Things of Beauty: The Politics of Postmillennial Nostalgia for Mid-century Design

Things of Beauty: The Politics of Postmillennial Nostalgia for Mid-century Design

Rachele Dini

A young woman takes stock of her living room, whose shabby furnishings have not been updated in decades. To the tune of Gillian Hills’s 1963 hit, “Tut Tut Tut,” she gambols around a department store furniture display labelled with the helpful description, “MODERN LIVING.” She sits on the velvet display sofa before returning home, where she takes down Victorian portraits from the walls and brocade curtains from the windows. Ah, and here she comes again, through the doorway, holding fistfuls of shopping bags full of new clothes. The song ends. The woman, now wearing colourful pedal pushers and a form-fitting blouse, and sporting a Jackie Kennedy bob, re-enters the home. The teal mid-century modern sofa from the store display and a teak telephone bench, room divider, and lowboard have replaced the heavy oak furniture. Pale pink wallpaper emblazoned with geometric shapes in puce green and turquoise has replaced the dowdy flowered wallpaper. A Picasso print hangs in the dining area. And, in the kitchen, a Toastmaster toaster, Hamilton Beach milkshake maker, Waring blender, and coral pink Hotpoint refrigerator wink and gleam in the sunlight that streams through the window.

In this four-minute sequence midway through the penultimate episode of Netflix’s mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit (2020), mid-century culture emerges as a character in its own right. Furniture, décor, music, appliances, clothes, and coiffure displace the protagonist, Beth, before the camera cuts her out entirely. All we see are things. And the things are beautiful. I have watched this sequence a dozen times at least. Why? It is not (only) because I am besotted with mid-century modern design. It’s certainly not because I’m invested in this orphan-turned-chess champion’s storyline, which was, on the whole, fairly predictable. Rather, it is because I am intrigued by the sequence’s resemblance to those of so many other mid-century period films and television dramas of the last two decades. Here is a veritable wall of titles: Pleasantville (1998), Blast from the Past (1999), The Virgin Suicides (1999), Girl, Interrupted (1999), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), Down with Love (2003), Bewitched (2005), Revolutionary Road (2007), the remake of Hairspray (2007), Mad Men (2007–2012), A Single Man (2009), The Help (2011), Masters of Sex (2013–2016), Bates Motel (2013–2017), The Astronaut Wives Club (2015), Carol (2015), Aquarius (2015–2016), The Get Down (2016), Hidden Figures (2016), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017–), Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Mrs. America (2020), Blinded By the Light (2019), Ratched (2020), Halston (2021)…. I could go on.

In all of these films and shows there is a moment—sometimes several—when the interior takes centre stage, the characters become an afterthought, and the viewer is invited to imagine themselves in that space, sitting on that sofa, leafing through that magazine, making coffee with that drip maker, and talking on that wall-mounted landline phone, in a move that seems conceived as much to appeal to those in lust with mid-century modern design as it is to advance the plot. In fact, it seems conceived to advance the plot in a way that is calibrated to capitalise on the source of that lust. Because sure, the objects of Queen’s Gambit are there to tell a story about a female character’s quest for self-realization and her discovery of collectivism through her interactions with Soviet chess players. But they are also there because there exists a sizeable audience who is as interested in interiors as they are in the people who live in them. For this audience the mid-century interior in particular has come to represent much more than an aesthetic sensibility or historical era. And for this audience, a character who, in 1967, gets a makeover, redecorates her home in the latest style, and defeats a slew of male competitors in a male-dominated game provides a vehicle for a number of interrelated fantasies.

Stills from The Queen’s Gambit. Note how the voiceover in the last of these shots appears to ironically animate the objects: this emancipated woman won’t need appliances for her struggle.

One of these fantasies is that of access to a quality of life that the economic restructuring of the last four decades has foreclosed for most working-class and, increasingly, middle-class people—and whose accessibility was overblown in the first place, as countless social histories of the period 1940-1975 have shown. The “good life” was never that good, it was never that widespread, and the idea of it most of us have today is based on mediated representations of the period. But in portraying the fashion and interior décor makeovers of specific characters as allegories for self-transformation, the transcendence of personal background, and the advancement of specific identity groups, these dramas reassert the period’s status as an era of utopian possibility. The characters’ downfalls or personal sacrifices (about which more later) do not detract from an overall sense of pullulating potential or, more importantly, from the sense of the past of recent memory as something that can be endlessly rebooted for a new, and different, outcome.

A second, related fantasy to which the mid-century drama plays is the lure of the myth of historical progress as a seamless process defined by changing fashions, interior designs, and colour palettes, rather than by conflict, violence, trauma, and death. The slow-panning shot of a domestic interior following a makeover that brings it up to date for the “modern era” of the 50s, 60s, or 70s offers the fantasy that one might experience the convulsions of historical change and self-transformation as no more than the successive scene changes, costume swaps, and elegantly mixed background music that the period drama genre itself suggests it is. In other words, Beth’s makeover in The Queen’s Gambit is the closest the viewer will get to experiencing what it was like to feel one had “arrived” in the 60s—not only because we can’t go back, but because that feeling of “arrival” is, itself, mythical. Such scenes offer the illusion of frictionless history: the passage of time as a series of beautifully-shot takes, set to music, seeded with hints and signs of the events to come, containing an implicit promise of resolution.

