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Dress-code was crucial, with standard attire being a jacket and flannels or a single-breasted suit, but the times were a changing and the influence of American Culture had an increasing effect on British life through cinema in the shape of films such as Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean and On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando. The music scene brought Elvis Presley and the UK’s own Bill Haley and the Comets and from this emerged the Teddy Boys with their drape suits and sculptured (with Brilcream) hair. Along with the music came juke-boxes, and these were to be found in another new establishment, the coffee bar, where the first teenagers to have a culture of their own, would meet and listen to the newly introduced British Top 20.
Films through the 50’s included; Streetcar named Desire starring Marlon Brando (1951), Singing in the Rain (1952), On The Waterfront (1954), East of Eden starring James Dean (1955), Rock Around The Clock (1956), Ben Hur (1959) and GI Blues with Elvis and Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas in 1960.
Buses enjoyed a boom time as people used them to get around, to travel to the cinema during the evenings and weekends, and especially for holidays which were mostly in the Uk, but a bus trip to France would take 3 days! Coaches would run day-trips to coastal towns and places of interest during the summer and then in the winter, trips to the London theatres were very popular.
Motorbikes and scooters were a popular tool, especially with petrol increases following the Suez crisis in 1957 and such names as BSA, Triumph, Norton and Royal Enfield were the front-runners. Cars such as the Ford Anglia, Morris Oxford, Ford Poplar and Austin Devon were the norm, with the revolutionary Austin and Morris ‘Mini’ coming along in 1959, offering a completely new design from the usual ‘bulbous’ shapes and the benefit of great fuel consumption.
By 1959 British European Airways had carried over three million passengers, and the Spanish package holiday had begun, with fifteen days in Palma, Majorca, for 44 guineas, while on land the slow but inevitable asphalting of the country began, as the new roads were built for the masses, complete with newly-designed blue motorway signage. (Most road signs had been removed during the war, making any journeys very confusing). To own a car was the ambition of many of the working classes.
In 1953 the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth added impetus to the sale of television sets with some 100,000 sets being sold in that year and in 1955 the introduction of Independent Television (ITV) brought with it the very first tv commercials. TV shows of the decade included the first Andy Pandy (1950), Bill and Ben (1952), Panorama in 1953, Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile record in 1954, Dixon of Dock Green (1955), Winter Olympics in 1956, Blue Peter (1958) and The Flintstones and Coronation Street in 1960. By 1957 there were over seven million regular viewers.
During the war many new manufacturing techniques had been developed, along with innovative materials such as fibreglass, formica, and plastic. A rapid growth in the building industry heralded many new ideas and concepts. Living-room layouts became open-plan and fitted kitchens were a must-have, making use of the new materials available. Bungalows and flats were also appearing with more influence from the US and the new centrepiece of the open-plan living room was the TV, whilst free-standing units adorned the walls and chequerboard vinyls covered the kitchen floor. From the outside, aesthetically uninspiring, with flat roofs, plain brickwork or fascias with chimney-less roofs whilst on the inside chrome appliances were all the rage. Utility kitchens, painted cupboards, formica kitchen tops and units with low-slung armchairs, recliners and carpets in the lounge.
American diner inspired colours such as red, lime, black and pistachio green and bubblegum pink or pale baby blue were all popular and the new fascination with space and science fiction gave us patterns such as starbursts, atoms, pretty sprigged florals, zebra stripes and polka dots. Flying ducks travelled across the walls, while pinapple-shaped ice-buckets and nodding dogs looked on. Furniture and fabric designers of note included Charles and Ray Eames, a husband and wife team, with their sleek leather, plywood and plastic furniture, Robin and Lucienne Day with Heals furniture and fabric and Anne Jacobson with her Egg, Swan and Ant chairs. New fabrics were available such as Nylon, Terylene, synthetic leathers and Rayon, offering new options for both furnishings and fashion.
With the advent of the self-service store, packaging design had to step up its game, becoming brighter and bolder to attract attention. Large typefaces in block capitals incorporating vivid colours and illustrations filled the shelves on products that have changed little to this day, such as Corn Flakes, Scott’s Oats and Birds Custard Powder, proving the strength of both brand and design.
In 1957 a new typeface was designed by a little-known typo designer, Max Miedinger, who was commissioned by Edouard Hoffman, director of the Haas Type Foundry, called Neue Haas Grotesk which came to be known later, as Helvetica. In those days, typefaces were made by carving the shapes of the letters from metal and anyone wishing to use a font had to buy an entire set of letters. This made it expensive to use new typefaces and many of the most popular fonts were centuries-old, like Baskerville and Bodoni. Renamed Helvetica in 1961 and used for the signage in a new terminal at Heathrow Airport, the typeface became so popular, especially among US Advertising Agencies, that it became the default typeface for any 1960s company wishing to project a dynamic, modern image.
Popular artists of this era included Dali who inspired the red lip-shaped sofa of the time, Kurt Schwitters with his collage, assemblages and sculpture, Marcel Duchamp and his ready made objects which he had torn from their usual context and submitted as art. Action painting in the form of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning came to the fore and allowed the canvas to be seen as an arena with the energy and psyche of the painter, becoming the driving force, encouraging impulsive and instinctive art. 1952 also gave us the term Pop art when Eduardo Paolozzi produced a collage called ‘I was a Rich Man’s Plaything which included the first use of the word “pop”, appearing in a cloud of smoke, emerging from a gun. This method of art rose to fame in the early sixties, most notably with artists such as Andy Warhol and Peter Blake.
In summation the 1950’s heralded a new dawn, , influenced by America, with its glamorous film and music stars. Space-exploration, new technologies and communication plus transport made it an exciting and ground-breaking decade that would inspire future generations to come.