In the week that the final series of TV show Mad Men premiered in the US, we’ve decided to re-publish an article from MidCentury issue 01 that looks at the phenomena of Mad Men and how it helped to bring mid century design back into the mainstream.
Image courtesy Lionsgate ©2008 Carin Baer/AMC
By Huma Qureshi
Mad Men: mid century modern in the mainstream
It is, arguably, the most effortlessly seductive show on television – and one that has placed mid century modern style firmly in the mainstream. Set in the 1960s, Mad Men has mesmerized British audiences with its stories of Manhattan swagger, power struggles, illicit relationships, sexual tension and its minute attention to the nostalgic detail of life in the 1960s, from sharp, tailored suits and trilbys to full-skirted, high-waisted dresses and perfectly manicured hands, hazed in the blur of cigarette smoke.
Mad Men: a stylish set
Mad Men marries substance with style, and the pull of the latter can’t be denied. Fashion pages are still full of Betty Draper’s frothy, swishing dresses; Prada’s autumn 2010 show was rumoured to have been directly inspired by the small screen’s depiction of 1960s-style New York; every other shopping page screams “Get the Mad Men Look!” Considering the series first screened in the UK in 2008, its longevity is artful. But Mad Men’s aestheticism isn’t just down to the clothes or indeed the stunningly glamorous looks of (most) of the lead characters. Its visual appeal is also down, in no small part, to the perfection of the set, recreating a 1960s design world that is as far removed from flower power and hideous psychedelia as you can get. Now not only can you dress the part, you can live it too.
Image courtesy Lionsgate ©2008 Carin Baer/AMC
Mad Men: covetable interiors
Step inside the Mad Men world, and you’re surrounded with covetable mid century styles (Roger Sterling’s olive green deep buttoned couch; the Drapers’ padded velvet tufted headboard; handsome teak sideboards with tapered legs) that have triggered a widespread enthusiasm for vintage design. The office is sleek, clean-lined and structured; the Drapers’ home is colonial, lavish and kept immaculate by a ’60s housewife with little to do. Even the tiniest of accessories – a desk stapler, an ice bucket, a cut crystal lowball tumbler, a decanter, a retro phone – are perfectly styled in the mid century modern way. The muted colour palette is timelessly chic: teal blues, burnt oranges and olive greens set against walnut and teak browns, caramel golds, deep leathers and plaid wallpapers.
Mad Men: Scandi style
Cleverly, the show doesn’t just focus on big-ticket American classics (there aren’t that many Eames chairs to be seen), but includes more Scandinavian furniture, so as to create a more meticulously authentic look, painstakingly put together by set designer Amy Wells. Wells extensively researched the period by studying early decorating books and magazines, including Fifties Furniture, Creative Home Decorating, The Doubleday Book of Interior Decorating and Inside Today’s Home, before putting her set designs together and scouring for authentic pieces from the original era either from prop houses, American-based design stores such as Room Service, Modernica, vintage boutiques like Deja Vu and antique markets.
In an interview with Interior Design, Wells explains the authentic look she wanted to create: “I want to make Mad Men look real, as if the people really have those pieces. It’s important that they be imperfect, not iconic. A lot of people had Danish Modern at the time because it was reasonably priced, and much of it still exists because it was so well made”. It’s no surprise that Mad Men has had design bloggers and websites in a frenzy ever since it first aired. “Mad Men – you had us at hello. The design and colours and mood – don’t get us started,” announced the Apartment Therapy website back in 2008.
Image courtesy Michael Yarish/AMC
Mad Men: creating the ‘look’
So how can you recreate the Mad Men look? Julia Salisbury of online mid century furniture store Classic-Modern.co.uk says the television show is a clever combination of designs that works because of contrasts in shapes and tones: “The mid century modern look of Mad Men combines the English Arts and Crafts movement with modern Danish design – that’s the aesthetic to look for.” Salisbury says you should shop for contrasts and juxtapose furniture – so sensuously curved teak chairs go alongside sharp-angled or cube-shaped suites and warm, natural woods next to cold, metal cabinets.
Salisbury recommends looking out for Robin and Lucienne Day’s iconic pieces, as well as works by Danish designers Peter Hvidt and Olga Molgaard-Nielsen, which incorporate “both the fluid, flowing organic forms and the more hard-edged geometric elements of the mid century look into their designs.”
For those on a budget, for whom iconic design names remain a little out of reach, you can still create the Mad Men look without breaking the bank. Scour car boot sales, markets and eBay for someone else’s vintage 1950s and 1960s junk, which may well be your interior design treasure – there are plenty of accessories to be found, from vintage glass tumblers, decanters, hat stands, bureaus, retro lamps, light shades and Marimekko and Lucienne Day-inspired fabrics, which can be turned into cushions, throws or used to reupholster chairs.
There’s plenty on the high street too, as the mid century look becomes slightly more mainstream and thereby, slightly more affordable. John Lewis based its Revival home furnishings range on its archived furniture and homeware as originally sold in the 1950s, while Habitat also brought back some of its1950s range recently. But, as Salisbury points out, if you want the authentic mid century look, there are some pieces you just can’t skimp on. “Quality is key, so you’re going to have to spend some money if you really want to create this style, especially when it comes to wood. Pine just won’t work.”
When it comes to picking a colour scheme, choose a muted palette. “Multiple muted greens and mustardy yellows together with warm-coloured wood instantly evoke the midcentury modern look”, she says. “A touch of turquoise, perhaps in an artwork, will provide the finishing touch.”
Mad Men: the sultry mood
Finally, Salisbury says mid century is as much about the sultry mood as it is the visual style – and that means it’s all about the lighting. “Don’t try to light a whole room from one or two light sources. Instead, keep overhead lighting to a lower level of intensity and use lamps dotted around a room to provide islands of light. It’s the best way to add warmth and cosiness.”
Of course, there’s no need to overdo it – your home doesn’t need to look like a designed set for a television show. But a few choice pieces here and there, the perfect teak sideboard or printed scatter cushions placed just so, are all you need to give off the Mad Men vibe: understated but quietly glamorous, capturing a mood of nostalgia for a time when life might not have necessarily been better, but certainly looked good.
For more from this author, check out her blog here
For more Mad Men style, check out The Mad Men Effect by Huma Qureshi in MidCentury issue 01 or read our review of Taschen book duo Mid-century Ads – Advertising from the Mad Men era