Toyota And Chrysler Try Retro Transit Glamour: Guess Who Fails

How do you sell a bland car with a tarnished brand name? Wrap it in retro glamour, with some Mad Men style. (The young people love Mad Men.)

Instead of showing old cars, which would look jarringly different from today's styles, Toyota's Avalon commercials cleverly play with the old-fashioned glamour of streamlined trains and Jet Set-era airplanes, all done with a wink to update the attitude for the 21st century. The Avalon still looks bland, but the commercials do make the car seem roomy and, most important, its occupants seem fun.

Chrysler, by contrast, offers a study in how not to use retro glamour. Here's the text, run sideways along four pages of muddy photos whose Manhattan skyline and pretty people are supposed to spell glamour.

Chrysler ad 1 Whatever happened to style?
Where has the glamour gone?
It wasn't long ago, America had it.
Looking and feeling like a million bucks
was practically our birthright
We didn't race from place to place.
We cruised.
Going for a drive was a big deal.
People took notice.
We turned heads.
and when we arrived somewhere
At Chrysler we believe it's time to get it back.
To regain the style, the cachet, the confidence.
We say it's time to reignite the American dream.
And the same design principles that got us there once will catapult us there again.
Our aim is to design things that start out revolutionary and end up timeless.
Beautiful and functional.
It's time to put our right hand at two o'clock and our left elbow out the window.
To rediscover what it feels like to drive down the street and have every kid in the neighborhood running to take a closer look.
Let's turn driveways into runways.
Let's design cars people want to make out in again.
Cars people want their photo taken with.
Because pride is a wonderful feeling
And it should be available to everyone not just the privileged few.
It's time, once again, for America to arrive in style.

As an internal design mandate, this statement might work. But as an ad it's all telling rather than showing, with a bathetic result. After the buildup, what do we get? An ugly Chrysler grill. The voice, while striving for glamour, comes off as crotchety and backward-looking. Chrysler, it declares, makes cars for the Get Off My Lawn crowd, the people who believe America peaked in 1955. No glamour there. (Besides, the Get Off My Lawn crowd wants its money back.)

Chrysler ad 2 Chrysler ad 3

Chrysler ad 4

Vienna As Fashion Muse? Projections Of Splendor

LV04smShown at the Paris Fashion week last Thursday, the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2010 Menswear Collection immediately caught my eye. Not because I am particularly fond of Vuitton (like too many other fashion houses, it has fallen prey to the Plague of Excessive Logos), but rather because of the references to Vienna.

Dominated by narrow-waisted suits, crisp riding boots and structured bags, the collection is described as having been inspired by Vienna's Age of Splendor, and by the Vienna of today. As Vienna has been my home on and off for the past several years, I could not help but ruminate on my own impressions of the city's style, and on the implications of its new status as Fashion Muse.

Over the course of my life in Vienna, I have continuously struggled with how I relate to it. On some level, it has become deeply familiar and even quite mundane, while on another level it has remained a romantic hallucination. In many ways, Vienna is a continental European city like many others – rich in heritage but dynamic in contemporary culture. The streets are full of young trendy people, the museums offer impressive lineups of cutting-edge international artists, the UN Headquarters looms large, and no matter where you are, you can be certain that a Starbucks or an H&M is not terribly far off. And yet, Vienna is not quite of this time. The spirit of the Austro-Hungarian Empire remains present, its rigid, explosive splendor running through the city like a rogue undercurrent.


Experiencing Vienna in this manner is like having persistent double vision, or perhaps even triple vision – whereby reality, history and historical fiction co-exist and struggle for domination over the cultural landscape.

Vienna_Architecture3When I ask myself why this is so, one obvious thing that comes to mind is the architecture. Unlike that of other German-speaking cities, Vienna's architecture has largely remained intact after the Second World War. Enormous neoclassical structures erected for the sole purpose of glorifying the Empire continue to surround the city center along the Ringstraße. The towering white marble, the black wrought iron, the vast stretches of cobblestone, and the tall chestnut trees, create a backdrop that insists upon itself and undermines the passage of time. In a sense, it is a romantic backdrop. But the brand of romance is the kind that makes one feel overpowered and somewhat uneasy. The architecture - both in its grandiosity and in the sheer fact of its continuity - sets a mood over the central district that even an army of neon Starbucks and H&M signs cannot overpower.

