Monday, August 23, 2010

Star Trek and Sixties Design, #19: Easier Living

For more on Star Trek & design, see my Starship & Museum posts, taking off on wondering why the Enterprise looks like the Guggenheim Museum.

LEFT: Mary & Russel Wright's (1904–1976) influential book Guide to Easier Living (links to RW Center), 1950: "our main thesis here is that formality is not necessary for beauty."

What's the point of well designed technologies from phones to dishware?

Margaret suggests it frees us from inconvenience, but points out that "Real Life is the ultimate inconvenience"--one day will we never have to get up off the couch for anything? And so, won't?

Another bit of Star Trek's--and some mid-century designers'--optimism lies in their belief that if technology frees us from petty inconveniences, we will leap off that couch and use our energies for bigger and better things.
I'm not sure if this is an accurate view of human nature or not...
BELOW: Russel Wright's "Residential" line was the first successful Melmac plastic dinnerware. The line won the Museum of Modern Art Good Design Award in 1953: "designed both for usefulness and good looks.” It remained popular for years after.
Is that plate Captain Kirk holds, below, in "The Trouble with Tribbles" a 23rd-century descendent of Residential ware?

In the 1930s and 1940s, Russel Wright also popularized household goods made from spun aluminum, a material that people had been slow to accept for home use.
BELOW: a scene from "Amok Time," and Russel Wright's spun aluminum cheese server.

As always, Star Trek screencaps from


ArtSparker said...

I read a reference to Monty Python's "Comfy chair" somewhere earlier, reminded me that I have carried it in mind for years as something I want to work with...cause the ultimate ease, or comfort, means never having to move again, if you catch my drift.

We had family friends who had aluminum tumblers, I was imprinted with the dark green one as one of the most beautiful objects I would ever see. Your post brought it back, the green aluminum tumbler of my youth.

Fresca said...

Oh, yeah!
I'd forgotten those aluminum drinking glasses of childhood!
We didn't have them, but some neighbors did.
They felt funny against your lips... and I seem to remember they imparted a metalic taste, though maybe it was just their odor?
This really is the stuff of memory.

The Crow said...

ArtSparker beat me to the aluminum tumblers. My favorites were the aqua one and the deep blue one.

Kool-Aid never tasted quite as good from any other container - and it might just be because of the aluminum.

( I'm homesick for banana sandwiches and cherry Kool-aid. I can manage the sandwich, but I don't have any cherry kool-aid, just gingerale.)

Anonymous said...

Hell's bells! NO WONDER there were so many folks reporting UFO sightings in the 50s 'n' 60s--EVERYTHING looked like it could fly! Makes me wanna rephrase Lewis Carroll a teeny bit: "Twinkle, twinkle, little bat. How I wonder where you're at. Up above the world so high, like a FLW spun aluminum[/aluminium] cheese server in the sky!!
Yeah! I remember other families having those aluminum tumblers in intriguing metallic hues, and drinking ice cold Kool-aid out of 'em--along with Peter Pan peanut butter on sliced white; our family had hideously dull plastic or glass ones that were not appealing or intriguing. (We were also an anti Kool-aid and soda household, except for "seltzer" and we could have 7up or ginger ale when we were sick). Sadly, the old Melmac daily ware my folks'd had since before my '57 birth, was a pallid, sickening, vaguely beige-ish grey that made anything upon it look unappealing. And the design was similar to, but not as graceful as the one in your post. Fortunately, my mom had a great sense of art and design and had ensured that her "company" dishes were an earthy but light-looking design by Poppy Trail, in a freckled off-white with some earthy grey and brown-black ornamentation. Pretty sure my mom was the reason there was pretty and visually stimulating stuff in our homes; if she had a hand in the requesting or choosing what was given to them as wedding gifts, or if she bought it herself the stuff looked elegant or cool; if not, it was drab. You got me remembering again; thank you!

Anonymous said...

Not to obsess, but, if it's of interest to anyone, that Poppytrail design was called "Aztec" and was not overly popular in its time. I just googled and found it. Another blogger says the design work was n more of a grey-blue, which is odd, cuz my Piscean self should have picked up on that aspect of the spectrum..but, I recall it as a grey-brown...Hmmm... anyway, the design is earthily, utilitarianly, womanistically, FirstPeoples-ish, hint of Scando-ethnicish, space-agey. And each piece felt good and very present in the hands, with that hint of being able to soar up into the ether, despite its heft.

ArtSparker said...

By the way, I think the family group pictured may be on drugs...

Fresca said...

CROW: Kool-Aid and aluminum: that *is* better living through chemistry!

STEF: Amazing the memories that reside in dishware, eh? Thanks for your memories.

We never got to eat "junk" at home either when I was a kid--I've made up for it big time as an adult.

ARTS: I think it's alcohol and tobacco they are grooving on, for sure.

