codes needed to launch Russia's nuclear weapons, was one of the last things (other than his title, a few symbolic medals, and the presidential pen) that outgoing Russian Prime Minister Boris Yeltsin handed over to his successor Vladimir Putin before leaving the Kremlin on New Year's Eve morning 1999. Apparently the "button" was still with us. It always had been. Thoughts of blowing the enemy to bits, however, hadn't pervaded the public consciousness since the implosion of the Soviet Union during the Reagan administration.
Actually the anachronistic words nuclear suitcase set the mind reeling even further back in history. To the 1950s: the era of President Eisenhower, when the Cold War was in full swing and commies taking over the world or annihilating it was a chief worry. A period of giddy prosperity, when the economy expanded at a mind-boggling rate, and consumer goods in colors such as blush pink, turquoise blue, and mint green were as bright as the surreal moment in which they existed.
"They were not normal times," says architectural, design, and cultural critic Thomas Hine, speaking about the Fifties on the phone from his home in Philadelphia. "They were times when one person with a not-very-good job could support a family at a middle-class level. This was in the most literal sense a golden age, a period of available income that had been unprecedented, and this income was relatively democratically distributed. What you had was a lot of people with lower-class taste having money to spend on stuff. And for years this stuff was viewed by people who write about these things, of whom I was long one, as something not to really pay attention to."
These days the world has awakened from its stylistic slumber and suddenly is mindful about anything and everything Fifties: swanky hotels, clean-lined houses, freeform furniture, flashy cars with tail fins, swinging music by the Rat Pack and Martin Denny. Part of that Fifties resurgence can be credited to Hine's fascinating book, Populuxe, which explores the Zeitgeist of that often-misunderstood era. Released in 1986 but recently reprinted, Populuxe, takes its name from a word Hine coined to define the tacky indulgences affordable to almost all. Amazingly five years after he created it, the expression truly entered the lexicon by landing in Random House Webster's College Dictionary. (This Sunday at the Radisson Deauville Resort, Hine will talk about the Miami Modern style [MiMo] and Populuxe as part of the lecture, walking tour, and special events series called MiMo 2000, which explores Fifties and Sixties design in South Florida, namely its fabulous-yet-endangered architecture.)
According to Hine denizens of the newly created suburbs were anything but colorless conformists worried about maintaining status in the eyes of their neighbors. These suburbanites were the new pioneers, free to design their lives any way they chose for quite awhile. The optimistic, freewheeling period lasted about ten years, from 1954 to 1964. Several factors ultimately contributed to its demise, but when the New Frontier gave way to the Great Society after the assassination of President Kennedy, the Populuxe era was clearly at an end. "There was a place where people got kind of overtired," Hine notes. "The tail fins had became so ridiculous, the shoes became so high and pointed. The question was, 'Where do you go from here?'"
Where we went in subsequent decades, explains Hine, is a place where things "were not as stylish but were pretty powerful. A power trip!" Although current financial prospects are brighter than any in recent memory, Hine cautions about waxing too nostalgic for a past that can never be recaptured. "It was an extraordinary time, but it was not a normal time," he says about the Fifties. "It produced stuff of a kind that hadn't been seen before, and hasn't been seen since. We don't need to go back to it because we can't. We don't have that kind of money anymore. The recent economic expansion has not been democratic -- and that really is the essence of Populuxe."
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