Vienna_CafeInteriorGranted, architecture can be seen as a passive influence. But there are other areas where Vienna's anachronistic atmosphere is maintained by choice. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of the Viennese Cafe. One can walk into any number of Viennese cafes that look as if they have remained basically unchanged since the 1920s: gilded interiors, plush red upholstery, starched white tablecloths, waiters in tuxedos, sugar cubes in tiny silver bowls, newspapers attached to wooden holders... the head spins from the elegance, and extravagance of it. And the elaborate coffee nomenclature puts other countries' terminologies to shame. (When in doubt, just order a Melange - and stay away from what the Viennese call a Cappuccino unless you want your coffee made with pure cream instead of frothed milk.)

It is not just the look of such a cafe that functions like a time machine, but the atmosphere as well. In a Viennese cafe, you will be called by your title. You will not encounter crammed floor space, even if it means that the cafe is serving only a quarter of the patrons that it could be serving. And you will never be rushed to free up your table, even if you have been nursing the same cup of coffee for hours while a crowd of hopefuls queues outside. And no, such places are not gimmicky tourist traps; they are perfectly normal cafes where the Viennese themselves go to relax.

Vienna_FurcoatLady And then of course, there are the head-turning persons you see in Vienna, the likes of whom I have not encountered elsewhere: from the ladies in floor-length fur coats and sculptural hats who look as if they've walked out of a silent film, to the serious men with heavy, intense gazes and thick streaks of gray in their hair regardless of their age, to the people wearing traditional national costumes as formalwear on a night out. True, the “retro” look has been internationally popular for over a decade, but I feel that in Vienna the look isn't “retro” at all, as it is done entirely without irony. The mixing of the old with the new simply reflects the city's nonlinear sense of time and its playful attitude towards contemporary realities.

Vienna_StoreWindowAn interesting trend I have noted, is how many fashion ateliers in Vienna are simultaneously involved in costume design for the theater. Of all the arts, theater probably occupies the most important position in Vienna, and has enormous cultural influence. Perhaps this explains why even the most contemporary boutiques seem to be at least partly inspired by dramatic turn of the 20th Century style: the designers who make the clothes for the streets are the same ones who create the costumes for the local stage. It would also explain why the past that mingles with Vienna's present seems to be not so much a historically accurate past, as a fantastical one: a romantic notion that the city embraces and projects back onto itself.

LV02smGetting back to the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2010 Menswear Collection, I think that in large part it succeeds in portraying all of these things. The clothing is architectural, theatrical, and communicative, and there is a conceptual depth to it that exceeds what I have come to expect from Vuitton. The garments are rigidly tailored while suggesting fluidity, tightly closed while expressing a potential for openness. They evoke Sigmund Freud's writings on hysteria, Egon Schiele's images of tortured lanky youths, Gustaf Klimt's gilded motifs, and Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis while mixing traditional and contemporary materials and employing deconstructive techniques.

Vienna_ShoesThe LV collection is rather impressive really. But... Well, quite frankly, it brings to mind what has been available in Vienna for as long as I have lived there. If you want Viennese splendor that embodies all the anachronistic complexity the city has to offer, visit Vienna itself and walk through some of the neighborhoods that are lined with independent boutiques carrying Austrian designers, including the areas around Neubaugasse and Kettenbrückengasse. Viennese style is at its best in its natural habitat.

[LV runway images via Louis Vuitton/ Antoine de Parceval; all other images belong to the author]

MadMen Contest: Where Were The Secretaries?

Mad-men01 Banana Republic sponsored a photo competition for people dressed in the style of the TV show MadMen. The prize is a walk-on role for an episode of the show, and the semifinalists and now the winner have been announced. Among the semifinalist photos we see portraits of wives and airline stewardesses, but secretaries (now titled “administrative assistants”) and interns seem underrepresented.

