49 Classics of Mid-Century Design We Need Your Help Identifying

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Help us build a compendium of the objects that appear in a rare and wonderful 1958 film

Collectors covet mid-century design for a reason: The clean lines and bright colors of the 1950s are beautiful. But there was more to the era's design considerations. The burst of creative energy that followed World War II spurred consumption by creating an endless array of new products, and when those were in short supply, new forms (and colors) for old products. The production of beauty was placed in the service of consumerism and anti-communism.

American Look showcases this design-industrial complex of ideas in beautiful Technicolor. Created in 1958 by the Jam Handy Organization, a large commercial filmmaking concern, with funding from Chevrolet, the 23-minute film surveys the landscape of late-50s aspirational life from interior dining sets to new work machines to speed boats. Taken together, the objects in the film paint a portrait of the variety of things that only American capitalism could deliver.

"Improved styling constantly adds to the ease and grace and gaiety of American living," the video intones. "The things we have in America are ever-changing. The studios and workshops of our stylists pour forth a neverending flow of service and of artistry. Lines, planes, forms, and substances in colors. On come the developments of ideas in pace with the emphatic decisions of the American people as to what they want."

As a perfectly coiffed blond woman moves about her sparkling kitchen, pulling down a fold up-range (yes, a fold-up range) presumably to begin cooking, the narrator delivers the Cold War-winning line, "By the way things look as well as the way they perform, our homes acquire new grace, new glamor, new accommodations, expressing not only the American love of beauty but also the basic freedom of the American people, which is the freedom of individual choice." Then, we see a series of shots of cooking gadgets: A green machine mixer fluffing the air in a bubblegum-colored bowl, a mini-oven in which little chickens spin on a rotisserie spit, a toaster with storage for multiple slices of bread, a bright yellow pitcher for juice, an electric can opener mounted on a blue tile wall, and an ice maker beside a smoky blue display with hors d'oeuvres.

This is ideological war by convenience and good looks! Two implicit contrasts for all the wonderful goods spring to mind: one, Soviet Russia with its state-produced utilitarian goods and two, the Great Depression, just a couple decades prior, when plenty of the sort on display would have seemed implausible if not downright immoral. Both the Soviets and the Great Depression challenged the desirability of the American system. The so-called Kitchen Debate between then Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev highlighted the geopolitical significance of everyday objects. The leaders exchanged barbs over the relative merits of their countries' outputs. Even within the United States, the design of one's kitchen could have serious implications. As Greg Castillo put it in his book Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design, "What seemed a mere question of taste in home furnishings was in reality a struggle for nation's soul."

All that aside, though, these objects are really beautiful and the film itself is a monument to this era's achievements and preoccupations. There's only one problem. Jam Handy obviously carefully selected each of the objects it included, but there's no roster of them anywhere. The film is a bad catalog because we don't know what anything actually is. So, we're asking for your help in identifying the many products that show up in the film. I painstakingly went through and screenshotted 49 of the products, which are presented below in order of appearance. In the comments, Twitter (I'm @alexismadrigal), or email (amadrigal[at]theatlantic.com), I'd love you to let me know if you recognize the make of any of the objects. The slides are numbered for your convenience. I'll update the gallery with the results, which will create a mean primer on mid-century product design for anyone interested.

To get us started, I do know what the very first object you'll see in the slideshow is. The oddly shaped, fire-engine red telephone is an Ericofon, first released in the late 50s by Ericcson, the Swedish company that eventually grew into the Sony Ericsson we know today. The device was considered controversial by AT&T and kept off the US network, but it was popular anyway, selling 2.5 million units from 1956 to the early 1990s. Supposedly, you can even purchase a homebrewed Ericofon that hooks up to your cell phone via Bluetooth.

All this to say: every one of these objects has an interesting story. Help me tell them.

Update 11:27pm: So far, we've identified 18 of the 49 objects, which means most of the easy ones are off the table. They've all been added to the gallery. Stay tuned for more updates and spread the word so we can get the rest of objects!

Special thanks to the Prelinger Archive and its proprietors Rick and Megan Prelinger, without whom so many films like American Look would be lost to the sands of time.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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