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Seems Like Old Times : Every Generation Looks Back at Another Time as a Golden Age. In the '80s, It Seems, It's the '50s

February 16, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

I was 16 the year the Belairs recorded "Sweet Sixteen" (1956). So my response to new books about the 1950s is critical, slightly proprietary, almost jealous. I read these books with the half-indignant reaction so astutely described in verse by Donald Davie:

Hearing one saga, we enact the

next. We please our elders when we si t

enthralled But then they're puzzled; and at

last they're vexed To have their youth so avidly

recalled. Now at last I begin to understand why my parents' generation is unable to share much of my enthusiasm for Art Deco--the style of the period just before my birth. What to me is "nostalgia" (for a period I never knew) is to them just experience. The 1920s and '30s saw the Crash and the rise of Nazism, the Charleston and bead dresses. And the 1950s were not all Hula Hoops, clutch coats and rock 'n' roll.

The newest book on the 1950s--it appeared at the end of 1985--is Richard Horn's "Fifties Style: Then and Now" (Beech Tree Books, New York, $29.95). The author's age is not revealed, and in his photograph at the back of the book he wears sinister sunglasses, but he looks as if he might be young enough not to have known the '50s at all. (If I am wrong and he is 63, I doubt he'll be writing to the editor to complain.)

"Fifties Style: Then and Now" is a clever book and one of the most brilliantly designed I have ever seen. Horn has had the bright idea of setting side by side genuine artifacts of the '50s and works of the 1980s inspired by or pastiching the '50s. The effect is at first disconcerting--as disconcerting as those so-called antique shops that stock reproduction furniture alongside the real thing. ("Junque shops," someone sarcastically called them.)

It becomes clear that Horn, a novelist and a journalist specializing in design, is more interested in the 1980s revival of the '50s than he is in the '50s themselves. But he understands the '50s quite well. He is not ignorant of the Cold War, McCarthyism and what he calls the "blatant racism" of the decade. However, he revels in the '50s as the apogee of American materialism--"a 10-year-long shopping spree," an "orgy of acquiring."

Horn is fascinated by the exuberant and baroque cars of the '50s. They were "idols on wheels," he suggests, with their "cruel-looking tail fins" and "grinning front grilles."

I am reminded of a book that the late Lord Kinross wrote in 1959, "The Innocents at Home," an exercise in supercilious Yank-bashing. Kinross was astonished by the finned automobiles, which in their gaudy colors reminded him of dodge-'em cars in a fairground rink. Cartoonist Osbert Lancaster showed just such a vehicle in his jacket design for the book. Some of the cars sneered at by Kinross are now considered classics, and to my mind no car designed since the 1955 Ford Thunderbird rivals it in stylishness. (If you need reminding of how stylish it was, have a look at "Thunderbird! An Illustrated History of the Ford T-Bird" by Ray Miller, Evergreen Press, Oceanside.)

Every period looks back on some other period as a "golden age." In ancient Rome, it was ancient Greece. In the 18th Century, it was ancient Greece and Rome. In the late 19th Century, it was the 18th Century; such poets as Austin Dobson wrote verses about painted fans and sedan chairs. To Lord Kinross, born in 1905, it was the high Victorian age, with its security, its British imperialism and its clutter of wax fruit and stuffed birds under glass domes.

In the early 1960s, it was the late 19th Century of art nouveau ; in the late 1960s, it was the 1920s and '30s of Art Deco. And now, it seems, it is the 1950s. Each period not only looks back nostalgically to its chosen "golden age" but it also makes some attempts to re-create it. And these attempts never quite succeed. Pastiche turns into parody. The imitating age cannot help superimposing some of its own Zeitgeist on the imitated; so an early 1970s shop in Deco style, such as Biba's in London, was instantly recognizable as a clever fake if you had seen the real thing--for example, our own glorious Bullocks Wilshire store, the best-preserved Art Deco building in Los Angeles.

Horn's book shows the transmuting process at work as designers and crafts persons do their best to reanimate 1950s motifs--boomerang shapes, Jackson Pollock splatter patterns, sputnik and flying-saucer emblems, bobbles on the ends of chair legs that resemble models of molecular structure. Something is not quite right. In aping the past, the designers have made monkeys of themselves.

The book suggests to me this question: When are contemporary designers going to stop reviving the earlier decades of this century and start devising a new style for this decade? If they don't achieve that soon, what is going to be left to revive by the year 2000?

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