In imagining a walk-on role, a temporary secretary or someone interviewing to be an intern would seem to have great potential. Such a walk-on role could be little or no dialogue, and a lovely young woman could provide eye candy for the show’s viewers. Surely a lot of contestants felt this would be the case and submitted photos of themselves as secretaries. One of these is shown at right.

An attractive, unattached female is inevitably the focus of considerable male attention in an office, even if it is limited to looking and fantasizing. The image at right captures such a moment marvelously. The woman who is the subject of her boss’s admiring appraisal no doubt realizes that he will study her figure as she walks away, and she accepts it, though from her expression we can’t tell whether she welcomes it or not.

Back before issues of sexual harassment made office relationships more hazardous, secretaries were often involved in affairs with their bosses or other men in the office. So I find it surprising that photos of secretaries didn’t turn up in the semi-finalists. However, the semi-finalists and winners were determined by public voting, which always make the outcome of a contest unpredictable.  A long-standing issue for the TV show Dancing with the Stars has been how its predominately female viewers vote. After the first few seasons the producers feared that no woman contestant would ever win because so many women viewers seemed to simply vote for the man they would most like to have as their dance partner.

Porter Hovey Mad Men The winning MadMen photo is shown at left, and an interview with winner Porter Hovey can be found here. Hovey is a freelance photographer, and she and her sister staged the photo. She portrays a well-dressed suburban mom, sunglasses and all, who is sitting on the steps next to her vintage stroller. One of the questions her interviewer asks is whether she sees herself as a Marilyn or a Jackie, though there doesn’t seem much doubt which one she emulates in the photo.

Contests in which the winner is whoever crosses the line first are easy to understand. The same with sports like basketball where points are scored when the ball goes through the hoop, and the team with the most points wins.

Contests involving subjective judgments are often puzzling. Looking at the photos of the men who are semi-finalists, only the first had a suggestion of narrative. The rest seem like straightforward photos—no feeling of story. Some of the women’s photos are more interesting in a narrative sense, particularly the first, the last, and the winner. In these, the women are seen in staged action. Surely that made a difference in how voters were able to relate to photos.

Perhaps the majority of voters in this contest were women, and if so I can imagine them relating to a wife with responsibilities who is forced to wait for someone, perhaps her late-as-usual husband. A scene like this invites us to imagine what the story is. The photo looks like it could be a genuine street shot, and people were actually stopping and peeking in to see the baby (which turned out to be camera gear).

It would be interesting to know the demographics of the voters. Did women vote for images of women that they identified with? Returning to the lack of secretary photos among the semifinalists, were women voters  less inclined to vote for images of women who look as if they might put a married man’s fidelity to the test? I didn’t vote, but as a male I confess that I understood why the man in the first photo was mesmerized.

[Photo of the woman in blue is from Suchacyn’s Flicker Photostream, and is used by permission.]


Hotel Week: Bringing Glamour Back


Glamour is fragile. It tends to vanish with too much time or scrutiny. In response, people are always promising to “bring glamour back” (or declaring that “glamour is back”). Such promises are particularly common in three industries: fashion, airlines, and hotels. In airlines, they’re never fulfilled. In fashion, they often are. In hotels, there are more misses than hits.

Take the subject of this 2005 ad, the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center, the curved façade takes a good photo. But as a lived experience, the hotel offers little more than any other nice Hyatt. It does not inspire longing. Remodeling and a new spa did not change the hotel’s cultural resonance.

In fact, preservationists are now fighting plans to demolish the Century Plaza to make way for a complex that would include two mixed-use towers and make Century City more pedestrian-friendly. The arguments for preservation implicitly acknowledge that the hotel has little emotional or aesthetic importance today. “It is among the purest representations of 1960s Los Angeles planning and architectural philosophy we have left,” writes the LAT's Christopher Hawthorne--a back-handed compliment. The WaPost's Philip Kennicott called it “a hard building to love.”

