The legacy of ‘Mad Men’ is the revival mid-century modern design

The legacy of ‘Mad Men’ won’t be its clothes or its cocktails. It’ll be all that modernist furniture. Photo of actor Jon Hamm. CREDIT: AMC photo)

Of all my favorite “Mad Men” moments — Roger Sterling’s acid trip, the John Deere mower severing Guy Mackendrick’s toes, any scene with Sally Draper — there’s one in particular that captures how the show has swayed the world around it: Season 5, Episode 9, “Dark Shadows.” His ex-wife, Betty Francis, swings by Don’s new Upper East Side apartment to retrieve the kids. In the hallway outside, she glances in the mirror, adjusts her bob and sucks in her stomach. She’s been struggling with her weight.

When Betty steps inside, her eyes widen. Hitchcockian strings stir on the soundtrack. The camera slowly pans across Don’s spectacular digs: the sunken, white-carpeted living room; the modular, Knoll-like sofas; the Lied Mobler black leather lounge chair; the built-in walnut cabinetry; the countertop cocktail bar; the Case Study-style kitchen; the vast floor-to-ceiling windows; the sparkling view of Manhattan beyond.

Dressed in a get-up from the previous decade, Betty gazes at the cool, clean, modernist design with a mixture of desire and envy — a feeling familiar to every “Mad Men” fiend.

For the next seven weeks, as the show’s final episodes air on AMC, we’ll be chattering about Why “Mad Men” Mattered. Television critics will praise it for proving that great shows can pop up on any network (or website). Fashion editors will point out that stylish men have spent much of past decade dressing up like Don Draper: the smooth side-part, the tailored suits, the narrow neckties. And food bloggers will insist that anytime someone orders a proper old fashioned, bartenders from Brooklyn to Seattle should tip their vintage trilbies in Jon Hamm’s general direction.

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But me? I’ll be thinking about Don’s apartment, about the crisp, colorful SCDP offices and all of those gorgeous chairs — the furniture that has made us modernists again and reminded us that good design isn’t just about passing fancies of form and color. It’s about creating our collective identity.

I’m Exhibit A. At the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, one of Don’s early offices has been painstakingly reassembled for a new “Mad Men” exhibition. It might as well be my living room. The wall of windows. The Eames Time-Life chair.The Florence Knoll settee. The Paul McCobb coffee table. The Lightolier floor lamp. The George Nelson CSS unit.

“Mad Men” came along just when I became a furniture-buying adult, and all the furniture I’ve purchased since then has been “Mad Men”-esque. The vibe of my first apartment (Chinatown, Manhattan, 2004) was more “leftover collegiate junk” than “sleek modern design.” The same went for my second (Park Slope, Brooklyn, 2007). But by the time my future wife and I moved in together — we bought a tiny place down the street — I’d begun to collect mid-century classics: a Knoll dresser here, an Ib Kofod-Larsenchair there.

That was late 2008 and early 2009, the height of “Mad Men” mania. Now it’s six years later. Our home in Los Angeles is a small, glassy 1946 architectural design by Alvin Lustig, a pioneering California modernist, and almost everything we own is older than our parents: our stereo (JBL), our dining chairs (Greta Magnusson Grossman), our patio furniture (Van Keppel Green) — even our flower pots (Architectural Pottery). I’d never considered the connection until recently, but looking back, “Mad Men” is at least partly to blame for my obsession.

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It’s impossible to determine cause-and-effect in cases like this, but the data suggest that modernist design has become more desirable since “Mad Men” debuted in 2007. Herman Miller, the Zeeland, Michigan-based manufacturer of iconic designs by Isamu Noguchi, George Nelson, and Charles and Ray Eames, reports that sales of its classic products grew by 60 percent in North America over the past seven years; sales of the Eames Time-Life chair, which is prominently featured in the SCDP conference room, have doubled over the same period. Meanwhile, modernist retailer Design Within Reach, which was flailing in 2009, is now a profitable company with a compound annual growth rate of more than 20 percent.

