This trend is not limited to New York. According to Architectural Digest, mid-century modern and minimalism are both here to stay. That means sparse, modern decor; high, exposed ceilings; and almost no soft goods, such as curtains, upholstery, or carpets. These design features are a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears. No soft goods and tall ceilings mean nothing is absorbing sound energy, and a room full of hard surfaces serves as a big sonic mirror, reflecting sound around the room.
The result is a loud space that renders speech unintelligible. Now that it’s so commonplace, the din of a loud restaurant is unavoidable. That’s bad for your health—and worse for the staff who works there. But it also degrades the thing that eating out is meant to culture: a shared social experience that rejuvenates, rather than harms, its participants.
Luxury didn’t always mean loud, and there are lessons to be learned from the glamorous restaurants of the past, including actual mid-century-modern eateries. From the 1940s through the early 1990s, fine-dining establishments expressed luxury through generous seating, plush interiors, and ornate decor. But more important, acoustic treatments themselves were a big part of that luxury.
Surfaces that today’s consumers now consider old-fashioned were still relatively new and exciting in the interwar and postwar periods. Just as stainless-steel tabletops, slate-tile floors, and exposed ductwork seem au courant today, so did wall paneling and drop ceilings with acoustic tiles in the 1950s and ’60s.
Read: The paradox of American restaurants
Architects also had different conceptions of what ideal work and leisure spaces should sound like. In the early to mid-20th century, designers were startled to discover that they might have some control over the aural impression of a physical space. Just as automobiles and kitchen appliances were seen as technological solutions to problems of everyday life, so ambient noise shifted from a symbol of progress in the machine age to a problem it produced—one that demanded a solution.
Early acoustics materials focused on absorbing sound—soaking up sonic energy rather than reflecting it. That approach produced its own idiosyncratic soundscape. As the science historian Emily Thompson explains in her book The Soundscape of Modernity, absorptive materials removed reverberation, producing “clear and direct” sound. “In a culture preoccupied with noise and efficiency,” Thompson writes, “reverberation became just another form of noise, an unnecessary sound that was inefficient and best eliminated.”
Absorptive design found its way first into schools and offices, where acoustics products were marketed as essential to creating quieter interiors and thus more efficient and less distraction-prone workers (or students). These products were advertised as “sound-conditioning” devices that would purify an environment of “unnatural” sounds. In catalogs for commercial and home interiors, sound-absorptive surfaces were linked directly to comfort, sophistication, and luxury.