Stairway to nowhere Hotel glamour isn’t about what celebrities or presidents have frequented the building. It’s about the yearnings the hotel conjures in its audience, the escape and transformation a visit promises to provide. No one understood that better than Morris Lapidus, the architect best known for designing the Fountainebleu and Eden Roc hotels in Miami Beach. He wrote:

I was convinced that just as a store had to be designed to make people want to buy what the merchant had to sell, so a hotel had something to sell also. What was that something? A home away from home? Absolutely not! Who wants a homey feeling on a vacation? The guests want to find a new experience—forget the office, the house, the kids, the bills. Anything but that good old homey feeling that the old hotels used to see with a comfortable bed, a nice rocker on the veranda, a good solid nourishing meal. Not on your life! We were coming out of the war and the postwar period. People wanted fun, excitement, and all of it against a background that was colorful, unexpected; in short, the visual excitement that made people want to buy—in this case, to buy the tropic luxury of a wonderful vacation of fun in the sun. A sense of freedom from the humdrum lives the guests had. A feeling of getting away from it all.

Lapidus was famous for features like the “stairway to nowhere,” designed to give guests a platform from which to show off their finery. He made guests feel like stars. “Lapidus understood that a hotel lobby is a theater for amateur narcissists,”  writes Tom Austin in Travel & Leisure. Though critics denounced them as tacky, to their intended audience, Lapidus’s hotels epitomized glamour. (For an excellent analysis of glamour in mid-century Miami Beach, see architectural historian Alice T. Friedman’s 2000 Harvard Design Magazine article, “Glamour, Class, and Architecture in Miami Beach”.)


In succeeding decades, that glamour dissipated. (The Fountainebleu’s builder went bankrupt in 1977.) The nouveau riche for whom the hotels were designed got old. Younger generations had different aspirations and ideals of luxury. But, after a $1 billion renovation, the Fountainebleu reopened last November. “The glamour is back at the Fontainebleau,” declared the announcer at the hotel's opening celebration, which doubled as last year’s Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.

Is the glamour really back? Unfortunately, I haven’t persuaded any editors to fund a reporting trip to decide for myself. Matt Rudd of the London Times makes a good case that the hotel is just too big for glamour: “In order to fill anything like 1,500 rooms, you need thousands of people, and they can’t all be Frank Sinatra.” Glamour requires mystery and exclusivity--and a lot fewer truck-parts conventions.

It is possible to bring glamour back to a hotel that has lost it, but “glamour” can’t just mean luxury or a history of association with dead celebrities. I thought the Palmer House in Chicago might have made it work, by playing up its architectural appeal, but complaints about small rooms and mini-beds suggest that modern standards may conflict with historic floor plans. (I have no first-hand experience.)

Riviera Palm Springs handicapped restroom sign 

The in Palm Springs has had more success. It’s got the luxury and dead celebs, plus the Hollywood Regency decor that sometimes gets called “modern glamour.” But what makes the Riviera’s glamour convincing is the hotel’s intimacy, which makes guests feel like they’ve entered a special world. and, most important to me, the occasion of my stay there: the (simulcast of the) 2009 TED Conference, which features (as one blogger put it) “the glamour of intellectual power wrapped in exclusivity.” Plus, you can’t beat the Riviera’s restroom signs.

[“Stairway to nowhere” photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., public domain Library of Congress collection. Riviera restroom sign photo by Virginia Postrel.]



Disney, Shulman, And The Glamorous Ideal

Shulman house While was wasting time this morning (I mean, “getting smarter reading the internet”), I came across this brief article and slideshow on Julius Shulman, the 98-year old architectural photographer famous for his iconic photos of mid-century L.A. homes. His photo of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22 (at left), an impossibly futuristic home perched over glittering Los Angeles at night, represents my absolute ideal of glamour. I’m viscerally drawn to the modern home, the breathtaking view, and the people inside, just beginning a night (and decade) full of potential for fun and drama.

I’m not the only one to look at this image and see “glamour” defined, but it’s not everybody’s glamorous ideal. So why mine? How did I develop an affinity for that kind of image vs. something else? When?

While I’m not so sure about the “how,” I do have an idea about the “when” and also the “where”: Orlando, Florida, 1981. My first trip to Disney World or, more specifically, my first trip to Tomorrowland.

At first glance, Disney World isn’t terribly glamorous. It’s full of tired, sweaty parents and their whiny kids, nothing’s even a little bit authentic, and it’s more heavily merchandised than The Mall of America. But just as Disney teaches kids about manners and social mores, Mickey and friends play a critical role in helping America’s youth develop their attitudes toward glamour.