The third fantasy is that of owning the objects themselves. Because I am a scholar of mid-century objects—and specifically of domestic time-saving appliances—this is the fantasy that interests me most. And it is the one that perhaps flies under the radar, since it is, on the face of it, quite a vapid one. But I want to argue that this yearning both for items whose collectability now renders them prohibitively expensive and for reproductions of said items is an important one. A 1940s Hamilton Beach milkshake maker will set you back $300. A 1980s repro—the model launched in 1983 under the caption “Full of Old-Fashioned Flavor!” to capitalise on the previous decade’s nostalgia for mid-century culture—will cost you around $200. And the 1960s model in Queen’s Gambit is priceless, because no one can find one. This is to say two things. Firstly, the thing on Beth’s counter is probably a repro manufactured a decade and a half after (and modelled on an original launched two decades prior to) the period in which the show is set. Secondly, the nostalgia for mid-century objects is older than I am—as documented by the cover stories of the February 19, 1971 and June 16, 1972 issues of LIFE magazine, “Everybody’s Just Wild About Nostalgia,” and “the nifty fifties.” The fact that the magazine shut down six months after the latter seems a rather apt allegory for where nostalgia leads.

The relaunched Hamilton Beach Drinkmaster, launched in 1983, was promoted by Mickey Rooney, to capitalise on the iconicity of the milkshake-drinking scene in Babes on Broadway (1941), in which he starred as a teenager.

In 1982, in a talk that would become Postmodernism: The Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Fredric Jameson diagnosed this “nostalgia mode” as indicating that “for Americans at least the fifties remain the privileged lost object of desire.” Thirty-nine years later (or forty-nine, if we want to go back to the films he was using as examples), and that privileged lost object of desire has become a market in its own right, engendering the perception that one can not only endlessly re-watch the past on screen, but collect it, refurbish it, customise it—and, when one has grown bored with it, sell it on again. This relationship between the object in the mid-century period drama, the past it connotes, and viewer has deep ramifications that warrant scrutinising—particularly when it comes to shows and films with a seemingly progressive agenda. And particularly when that relationship is inextricable from and indeed permeates out towards other relationships between postmillennial subjects, mid-century things (collecting, refurbishing, selling), and their virtual counterparts (sharing, favouriting, liking, pinning, and so on). Put simply, the most salient distinction between the mid-century period drama of the 70s critiqued by Jameson, that of the 80s and 90s for whose critical potential Christine Sprengler provocatively advocates, and that of the twenty-first century is that the latter exists in a broader digital ecosystem. And its objects exist in a system of objects (to use Baudrillard’s concept) that encompasses eBay and Etsy listings for vintage items (and vintage ads for those vintage items), retail sites for “retro”-inspired designs, Pinterest mood boards, Instagram feeds, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, and antiquarian websites, where they exist as commodities, props in the performance of the self, or both. For Baudrillard, consumer goods under Fordism were best understood as participants in an “infinite signifying chain” in which each item reinforced the need for the next associated item, and all reinforced the owner’s status as the owner of objects generally and these objects specifically. Time itself was structured by the production, purchase, use, and disposal of these objects, which, together with instalment payments, became more important markers of its passage than day and night or biological birth and death. The mid-century period drama of the last thirty years, during which Fordist time-keeping has been replaced with the fluidity of an “always on” and “everything everywhere” neoliberal paradigm, commemorates this earlier period even as its objects participate in an “infinite signifying chain” that now encompasses online retail and social media and that operates 24/7. 

The Hamilton Beach milkshake maker that gleams in the kitchen in Queen’s Gambit is best understood as part of this chain. It exists in a dialogue with other mid-century vintage objects and mid-century repros, whose ubiquity and allure enhances the draw of the show, which in turn amplifies the desire for the objects, in an endless feedback loop. And that’s not to mention the more personal meanings audiences ascribe to these objects. For example, the lure of the restored pink #P702PK Western Electric Princess Telephone I ordered this week from a Minnesota-based company that has been restoring vintage telephones since 1999 lies in its restoration to its original beauty, and its connection to a hit television series whose episodes I know by heart, the state where I grew up, and my high school obsession with pink telephones. Granted, this is probably extreme—but, judging by the number of social media threads and hashtags devoted to discussing both the props of popular mid-century period dramas and personal memories of now-obsolete designs, it would appear I am not alone. 

 That feedback loop is partly sustained, I think, by how enjoyable and comforting it is to see mass produced goods we now take for granted, and perhaps know to be bad for us or the environment, when they were still new, exciting, and innocent. How ironic, then, that it is companies with appalling environmental track records, and whose tax evasion and erosion of labour rights are contributing to worsening living conditions for millions of people, that are profiting from this comfort-seeking.  As Jeremy Gilbert noted in 2015, in his oft-quoted piece on popular music and “the long 90s,” the institutions that have most “shaped our everyday lives, our material culture and our mode of interaction” since the early 1990s are “Apple, Google, Facebook, and the venture capitalists who fund and profit from them.” Let’s add Amazon, Etsy, Ebay, and Netflix to that list, shall we? And let’s think about what desires are fed—or further whetted—by the dialogue between the mid-century objects on these different digital platforms.

