American Look, 1958: Documentary on the delights of American mid-century design

Brad sez, "First it was 'good design.' Then it was 'crap from the 50s.' Then it was 'camp' embraced by smirking hipsters. Now, it's just 'good design' again! The narrator of this 1958 GM buy-design-or-be-a-pinko agitprop conflates patriotism with gnarly tailfins,and the score could scare crows out of a cornfield, but watch it for the flat-out Googie goodness of the rocket car, the see-through boat and the Sandra Dee clone couture. I love this stuff far too much."

Presented by Chevrolet. Googie to the limit.

The American Look(1958) (Thanks, Brad!)


  1. Cory, That might be my favourite post ever! After I watch in slo mo 7 more times i’ll keep ya posted.

  2. Asides from the subdued browns and baby poop yellows it has a minimalist feel to it that is in vogue with modern aesthetics.

  3. Why does nobody talk like this anymore? It seems that just about everbody spoke like this in the 50s.
    One could have been forgiven back then that all was well with the world.

    1. One simply can’t achieve those dulcet tones without a dry Martini at lunchtime and a hefty dose of barbiturates. Both are frowned upon these days.

    2. It seems that just about everybody spoke like this in the 50s.

      I’m still wondering what happened to all those middle managers from the 1930s named Gildersleeve and Witherspoon.

  4. Somewhat ironically the 50s Chevy they were designing was pretty bad design in many ways, and the precursor to the too big, heavy and decorated 70s cars that lost in the marketplace to the Japanese cars. Some of the modernist suburban houses look very impressive compared to the present McMansion ideal.

    The GM research building at the very end is by Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-born architect… I suppose being an immigrant is as American as anything.

  5. The house I live in is a shining example of mid-century modern design (built in 1960, by someone who obviously cared). Like all architectural/aesthetic movements, there is good an bad, successful and derivative. In our case it works very well and it is a great environment in which to live, intelligently designed and working well with the environment, the mid-century equivalent on the “not so big house,” with some Frank Lloyd Wright environmental sensitivities thrown in.

  6. I have a good friend who owns a few pieces of MCM furniture. Great looking stuff, of course. Uncomfortable as all hell to sit on for anything beyond a 5-minute stretch, though.

  7. so all this sprung up in the usa from nothing in 1958? many of these designs and ideas are 30 years old or more and came from bauhaus designers and craftsmen. 1958 is my birth year and i’d guess no more than 20% of existing goods looked like this; the corny chorus in the intro and arch copywriting gives you an idea that minimalism careens off the tracks pretty easily. old lawnmowers, urban decay, ugly drapes, and terrible tv shows would break the heart of the naive 21st century viewer. the caption under the youtube video is laughably wrong and simpleminded as well. yes, it’s all meant to be in a dreamy futuristic context, but let’s look at it as wisely as possible and enjoy it as another idealistic mcm product from, as an earlier poster pointed out, a sponsor with some room for improvement itself.

  8. I grew up on a steady diet of this white upper-middle class southern California propaganda for ‘the good life’ and I think it scarred me for life. (Did you notice that, for all that they keep saying ‘men and women,’ it got awfully white, male, and middle aged as soon as actual design work started getting done?)

    Did anybody ever really live and work in spaces that treated square footage and cubic as cheaply as these sets did? That ‘ordinary designer’ was doing his preliminary sketches in an office more spacious than most large corporation executive vice presidents get.

    Once they got to the design of the actual Chevrolet, I couldn’t stop laughing every time I saw that front fender. What was it Ralph Nader said, something like ‘if we were designing the front of a car in order to kill and maim the maximum number of pedestrians, we could scarcely improve on’ the standard mid-20th-century automobile. Putting a row if giant spikes on the front was just icing on the cake.

    I do love the look of those mid-century modern southern California look buildings, though. I miss ubiquitous blond and cherry wood paneling. And I miss buildings with actual exterior detailing instead of just faceless walls of reflective glass. I miss ubiquitous awnings and eaves even more.

  9. Re: smirking Hipsters…its not just for irony anymore. Everyone that is a little grown up knows that irony only goes so far. Some signifier use, credited as ironic is actually just the displacement and recycling of dustbin signifiers. It has become a counter-cultural obsession since the Gen-X “Reality Bites” era to assert that one “owns” ones signifiers, as opposed to having bought it. Read David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram”.

    The smirking hipsters would not have been the ones to have mid-century modern before it became desirable if it was only camp that the hipsters were embracing.

    1. your talking about the people that strive for both individuality, and a group to feel at home with? Something that have defined any kind of subculture since the dawn of the concept?

  10. I find it amusing that the first piece of hardware we see in the film is an Ericsson Ericofon. From Sweden.

  11. I think it’s interesting to note that there was not one minority in this film if you don’t count the two Japanese designers who were actually Toyota spies working for GM.

    Ok now back to talking about the Swedish phone and circle templates.

  12. That guy’s voice is what you’d imagine from a Big Brother-type scenario. The modulation and tone is awesome. “The government is your friend”

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