Space mountainFor me, it was Tomorrowland and its streamlined futuristic aesthetic that took hold. But it could’ve just as easily been Cinderella’s castle that resonated, as it does for thousands of little girls. Or the bordellos-and-brawn-lite version of the Old West that is Frontierland.

So now I’m all grown up and Shulman’s photos have replaced Space Mountain (mostly) when I think “glamour.” What about you? Do you have a glamorous ideal or icon? Can you trace it back to what you loved when you were a kid?

[Space Mountain photo courtesy of Flickr user russes.]

Fins De Siècle

Next is a black 1957 Lincoln Premiere. The car, whose tailfins were described in sales literature as "canted blades," is generally considered Safari_300dpi to be an unhappy update of the sleekly voluptuous 1956 Lincoln, which marked the beginning of Ford's effort to take on Cadillac as a volume make in the luxury car market. The pointy-finned reworking of Bill Schmidt's award-winning design was accompanied by a slump in sales, but that was just a pothole in the road compared to the cliffside plunge the marque took over the next three years with its immense, bizarrely styled 1958-1960 cars.

Third is a 1957 Pontiac Safari, a deluxe station wagon that shared its underpinnings with the 1957 Chevrolet -- a car whose fins need no Goldenhawk_300dpi introduction, and were certainly more memorable than the Pontiac's busy design.

Next is a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk. Marketed as a sort of family-size sports car, with fins tacked onto what started out as a striking (and finless) 1953 design by Raymond Loewy, the Golden Hawk was on a downward trajectory and not long for this world.

The last car in the lineup is the 1959 Eldorado Biarritz, whose towering rocket fins Eldorado_300dpitend to overshadow the fact that the 1959 Cadillac,  along with GM's other offerings that year, established a template for full-size American cars that would last until the mid-1970s. Inspired (and dismayed) by an early glimpse at Chrysler's finned "Forward Look" in late 1956, a group of young GM designers undertook to scrap Harley Earl's plans for the 1959 line, which was not much more than a facelift of the company's baroque 1958 cars. The resulting 1959 Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac managed to out-Chrysler Chrysler, with an even lower, longer silhouette. The "package" -- huge trunk, wide body, headlights brought down from fender tops and into the grille -- set the general dimensions for big cars until downsizing arrived in 1977.

Apart from postage stamps, the public taste for retro automotive styling has been indulged in recent years by actual cars: a Thunderbird two-seater, Chrysler's PT Cruiser, Volkswagen's New Beetle and Ford's new old Mustang. With their popularity in direct proportion to how closely the cars follow the original designs, America wants to know: Can tailfins be far behind?

The Sheer Look: Appliance Glamour?

In this strange cultural artifact, a man and woman in evening dress dance to show off Frigidaire's new Sheer Look appliances, introduced in 1957. Two years later, an IIT poll of 100 top design experts put the appliance line on the Top Ten list of "best-designed products of modern times," along with such icons as the Barcelona chair and Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter.

In The American Design Adventure 1940-1975, Arthur J. Pulos explains what made the appliances so new and appealing:

By the late 1950s it was evident that the trend in the design of major appliances was away from the softer shapes of the streamline era and toward sharp rectilinear forms. Where once the use of high-temperature glass enamels had necessitated rounded corners for proper flow and fusion, ow the introduction of thinner insulation made it ossible to use lighter-gauge, prepainted sheet metal, which could be formed into sharp rectangular boxes on new continuous roller machines without stamping and crowning. Moreover, rectangular boxes were in harmony with the International Style of architecture and suitable as "built-ins."


Frigidaire captured the public's attention with an inspired advertising campaign (conceived by the Kudner agency) that promoted the "Sheer Look" of its new appliances. Other companies had taken slow, hesitant steps toward the new look, but Frigidaire boldly redesigned its entire line in the style of the 1956 Kitchen of Tomorrow. No one seemed to regret the elimination of the armorial escutcheons and chrome hardware that had characterized appliance design for a decade. The Kudner agency's advertisements for the new line in magazines and newspapers showed models in Oleg Cassini "Sheer Look" gowns performing the "Sheer Look" gesture with elbow-length gloves. In a further effort to fix the line's association with high style in the public mind, Frigidaire staged a well-publicized fashion show to which other prominent fashion designers were invited to contribute costumes inspired by the "Sheer Look." Thus one word, sheer, was used to identify a line of products with high fashion, and with runway success.