* * *

I have been thinking about this relationship between the stories we tell about the past and the desires those stories feed for a long time—arguably, ever since my adolescence in the early 1990s. I spent my teen years longing for the 1959 pink Princess Telephone that AT&T relaunched in 1994 (hence the emotional nature of this week’s purchase). I listened, ad nauseum, to the soundtracks of American Graffiti (1973) and Forrest Gump (1994), and I studiously collected the 12 monthly instalments of L’America Del Rock (a series launched by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in 1994 to commemorate the forty-year history of rock music). I spent many an hour, too, leafing through my mother’s Enciclopedia Della Fanciulla—a twelve volume encyclopedia “for the young lady,” each volume comprising thirty-eight issues, which she collected between 1963 and 1965, and whose articles on topics as various as grocery shopping, preserving a sun tan, aprons (!), U.S. national parks, and Ancient Egypt provided a window into what middle-class Italian girls of the early 60s were expected to know. I loved the Enciclopedia’s hand-drawn illustrations, which could have been lifted out of a Coca-Cola ad, and I loved the prescriptivism of the articles, which dictated social mores that my American friends would have found entirely alien, but whose contours I could still detect in Italian culture of the nineties. Where L’America Del Rock’s accounts of the origins of folk, blues, country, and punk made the past feel tangible and knowable, (almost) compensating for the turbulent present of my adolescence, the Enciclopedia’s rigid rules about good conduct, appropriate dress for different occasions, and how to entertain were a reassuring counter to the inscrutable social mores and hierarchy of my American middle school and high school, which seemed ever in flux. My mother loves to tell people how in fifth grade, when my parents announced we would be going back to Tuscany for a year, I wailed, “But Northfield has so much history!” In hindsight, it is obvious to me that the collision between American and Italian culture in both the Enciclopedia and in L’America Del Rock—in the former’s explanations of how “new” American processed foods might be integrated into an Italian diet, for example, or in the latter’s essays on the hippie movement’s influence on Italian folk—spoke to my own confusion about my place at the intersection of two cultures with wildly different understandings of both modernity and history.

The Enciclopedia Della Fanciulla interspersed articles about housework with excerpts from great works of literature and articles on American popular culture. This article from 1965, featuring a still from Babes on Broadway (1941), teaches Italian girls about Mickey Rooney, who would then go on to sponsor the relaunched Hamilton Beach milkshake maker in the 1980s, which you can now buy, on Ebay, for between $200 and $300. You could, if you wanted to, buy this volume of the Enciclopedia on Ebay, too (Author’s own).

The covers of three of the magazines that accompanied each CD/cassette of the series, L’America Del Rock (1994)… which you can now buy on Ebay (Author’s own).

Only in adulthood did I realise that this comfort-seeking was a product of a broader, post-Cold War, retrospective tendency that defined the 1990s as much as anxieties about the Y2K bug or school shootings (which is also to say: I wanted a Signature Princess Telephone because they were as heavily advertised in nineties teen magazines as the original 1959 model was advertised in teen magazines of the sixties). Only in adulthood have I wondered about the wider effects of growing up in a media landscape saturated with nostalgia for a past that never really existed. And how funny it is to discover that the individual CDs, cassettes, and magazines of L’America Del Rock are now collectible. In a superb confirmation of Simon Reynolds’ analysis of post-1990s music’s “addiction to its own past,” this relic of 1990s Italy’s nostalgia for the American past has become a vintage item in its own right. 

(It occurs to me now as I write this that I am confirming so many stereotypes about middle-class white people of my generation. Our coming of age coincided with the explosion of the personal memoir genre—Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation (1994), Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1995), Louis Gates’ Colored People (1995) Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), and Maya Hornbacher’s Wasted (1998). Our first stabs at writing for an audience were college essays in which we narrated our experiences, which we were encouraged to frame as struggles, in five tidy paragraphs followed by a neat conclusion in order to show we had learned from the past. Is an essay about the limits of nostalgia not the natural endpoint for someone like me?)

One of the things I wonder about is the press’s tendency to reduce the popularity of period dramas and mid-century-inspired packaging to a story about people looking for comfort in times of socioeconomic upheaval (9/11; the 2008-2010 global financial crisis; the 2020-2021 lockdown), rather than a tactic straight out of a marketing strategist’s playbook. I wondered this a lot while I myself was working in market research between 2008 and 2012. Marketers in this period confidently proclaimed that nostalgic imagery would help brands weather the economic downturn and that consumers would start sewing and baking again to “make ends meet,” ignoring the fact that baking bread is generally more expensive than buying a supermarket loaf, and that shopping at Primark or Walmart is cheaper than sewing one’s own clothes. The nostalgic sell they were offering was aimed at middle-class people in need of emotional reassurance, not anyone actually financially affected by the recession—just as the past they were selling was, as ever, only ever that experienced by white people. The example marketers used was Quality Street sweets’ successful launch in the UK in the middle of the Great Depression, which they ascribed to its whimsical, Victorian packaging. A more apt example might have been the sudden appearance of “mammy”-like servants in appliance ads of the 1930s, which reassured downwardly-mobile white middle-class consumers that they were still “superior” to someone—and that a new dishwasher was the next best thing to a return to antebellum America. But of course, no postmillennial marketer in their right mind would invoke this example. Some parts of the past make for bad brand optics.

