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Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body

Race, Gender, and the Politics of Power in Design

Kristina Wilson

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Geisteswissenschaften, Kunst, Musik / Kunst


The first investigation of how race and gender shaped the presentation and marketing of Modernist decor in postwar America

In the world of interior design, mid-century Modernism has left an indelible mark still seen and felt today in countless open-concept floor plans and spare, geometric furnishings. Yet despite our continued fascination, we rarely consider how this iconic design sensibility was marketed to the diverse audiences of its era. Examining advice manuals, advertisements in Life and Ebony, furniture, art, and more, Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body offers a powerful new look at how codes of race, gender, and identity influenced—and were influenced by—Modern design and shaped its presentation to consumers.

Taking us to the booming suburban landscape of postwar America, Kristina Wilson demonstrates that the ideals defined by popular Modernist furnishings were far from neutral or race-blind. Advertisers offered this aesthetic to White audiences as a solution for keeping dirt and outsiders at bay, an approach that reinforced middle-class White privilege. By contrast, media arenas such as Ebony magazine presented African American readers with an image of Modernism as a style of comfort, security, and social confidence. Wilson shows how etiquette and home decorating manuals served to control women by associating them with the domestic sphere, and she considers how furniture by George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames, as well as smaller-scale decorative accessories, empowered some users, even while constraining others.

A striking counter-narrative to conventional histories of design, Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body unveils fresh perspectives on one of the most distinctive movements in American visual culture.

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Furniture, White people, Popular culture, Modernism, Narrative, Newspaper, Decorative arts, Romare Bearden, Eames Lounge Chair, Smithsonian American Art Museum, George Nelson (designer), Household, African art, Plywood, World War II, Desk, Interior design, Housewife, Publicity, Ladies' Home Journal, Wallpaper, The New York Times, Femininity, Racial segregation, American Modern, Etiquette, Whiteness, Art history, Illustrator, Everyday life, House Beautiful, Marketing, Nuclear family, Norman Rockwell, Career, Roland Barthes, Department store, Museum of Modern Art, Russel Wright, Dining room, Eero Saarinen, Cleanliness, Ideology, African Americans, Work of art, Anecdote, Writing, Advertising, Literature, Publication, Sociology, Figurine, Coffee table, Ebony, Philosopher, John H. Johnson, White Americans, Chair, Popularity, Critical race theory, Courtesy, The Various, Worcester Art Museum, The Other Hand, Modern architecture, Gender identity, Contemporary art, Marshmallow sofa, Chauvinism, Illustration, Woman's Day, Librarian, Advertising campaign, Butterfly chair, Visual culture, Seminar, Bourgeoisie, Abstract expressionism, Oral history, Life (magazine), Clark University, Shelter magazine, Isamu Noguchi, Race (human categorization), Rhetoric, Floor plan, Herman Miller (manufacturer), Mid-century modern, Charles and Ray Eames, White privilege, Architectural Record, Jackson Pollock, Modern furniture, Homemaking, National Museum of American History, Fine art, Designer, Income, Currier and Ives, Racism