Lill said...

This is a fun exploration, Fresca.

My teacher's mind is concerned that your thesis may be too broad and thus you may become lost in the volume of material. If design and Star Trek is what you're talking about, how about restricting the inquiry to the possible roots/relationship of Star Trek objects/Enterprise to their possible inspirations?

Otherwise, you've got one heck of a lot of history of design to cover.

BTW, that Residential Melmac is sexy as all get-out! Kissing lips and sensuous curves everywhere.

femminismo said...

Kool-Aid (you know you're a copy editor when you check to see if both words are capped and there's a hyphen) in the blue, scratched aluminum tumbler was the best. I remember when my grandmother served the drink from these and she wanted to buy one of those pitchers with the Kool-Aid "face" drawn on it. I had to tell her I didn't think they sold them. (Not yet, anyway, but millions of them probably appeared at dime stores later on. And thanks! I've never seen a tribble up close like that! What a thrill. And ... one last thought, your posts are always far flung and that's why they're so much fun.

Merisi said...

" ... one day will we never have to get up off the couch for anything ..."

People wish for the strangest things! *giggles*

Interesting observations, though, I love what you are doing!

Manfred Allseasons said...

A furniture designer once told me that the purpose of design was to create something that was fit for its stated purpose and would also 'please us'. He seemed quite bonkers, actually....good furniture though.

deanna said...

I've been taking in your past few posts, with Daleks and Kirk's bed and Valentine doggy and the future (it's definitely here, except for flying cars). And these next thoughts about design. I'm fascinated by this end-of-modern era thinking, that technology would make us better (Star Trek's, or Roddenberry's, hope, as you've said and/or implied). Now the maturing post-modern young people I know want the organic design, the flaws, while at the same time uber-technology is like air to them. Maybe you're thinking about this some, too, as you decide regarding the social connections book idea for students.

Margaret said...

Something so satisfyingly American about those dishes.

momo said...

Have you seen the Pixar movie Wall-E? The people who have left earth are like the people who never get up off the couch...

Fresca said...

LiLL: Sexy Melmac--I like that!
Thanks for your concern I might get lost, but no worries:
It's not possible to get lost if you're not going anywhere
...and have the rest of your life to get there. : )
(Were you thinking of me narrowing the topic down for a book, maybe? That's just a possibility, not a hard and fast goal of mine, at this point.)

FEMMNSMO: At a Mardi Gras party last night, I mentioned those aluminum tumblers, and everyone my age has a vivid memory of them--their colors, texture, and the way they conducted cold.
There's an example of a successful product--except no one uses them anymore (not sure why--health concerns?).

Thanks, MERISIS! I'm having fun doing it.

MANFRED: That's a good definition--thanks. I've thought so little about design, everything anyone says is a revelation to me--ignorance is a fun stage to be at (for a while).

DEANNA: I too see people wanting a return to the organic--all the interest in knitting, for instance--and it all goes well with the Internet too--knitting blogs, etc.
Yes, and wanting the flaws too---did you know Whedon instructed the CGI folks to make it look as if the Firefly spaceship in flight was filmed with a hand-held camera sometimes?!
Funny old world.

MARGARET: I often wonder what it is and what it means to be American. These dishes certainly are that!

MOMO: Yes! WALL-E is one of my favorite movies!
bink had also suggested those darling immobile fatties as a perfect example of one of the things we might could become.

Fresca said...

STEF: Rereading your comment, this line popped out at me:
"And each piece felt good and very present in the hands, with that hint of being able to soar up into the ether, despite its heft."

I think that's part of what the Guggenheim's design hints at too---that it could actually soar up, despite its heft.
Good one.

The Crow said...

I just tumbled to a connection I'd not made before, but probably most everyone else has already: both Frank Lloyd Wright and the Starship Enterprise were 'boldly going (in design and the ever expanding universe, respectively) where no man has/had gone before.'

Wright's designs were met with skepticism, disdain and even ridicule because they were so radical, so otherworldly. Star Trek did the same thing, with its mixed bag of people and humanoids, at a time we in America still weren't sure of who we were vis-avis civil rights, and still wary of our 'not-us' neighbors - not to mention the exciting/terrifying far reaches of unexplored space.

Hmmm...this made a lot more sense 5 minutes ago when the thought first crossed my mind.

Fresca said...

Thanks, CROW! Once you say it, it seems obvious, but actually I hadn't made that "where no man has gone before" connection.

Sometimes I (we) may forget that the design stuff we take for granted now was once radical... and, as you say, not always welcomed.

I have to stretch my brain to try to imagine where technology was when Star Trek first came out: no one had been to the moon yet, for instance--and wouldn't go for three more years.
And a neighbor of ours still had a party-line telephone at that time.
Seemd long ago and far away... but it's not really.