December 9th, 2006


Design commentary as propaganda

It may well be because I came to it immediately after listening to a podcast on socialism by Tony Benn and reading an article by the author of Why Do People Hate America?, but the fascinating 1958 design film "The American Look" struck me as outrageous peacetime propaganda -- a highly selective arrangement of the tools of a culture in order to show that culture in the best possible light. (Click the picture to watch the whole 28 minute film.)

"The American Look (A Tribute to the Men and Women who Design)" was financed by Chevrolet, and a chunk of it showcases the design of their 1959 Impala model at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. But it could just as well have been financed by the government, so relentlessly does it harp on the themes of freedom and individualism. "By the way things look as well as the way they perform," crows the narrator over a relentlessly triumphalist orchestral score, "our homes acquire new grace, new glamour, new accomodations expressing not only the American love of beauty but also the basic freedom of the American people which is the freedom of individual choice."

Oddly enough, though, the film calls to mind nothing so much as the North Korean propaganda movies that were showing at Christian Kracht's booklaunch. And, just as insecurity lay behind the confident, Utopian tone of those films, so it underpins this American film too. Certainly the late 1950s was a time of optimism, affluence and consumerist expansion in the US, a time still bathed in the glow of the military victories of World War II. But there's something uneasy in the film's harping on the essential Americanness of Modernist design, when so much of the architecture and furniture design on display here looks more Scandinavian or German. Only the grotesque, elongated, decorative and gothic Impala looks like a truly American design, and it strikes a very different note to the restrained, sparse and spare Modernist designs. (Better suited, in fact, to Postmodernism -- which raises the question of whether pomo came along simply because Modernism wasn't essentially American enough.)

The Impala's Space Age streamlining points to another insecurity, one I outlined in my AIGA Voice article Creativity and the Sputnik Shock. The central thesis of this film -- the idea that good design goes hand-in-hand with American "freedom of individual choice" -- was at that very moment being disproved by the success of the Soviet space program. On October 4, 1957 the communists had successfully launched the first satellite into Earth orbit. America reeled, throughout the late 50s, with a keen sense of its own educational, technical and creative inadequacy. As a result, money was poured into creativity research -- and into design and lifestyle propaganda like this film.

All propaganda, no matter how Utopian, optimistic, and triumphalist, raises fears; all that's left unsaid seems to gather just outside the frame, a threatening black cloud. In my case, when I watch "The American Look", I don't just worry about the people excluded from the ideal scenarios depicted. I also wonder whether all design writing -- and I've done my share -- isn't just a more subtle version of this kind of propaganda. Just like the film, we design writers like to point to the "ever-improving good taste" of the public. We like to select only the most advanced and beautiful designs and suggest that, soon, they'll predominate. And we like to evoke futuristic scenarios like the ones in the final shots of this film, in which rocket cars and dome houses dominate the landscape. Yet fifty years after this film was made, mock-Colonial and faux-rustic farmhouse styles are more likely to define the American design landscape than bubble jets and space craft. Put it down to "the freedom of individual choice", perhaps.