Three ads released in 1936 that evoked different versions of the past to U.S. and UK audiences respectively.

More to the point, those parts of the past that do get enlisted are generally there to elide its other, more inconvenient, aspects. Stella Artois’s rebranding in 2010 exemplifies this tendency. The brand (and its agency, Mother), wasn’t the only one in the 2010s to piggyback on the popularity of Mad Men by instrumentalizing mid-century glamour—but its UK print, outdoor, and television ads, modelled on beer ads of the 1960s and French Nouvelle Vague cinema, were perhaps the most striking example of the re-writing of brand history to disassociate a product from its accrued connotations of working-class life. Here’s one of the TV ads and here’s another, directed by Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola. Oh, and here’s another one, which pays explicit homage to Godard and Truffaut. Simply put, the campaign turned a Belgian cider that consumer research had shown middle-class British people eschewed due to its perceived associations with football “hooligans,” “wife beaters,” and the various other tropes used to justify contempt for the working class, into a bourgeois French drink to sip while holidaying on the French Riviera. No wonder it won awards, including Campaign’s award for Advertiser of the Year: this was a masterclass in divesting an object of unsavoury connotations (Britain’s fraught history of class struggle and the uneven effects of the global financial crisis) and transforming it, to quote the campaign tagline, into “a thing of beauty.”

Mother’s campaign for Stella Artois paid homage to 1960s liquor ads and French Nouvelle Vague cinema, while playing on the longstanding framing of women as objects of desire (the tagline of the TV and cinema ads, “Thing of Beauty,” conflated beer and woman).

Another thing I wonder about is whether it matters that so many middle-class white women of my generation are taken with the aesthetics of a period that was, by all accounts, grim for those who lived through it. This is a point beautifully articulated in Laura Wade’s 2018 play, Home I’m Darling, when the seventy-year-old mother of a woman who has left her job to become a 1950s housewife expostulates, “The fifties were terrible.” Whenever I open Etsy and type the words “pink” and “1950s” into the search engine (because yes, this is something I do), I am reminded of the memorabilia collector Marvin Lundy’s self-diagnosis, in Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997): “this is desperation speaking.” And I can’t help but think how little there is to distinguish either me or Marvin from the women involved in the #tradwife movement, which calls for a return to so-called 1950s values using reactionary rhetoric that more or less implies that Civil Rights, gay rights, and feminism are to blame for Western society’s various ills.

In Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling (2018), the protagonist attempts to recreate the 1950s in her own home, with devastating results.

Finally, I wonder about the affinities between these different instrumentalizations of the past by marketers and journalists, by the most extreme of the #tradwives, and by postmillennial mid-century period dramas with seemingly progressive agendas. The umbrella term I use for this shared tendency—postmillennial nostalgia—is intended to highlight the commonalities between these different “uses” of the past, which to my mind spring from the same crisis or series of crises. And it intentionally carries echoes of another expression: “postcolonial melancholia,” a term Paul Gilroy coined in 2002 to articulate Britain’s nationalistic response to 9/11, using two post-war German psychoanalysts’ explanation of the German public’s melancholic response to Hitler’s death (89). For Britain’s “privileged lost object of desire,” to use Jameson’s expression, is not the 1950s but the Second World War—the obsessive recounting of whose history, Gilroy notes, is a response to “‘the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence’” (99). It is a form of neurosis suggestive of the nation’s “desire to find a way back to the point where the national culture […] was, irrespective of the suffering involved in the conflict, both comprehensible and habitable” (89). This would certainly explain the popularity of The Great British Bake Off and its star, the KitchenAid mixer, not to mention bunting, fairy cakes, Cath Kidston, Poppy-themed bric-a-brac, the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, the sudden ubiquity, sometime in the early 2000s, of Union Jack-patterned scatter cushions and throws, and the renewed popularity of Laura Ashley’s floral printed pioneer dresses (which first gained popularity in the early 1970s thanks, ironically, to the costumes worn by the housewives in Brian Forbes’ adaptation of The Stepford Wives, to my mind the best account of 1970s white conservative America’s desire to roll back the clock).

Promotional Image from Brian Forbes’ 1975 adaptation of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1973), which imagines the logical endpoint of 1970s Conservative white America’s desire to undo the gains of second-wave feminism and Civil Rights.

