NEW YORK – Through the Atomic Age, from the late 1940s through the 1960s, developing nuclear power, atomic science and the space race inspired out-of-this-world interior design. Its stylized, instantly recognizable cosmic shapes and motifs endowed utilitarian objects, large and small, with bursts of futuristic, optimistic, peacetime energy.
Millions of kitchens, against a background of steel cabinets and Formica countertops, boasted bright walls, ceramic coffee mugs and soap dispensers patterned with whizzing rockets or dynamic galaxy decorative touches. Others, inspired by structure of the atom, depicted orbiting atomic particles.
Sunbeam atomic clock with circular pink and gold glass face, marked, 16in. diameter. Realized $100 + buyer’s premium in 2005. Image courtesy of Rago Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
Drinking glasses, serving plates and Melamine dinnerware often featured colorful star bursts. Delicate, organic, spidery plant forms and amoeba-like free forms, reflecting strides in x-ray and microscope technologies, adorned place mats and table cloths. Boomerangs, another popular Atom Age motif, not only mirrored magnified bacteria. Used as stylized arrows, they symbolized directional energy fields, capturing movement.
1950s Modern upholstered screen covered with 1950s fabric printed with boomerangs and rectangles in red, blue-green and chartreuse on light gray ground, with steel legs. In as-found condition (stains and tear to fabric). 65¾in. x 58½in. Realized $125 + buyer’s premium in 2004. Image courtesy of Rago Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
Bold, aluminum, atomic-inspired lamps graced millions of homes across the country. Desk and ceiling “flying saucers,” which feature gently rounded metal domed shades, were not only popular, but easy on the eye. So were minimalistic floor models, perched precariously on spindly gooseneck, tripod or “cricket” brass legs. Pole tension lamps, whose adjustable cone-shaped shades created focused spots of light, were also great favorites.
Pierre Guariche brass and enameled metal table lamp with adjustable shade, 20in. x 10½in. Realized $1,100 + buyer’s premium in 2006. Image courtesy Rago Modern Auctions, LLP and LiveAuctioneers
In contrast, airy, light-hearted, “bubble” table and ceiling lamps offered warm, soft, diffuse – yet abundant – radiance. George Nelson, for example, coaxed their malleable steel-wire frames and translucent white plastic or sprayed resin into fanciful pear, globe, cigar and elliptical shapes. Gino Sarfatti designed bubble pendant lamps featuring transparent, richly textured, handcrafted Murano glass globes. Angelo Lelli created nickel-plated brass and steel ceiling lights whose radiating branches, tipped with frosted glass spheres, look, for all the world, like planets in orbit.
Angelo Lelli, Arredoluce Stella Chandelier, nickel-plated brass and steel, frosted glass, signed with manufacturer’s label, ‘Made in Italy Arredoluce Monza,’ circa 1950, 51in. diameter, 8½in. high. Realized $19, 000 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy Cottone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
Three years after Russia’s earth-shattering launch of the Sputnik space satellite, the Sputnik chandelier reached the market. This opulent starburst creation, featuring central spheres with multiple radiating prongs fitted with glowing light fittings, was a favored décor of the day. So was the Sputnik-like dandelion sphere, whose myriad glass blossoms or spiked pinpoints of light evoke their namesake. These high-end, Atomic Age decorative statements were sculptures by day, supernovas by night.
Atomic-inspired table and wall clocks also made dramatic decorative statements. Though all essentially performed the same function, they differed in shape and style. Some bear flat conventional flat faces bright with random atomic motifs. Some, bearing numerous, slender, outstretched arms radiating from round, conventional, central clockworks, resemble cheery sunflowers or sunbursts. Ball wall clocks, which feature circular centers spiked by slender shafts tipped with brilliantly hued balls, indicate time by position rather than by number. Rare models, like George Nelson’s ovoid “Eyeball,” which resembles its name and his striking wooden, watermelon-shaped ones, are particularly desirable.
Bubble Lamp, George Nelson (1908–1986) for Herman Miller, Zeeland, Mich., 1960s
sprayed resin, steel, clear label, 18in. diameter x 16in. high. Realized $250 in 2015. Image courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers
During this era, designers also produced Atomic-Age inspired furniture. Some pieces, like Adrian Pearsall’s sculptured Gondola sofa, along with scores of anonymously designed coffee tables enhancing middle class living rooms, resemble boomerangs.
Others, rather than embodying atomic motifs, utilize exciting, postwar, state-of-the-art materials. Nelson’s whimsical Marshmallow sofa, for example, features comfy cushions “floating” atop tubular steel frames. Harry Bertoia’s nature-inspired, sculptural Diamond, Butterfly and Bird chairs are wrought from bent, welded, transparent steel wire grids.
Charles and Ray Eames, Side chairs, circa 1960, enameled steel wire, Naugahyde, model no. DKX-1, Herman Miller, retains manufacturer’s label. Realized $1,000 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
Charles and Ray Eames’ sleek, curvy, stools, rockers and tables are fashioned from pliable plywood. These, as well as their celebrated, molded, Fiberglas chairs, realized in shades from neutral to vibrant, ultramodern orange, yellow and blues, have remained popular for decades.
Most Atomic Age pieces at auction, which were acquired from original users, were not only well used, but well loved. Today too, many appreciate their pleasing visual appeal infused with optimistic energy.