There was, in fact, nothing sheer about the appliances and, remarks Pulos, "the new look was actually generated by technological advances rather than fashion--it was associated with fashion in order to make it more palatable to the public."

The appliances were acclaimed by designers and widely adopted. But were they glamorous? Did they represent something more than a new-and-improved way to keep food cold or wash dishes? Despite the dancing and the ladies in gloves, I find it hard to believe that the Sheer Look creating the kind of yearning essential to the experience of glamour. At best, they represented the idea of being up to date. But then I wasn't alive in 1957, and the historical record is sketchy. Does anyone remember appliance glamour?

We have a winner: Congratulations to Melissa Palmer, who was first to identify Frigidaire's Sheer Look appliances as the answer to our contest question. Melissa will receive a copy of Forgotten Fashion signed by Kate Hahn and Andraé Gonzalo. Thanks to all who entered the contest. And don't forget to order your copies of the book from Amazon.

More Futures Past

Bonneville_2In 2005, Steve and I happened to catch this great exhibit, "Driving Through Futures Past," at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Although the highlight of the exhibit had to be the 1954 Bonneville Special (sorry for the low-quality of my snapshot), the real revelation was the art on the walls: concept car renderings done by mid-century car designers. (Here's a slide show of samples from the exhibition.) Although I'm far from a car buff and don't even like the fins-and-chrome look of mid-century cars that much, I loved both the aesthetic feel of the renderings and their exuberant futurism. What a great thing to collect, I thought. I wonder where you get them?

At the June Art Deco and Modernism Show in San Francisco, I met one of the sources: Leo Brereton, who has rescued many of these drawings from Detroit area basements and attics and sells them to collectors. (He also collects and sells original illustrations from pulp fiction and, as you can see from the photo, mid-century science fiction.) He talked to me about car renderings.

Q: How do you define what you collect and sell?Leo_6

A: I deal in automotive concepts or renderings, which are the drawings done by the designers for the Big Three as well as independent automobile manufacturers, from the '30s through the '70s, with an emphasis on the '50s and '60s.

Q: Where do you get the drawings?

A: Primarily from the designers themselves. As a designer, you were not encouraged to keep the stuff you were working on. However, if you were the guy who worked for 24 years in the Buick Division and all of a sudden you were transferred to Cadillac, your boss might say, "All the stuff in these files that we haven't cleaned out in 20 years, if you want it fine. If not just throw it out."

There was no thought--not a moment's thought--at a place like GM that this archive might be important one day, that we should open up a museum, if nothing else to toot our own horn. That lack of vision is astounding. So routinely the work is now found in landfills across Metropolitan Detroit.

Q: How long have you been doing this?

A: About 10 years. There really wasn't a market for it when I started.

Q: And what do these represent to people who buy them today?

A: Visions of the past, examples of great designs. It's a nostalgia thing, as well as a clear recognition that this work has gone unrecognized.

I wound up buying several renderings by automotive designers from Leo. Here's a slide show. But only one of the drawings, by a Czech designer Leo knew nothing about, is of a car of the future. The rest take the glamour of high-speed transportation to the sea and to space, in inspiring but wildly impractical forms. When I showed them to our friend Greg Benford, the astrophysicist and hard science fiction writer, he rolled his eyes. Looking at the moon vehicle John Aiken (later famous for the Mercury Cougar) designed as a student project, he asked, "Why would you want streamlining in a place with no atmosphere?" For the same reason Golden Age Hollywood put actresses in gowns they couldn't sit down in and Cecil B. DeMille demanded high heels even for Paulette Goddard in Northwest Mounted Police--to transport viewers to a world that transcends the practicalities of real life.

Here's a gallery of renderings from designers' student days from a blog devoted to concept car art. And here's design critic Phil Patton on automotive illustrations.