Of course, that the postmillennial fantasy for mid-century culture is a white middle-class fantasy rarely gets acknowledged in the press—nor does the fact that interpreting the popularity of mid-century design as reflecting a desire to return to “simpler times” only makes sense when one ignores the experiences of minorities, for whom the period 1940-1975 was anything but idyllic. In Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity (2013), Emily Matchar ascribes her and my generation’s love of home baking, vintage KitchenAids, and rejection of “all-out careerism” to the mounting pressures of professional employment and lack of affordable childcare. But such an analysis doesn’t quite apply to those twenty- and thirty-something-year-old women who have underpaid, precarious jobs rather than high-pressure “careers,” and for whom purchasing a vintage KitchenAid is not exactly an option. Likewise, the claim in a 2019 article in The Atlantic that millennials who can’t afford to get on the property ladder are buying Le Creuset pots as surrogates for the houses that their grandparents were able to afford straight out of university is premised on the experiences of one demographic. Such narratives contribute to the mystification of the past and the obscuration of anyone not WASP. And the thing is, people believe them. One has only to look at the claims of those Sirin Kale interviewed for a Guardian article about the most militant of mid-century enthusiasts, who, like the protagonist of Home, I’m Darling, have turned their homes into “portals into the past.” For one of these, living by “30s values” is a way to reject the selfishness and rudeness of twenty-first century life and “be polite, and nice to folk, and help them as much as you can”—a rather striking summary of the decade that saw the rise of the Nazi party and Italian fascism, but there we are. For another, the 1940s was a time when “things were simple and modest” and “it felt like everyone was in it together.” One wonders what the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would make of that statement—or, indeed, Jewish people.

From this perspective, to scrutinise the aesthetics of Etsy shops selling Cold War memorabilia, the rise of “heritage” product lines and branding, or the relationship between the mid-century modern drama and the various product marketing campaigns calibrated to make money from the “mood states” of the genre’s viewers, is anything but vapid. The aestheticization and instrumentalization of the past on the basis of the public’s perception of it as a cultural tipping point should be of concern to all of us invested in creating a more equitable future.

* * *

For Freud, the “compulsion to repeat” signified an effort to revisit a traumatic event. It’s not difficult to deduce what traumas we are re-enacting in our endless rebooting of the period 1940-1975—or in our endless rebooting of reboots. In an interview to promote his and Amy Jump’s cinematic adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley justified the film’s setting in the 1970s with the comment that the decade was “the last moment where there was an optimism, a belief in a future.” What Wheatley might have added was that while this belief skewed white, it was shared by both the Left and the Right, and on both sides of the Atlantic. Carter, Reagan, and Thatcher’s union-busting, the outsourcing of manufacturing abroad, growing anxieties about the environmental toll of the previous decades of unprecedented growth, and, of course, a decade of recession put paid to the Leftist fantasy of equality for all. The gains made by second-wave feminists and by Civil Rights and gay activists—not to mention the shame of decolonisation and the botched Vietnam War—threatened the Conservative fantasies of those in thrall to Eisenhower and Churchill’s visions of imperial domination. The period 1940-1975 is a primal scene for Leftists and Conservatives alike. What is more difficult to parse is the logical endpoint of this compulsive return. Does it end in a spectacular conflagration, a kind of period drama to end all period dramas, in which the greatest icons of mid-century design end up on a funeral pyre together with silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe, JFK, and Charles Manson—in other words, a digital, 8-part Ballardian Atrocity Exhibition (1970) for the 2020s? Or is the logical outcome a cross between Amazon X-Ray and As Seen On Screen—an immersive period drama that allows viewers to purchase mid-century objets as they appear on camera, forever and ever, until they die?

In the final chapter of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982), Marshall Berman criticised those memoirists of the 1970s such as Alex Haley and Gerald Green who, in his estimation, “present extravagantly idealized versions of the familial and ethnic past, in which ancestors are beautiful, noble, and heroic, and all pain and hate and trouble spring from groups of oppressors ‘outside.’” He accused Roots (1976) and The Holocaust (1978) of merely reinforcing the tropes of family romance, an approach he contrasted with that of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior: A Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), which he praised for its recognition of individual and collective memory’s reliance on myths and ghosts (334). These criticisms haven’t aged particularly well. Their foundational premise—that history is subjective and the very concept of American progress a myth too long weaponized by those in power—spectacularly misses the obvious point that it is one thing for those whose family tree has been memorialised, and whose communities’ stories have long been recorded in the history books, to challenge claims of historical accuracy. It is quite another to be descended from a people whose only recorded histories exist in accounting books and contracts that measure their value as commodities.

To look for “roots” in this context is not to express naïve faith in the historian’s capacity to lay out objective truth or to assume that the past can be grasped and fixed into place. It is, rather, to assert the right of those treated variously as human capital, inferior beings, and inconvenient challenges to the myth of American freedom to have their stories recorded in the first place. Berman’s criticisms are applicable, however, to the mid-century period drama of the last few decades, which does indeed variously wallow in and sensationalise historical progress in ways that effectively neutralise, no, domesticate radicalism even as it claims to espouse it. This fascinates me. Having scoured through hundreds if not thousands of pastoral depictions of white women performing their love of home, family, nation, hygiene, health, and efficiency while Remaining True To Everything America Stands For, I’ve found it intensely disorientating to notice these images reflected and refracted in postmillennial media. 

(It is a strange sensation, to find one’s self surrounded by imitations and echoes of the thing one studies. It is stranger still to realise that, thanks to the dual combination of the exponential rise of online retail and nearly a year of lockdown, one could, if one wanted, pretend the present didn’t exist at all. What would prevent a researcher from shopping online for vintage stuff from the 50s and watching 50s period dramas whenever they’re not writing or lecturing about the decade? One answer is: Nothing. Another answer is: the commission of this article.)