Revivalism, of course, is nothing new. The 1950s were a hot onscreen topic in the 1970s — remember “Grease,” “American Graffiti” and “Happy Days”? Art deco was popular in the late 1960s. And mid-century modernism has been resurrected before, in the 1990s. As Los Angeles County Museum of Art design curator Bobbye Tigerman recently put it, “People tend to like what their grandparents liked and reject the taste of their parents.” These things are cyclical.

But it’s also clear that “Mad Men” — which rarely goes more than 20 minutes without showing some magnificent actor lounging on some equally magnificent sofa — hasn’t hurt. Design plays a bigger part on the series than it’s ever played on another drama; Weiner is a notorious perfectionist, and set decorator Claudette Didul goes to extreme lengths to ensure that everything — the Poul Volther Corona chair in Roger Sterling’s all-white office; the boxy Knoll office furniture — looks period-perfect. At the same time, television is more central to American life than ever before, shaping our tastes like movies used to.

“Mad Men’s” influence on design preferences may well outlast its influence on menswear and cocktail menus. Sure, hard-core design types have already moved on — to 1970s decadence or 1980s Memphis. But normal human beings still prefer the Design Within Reach look, and this doesn’t seem to be changing. Enter the hashtag #modern on Instagram, and 2.45 million photos pop up. With more than 325,000 subscribers, Dwell, a monthly love letter to modernist design, is one of the most popular shelter magazines in the country.

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It’s a short leap from retro to retrograde, and surrounding ourselves with artifacts from an earlier age could easily seem weird, or suffocating, or just plain pretentious. I don’t want to ignore new design just because it’s new, and I don’t want my living room to look like a set. But true modernism protects against that. At its best, it doesn’t get old. That’s because it isn’t a historical style — a fad, a trend — like French provincial or Mission revival; it isn’t a predetermined look, even though certain forms and materials eventually came to embody it.

Modernism is a way of thinking about the problems of contemporary life and the solutions that design can offer. It is a frank acknowledgment that technology changes our world; it is the continuing search for a fitting response to these changes. The laptop I’m writing this essay on, a 13-inch Apple MacBook Air, is as modernist as it gets, even though it was introduced 75 years after Adolf Hitler shuttered the Bauhaus — the original modernist incubator. “Are these forms we are using integrated and honestly conditioned by the problem we are solving, or are they simply the residue of past solutions?” Alvin Lustig, the designer of my house, wrote in 1947. “Is this design in front of me just fashion, gesture and expediency, or is it at least an attempt at reflection of the organic quality of nature itself?” The solution could be an Alvar Aalto Hallway chair from 1932. Or it could be a Jasper Morrison Air-Chair from 1999. Both are modernist because both are products of the same process.

Lustig was known mostly as a graphic designer (his book jackets for New Directions are legendary), but he never really thought of himself as such. “The words ‘graphic designer,’ ‘architect,’ or ‘industrial designer’ stick in my throat,” he once wrote, “giving me a sense of limitation, of specialization within the specialty, or a relationship to society and form itself that is unsatisfactory and incomplete.” The critic Steven Heller has called him “the personification of the total designer — a master of interrelated forms and methods.” Lustig designed books and offices and chairs and hotels and even a helicopter because he believed, in Heller’s words, that “design was an essential means of making the world a better place.”

That’s a nice thing to believe, and a fundamentally modernist thing. Perhaps it’s naïve. But it’s what people like Jony Ive, the head designer at Apple, believe, and his track record isn’t too shabby. It’s what the app-makers of Silicon Valley (and their satirical HBO counterparts) believe. And it’s certainly what I believe whenever I return home to my little light-filled living room.

If “Mad Men” has, in some small way, encouraged my generation to believe in the enduring power and endless possibilities of modernism, then I’m grateful — and even sadder to see all those gorgeous chairs go.

Andrew Romano is the West Coast Correspondent for Yahoo News.