Again and again (and again), the mid-century period drama takes us back to 1940-1975, where it presents us with domestic, retail, and office interiors juxtaposed with the complex inner lives of characters who would have had a mere handful of lines had the show or film been made in the period in which they were set. Here! They tell us. We are setting the record straight! These are the characters they couldn’t include in Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), itself a conservative fantasy of life before Brown v. Board of Education, or Donna Reed (1958-1966). This is what might have happened if Julia (1968-1971)—the first U.S. sitcom to star a Black woman, and a single mother at that—had been extended for a third season, and if Lucy and Ethel in I Love Lucy (1951-1957) and Lucy and Vivian in The Lucy Show (1962-1968) had been lovers.

But look how the mid-century drama domesticates the struggle for equality. Cinematography, set design, soundtrack, dialogue, and closing credits conspire to create a sense of pastness that serves to at once reinforce the liberal narrative that We Have Come So Far And Things Are Different Now and to make connections between the past and the present in a manner that will reassure the viewer that Things Will Get Better, while erasing the violence and toil that the struggle for rights entails. In the season two premiere of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2018), the fraught history of trans rights is turned into a source of personal self-discovery for an upper-class white woman, as the titular Mrs. Maisel realises that the struggles of the drag queens whose act preceded hers are the “same” as her struggle to gain recognition as a comedian. In The Help (2007), the complex history of Black domestic workers’ fight for better working conditions via carefully coordinated labour union organizing is replaced with a story about a middle-class white woman who teaches her mother’s generation that Times Have Changed. In Mad Men (2007-2015), the history of Black Americans’ efforts to be recognised as a consumer demographic in their own right, worthy of more sophisticated messaging than “White People Like This So You Should Too,” to be portrayed as more than just ancillaries to white subjects—movingly documented in such books as Robert E. Weems’ De-Segregating the Dollar and Jason Chambers’ Madison Avenue and the Color Line—is entirely erased. In place of any reference to the Black-owned advertising agencies and consultancies on Black purchasing habits founded as early as the 1950s, the show presents the story of a Black secretary who gets promoted to office manager. In this way, the mid-century period drama reassures audiences that We Are Now Giving Voice to Minorities, Too—even as it recasts those stories as marginal at best. Perhaps most insidiously, these works conflate the amenability of the past to interpretation with the possibility of changing it—of retrospectively redressing inequality by creating stories about minority characters.

A still from the premiere of Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2018), where Mrs. Maisel equates her “struggle” as an upper-class white woman trying to break into the comedy scene with that of trans folk.

Teyonah Harris as Dawn Chambers, the secretary who becomes Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce’s office manager against all the odds. The occlusion of Black people who by the 1960s were founding their own agencies, as well as increasingly working as copywriters, creatives, and consultants for white-owned agencies, is one of the show’s most disappointing missed opportunities.

And it should give us pause that these stories continue to be told by non-minorities, that they often reinforce the same stereotypes they claim to debunk, and that they filter the experience of minorities through a white heterosexual middle class lens, effectively laundering the experience of minorities of the past to create content for majority audiences of the present. Another word for this is co-option. Here I am thinking in particular of the recent spate of period films and dramas that on the face of it—and by this I mean in their marketing—appear to elevate LGBTQ+ stories and “embrace” diverse forms of sexual expression, while effectively moralising against those same forms. The 2019 biopic of Freddie Mercury is the most notable instance of this—as a number of critics noted with dismay, it effectively turned the singer’s story into a fable about the perils of hanging out with the wrong crowd, i.e. the queer community. But the tendency is noticeable across the mid-century period genre. In Ryan Murphy’s television biopic, Halston (2021), the source of the eponymous fashion designer’s demise is chemsex and an open relationship with a fictitious gay sex worker who knowingly infects him with HIV. Halston’s actual long-term partner, a retail display designer, appears as a short-term fling played by a Black actor who gets a mere handful of lines. In Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), Richard E. Grant’s gay character, Jack, laughs off his diagnosis with HIV as fitting, given he has slept with most of New York City. In these narratives, chemsex and open relationships are framed as contributing to a character’s undoing, and help render homosexuality itself a source of pity, rather than integral components of a life unconstrained by heteronormative values and indeed intent on demolishing them. Far from recuperating marginalised voices, they cleanse them of their radicalism and replace it with cliché—that history is linear and inherently progressive, that we know better than the people of previous eras, that our vocabulary and soundbites are inherently superior to those used by the subcultures of previous generations, never mind that they stand out as anachronisms when used by characters in period dramas depicting them. 

There is a wink wink, nudge nudge dimension to period television and film, in other words, that seems explicitly intended to reassure postmillennial viewers of the superiority of their own politics, while appeasing their frankly justifiable anxieties about the future. To postmillennial liberals’ sneaking suspicion that the liberalism espoused by Clinton, Blair, et al. might have failed, such dramas offer a dubious palliative: “In two decades’ time, your era, too, will be aestheticized. And your grandchildren will be congratulating themselves on how far they’ve come from where you are now.” It is a false logic, however. Firstly, because it doesn’t follow that viewers will still have an appetite for retro-introspection in two decades’ time (although granted, if current trends are anything to go by, perhaps they will). But secondly and most importantly, because the majority of period dramas produced over the last four or five decades have all been set in the 1950s. Yes, the 70s, 80s, and 90s have all had their moment in the spotlight, generally 20 years after each decade began. Judging by my students’ outfits these days, the period 1997 to 2002 is back. But by and large, these revivals remain outnumbered by endless visions and revisions of the 50s. Are we really going to see our era memorialised in twenty years’ time (or, more likely, a version of our era palatable to future audiences), or is the next generation of content creators going to go back and tell another version of the same past on which my generation, and now my students’ generation, was/is being raised? (And Oh God. Will my generation’s grandkids assume that we lived through the 50s…?)

We should be asking ourselves what kind of past we are looking for when we watch these dramas—and what kind of hunger their creators think they are satiating. We should be wondering about the data, insight, and motivations driving the decisions to create this content in the first place—which is to say, both what viewers “want from” or “want out of” the past, the ramifications of giving it to them, and the ramifications, more broadly, of treating the past as a toggle option or Instagram filter. We should be questioning, too, the mid-century drama’s conflation of the gains in equality made over the period 1940-1975 with the accelerationist culture that accompanied them. It shouldn’t need to be said, and yet here we are: de-segregation, abortion rights, and the banning of DDT might have occurred at the same time that advertisers started encouraging American households to redecorate their kitchens on an annual basis and that shag carpeting became de rigeur (and corporations certainly coopted specific struggles as well as the language of emancipation to sell more stuff), but these changes operated in different spheres. And isn’t it interesting, too, how the objects of the mid-century period drama normalise the fast pace at which new fashions and technologies become outré—a pace that this period ushered in, and that environmentalists and critics of capitalists have long been urging us to reconsider? Shouldn’t we not just be challenging the conflation of progress with a new fashion season, but the very concept of fashion seasons?

* * *

Svetlana Boym famously defined “nostalgia” as “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” I think about this often—in relation to the home in the United States that my family left, twenty-one years ago, to move to the UK, and to the university campus where my mother taught when I was kid, and which my siblings and I treated as a playground, having no knowledge of how rarefied such places were, or that by the 2020s so many would face uncertain futures, or have already closed. I think about the fact that yes, my taste for teak sideboards, melamine coffee cups, Pyrex casserole dishes, and 1950s Sunbeam Mixmasters is a response to a consumer landscape saturated with mid-century imagery. But it is also an expression of longing for a stability and sense of belonging that our family, as Italian expats in the American Midwest, Dublin, and London, never quite had, and for the opportunity to see my parents as children in 1960s Tuscany. And I think about the fact that the end-of-millennial nostalgia that fuelled my adolescence, and the postmillennial nostalgia that surrounds us now, both seem to prey on that desire for an anchor.

Granted, there are worse things than a teenage desire for a pink mid-century telephone. There are also worse things than the mid-century repro ubiquitous to the domestic interiors of female-driven postmillennial dramas set in the present day. But there is something peculiar about seeing Strong Female Leads (as Netflix used to categorise shows featuring female protagonists) living in homes decorated in a style that was in fashion when few women were employed in jobs beyond secretarial work, teaching, factory work, and domestic service. The impression is of an attempt to go back and “fix” the past in an endless recursiveness. Was I the only one who did a double take, while watching season 6 of Line of Duty, when it turned out Kelly MacDonald’s flat looked straight out of a catalogue for mid-century modern repros? The woman owns a SMEG—the brand whose launch in 1997 of its now iconic retro refrigerator ushered in the cult of the mid-century appliance. The shots of her in her home appear modelled on a Hopper painting. What is this show doing, depicting this alienated white woman haunted by her parents’ past, while living amongst imitations of the middle-class symbols her parents couldn’t afford? Is this irony—or is it just realism, reflecting the fact that this is what the homes of most single white middle class women her age look like?

The domestic scenes in Line of Duty Season 6 appear modelled on mid-century ads – or on the catalogues of contemporary furniture brands specialising in mid-century repros.

More importantly, it doesn’t take much to see where this kind of longing leads, or that on a larger and long-term scale (to misquote DeLillo), the yearning for a decade that, by definition, grows further and further away with each passing year, might have consequences. That perhaps a culture devoted to endlessly commemorating the past, recent or otherwise, inevitably forecloses new forms of expression. And that it is a sign of cultural impoverishment when the interiors of shows and films set in the present day resemble those of three quarters of a century ago—be it as intentional intertextual nods, or because that style has become a default aesthetic. 

I have no firm solutions or answers to these thoughts and questions. 

I write critically about nostalgia because it holds me in its jaws. 

I write this, in the faint hope that from critique there might emerge action—the glint, the suggestion, of how the impassioned longing for the past might be repurposed and used to more meaningful ends. And that the beautiful things that crowd out my vision, and perhaps yours, too, might give way to other sights, other possibilities.

That hope isn’t unfounded. Last spring, I devoured Lucy Ellmann’s novel, Ducks, Newburyport (2019) in the space of a few days, propelled by the sense that I was encountering an authentic articulation of what it is to be nostalgic (and white and middle class) in the twenty-first century—to have endless images of the past at one’s disposal, endless ways of connecting with others via various technologies and media, and to still be confronted with the impossibility of going back, and paralysis in the face of what is yet to come. Ellmann’s 1,000-page, meandering sentence unearths memory upon memory upon memory in a relentless quest both for meaning and a way back to the present. This seems, to me, an exquisite counter to the slick patina of the mid-century period drama—no less given the novel’s myriad references to the actual films and television shows that came out of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Where the mid-century drama mollifies, Ducks, Newburyport’s percussive thrumming back and forth between past and the as-yet-to-be requires a muscular, active, attention. It is replete with things of beauty—including a Candy Apple Red KitchenAid that gets mentioned a dozen or more times—but it is also replete with considerations of the violence and exploitation that things of beauty are so often enlisted to obscure.

Another example of the kind of radical beauty that I’d like to see—what we might call postmillennial nostalgia with a political conscience—is Michael McMillan’s permanent exhibit, A Front Room in 1970, at the newly reopened Museum of the Home (formerly the Geffrye Museum). McMillan, whose West Indian Front Room (2005-2006) was the Museum’s most popular exhibit to date, has curated a 1970s room set for its updated “Rooms Through Time” series. The viewer is confronted by a sea of oranges, yellows, and browns before each object comes into focus. Two Black dolls on the settee. A cluster of portraits of Black people on the walls. A touch here and a touch there and it emerges that 1970s Britain is being represented by the aesthetic sensibility of a population historically relegated to the margins—an aesthetic sensibility that both shares and subverts the characteristics of the dominant mode of the 1970s. Taking in this piece is a moving experience (I’m not sure that “seeing” really encapsulates the fullness of what it entails). For my part, I was confronted by my own white gaze: I didn’t notice the Black dolls, or the Black portraits, or the Afro-Caribbean touches, for several minutes, seeing only “The 70s” in the Jamesonian sense, an aesthetic mode created retrospectively, rather than a portrait of embodied memory.

Michael McMillan’s A Front Room in 1970 at the Museum of the Home presents the home of a Black British family of Afro-Caribbean descent as a snapshot of British domestic life of the 1970s.

It was only through closer observation that I made the leap from “Objects I Peruse On Etsy” and “embodiment of British nostalgia” to what the piece was actually doing—namely, complicating the tendencies I’ve been describing by allowing Black viewers to see their history universalised for once, and confronting white viewers with the feeling of having someone else’s past thrust upon them. The fact that I didn’t even notice this at first is a lesson in how strong the white gaze is. So accustomed to seeing whiteness represented, it will see it even when it isn’t there. The response of another (white) woman, who challenged McMillan as to whether this was an “English 70s sitting room” or an “Afro-Caribbean 70s sitting room” was similarly telling, for rather different reasons, highlighting the enduring tendency to exclude people of Afro-Caribbean descent from the category of “authentic Englishness” (he replied, among other things, that all the pieces were bought in Britain). Both of our responses confirm, to my mind, the necessity of both a more complex, pluralistic nostalgia and a more complex, pluralistic theory of nostalgia. And they especially highlight the urgent necessity of rendering visible the nostalgia of young Black people who, as McMillan told me, are hungry to know more about their recent past, which they don’t see represented in popular media, and which the UK has done a very good job of erasing. Here! McMillan’s exhibit tells us. Feast your eyes on the 70s in all of its complexity. Look at the white Jesus on the wall next to a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. Look at a living room whose inhabitants lived in the shadow of the National Front. Look at an aesthetic that has shaped later generations. Look at the stories that teem here, that Black curators and artists and writers are telling—and that the broader public would do well to acknowledge as integral to our shared history.

As I aimlessly scroll through photo after photo of melamine plates, Bakelite cups, and teak bowls, I am sustained by the knowledge that there are artists and writers out there—not content creators, not advertisers, not brand strategists, but actual artists and writers—creating a vocabulary and a form for expressing both a yearning for the past, and a way to transcend it.

Rachele Dini is Senior Lecturer in English and American Literature at the University of Roehampton. Her work lies at the intersection of waste studies, domestic space studies, and advertising history. She is the author of Consumerism, Waste, and Re-use in Twentieth-century Fiction: Legacies of the Avant-Garde (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and All-Electric” Narratives: Time-Saving Appliances and Domesticity in American Literature, 1945-2020 (Bloomsbury 2021), the editor of Queer Waste and Feminist Excretions: New Directions in Literary and Cultural Waste Studies (SUNY Press, 2022), and the founder of the International Literary Waste Studies Network. Her current book project, Postmillennial Nostalgia, examines the legacy of mid-century design in contemporary culture. Prior to becoming an academic, she worked for nearly a decade in market research and advertising. Find her on Twitter @racheledini1.

Transparency Statement

This essay was a referred commission, edited by Sabrina Mittermeier. The author and editor had no prior relation.

2 thoughts on “Things of Beauty: The Politics of Postmillennial Nostalgia for Mid-century Design

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