As I celebrate my 67th year, I hearken back fondly to 1954, the year of my birth, and the bygone decade that followed it. I didn’t know this at the time, but apparently, I was part of the Baby Boomer Generation, those folks born between the post-war years of 1946 – 1964. Unsurprisingly, neither was I aware then that I would spend my first 20 years living in an apartment whose architecture, interior, furniture and accessories would, much later on, be described as “Mid-Century.”
Like Art Nouveau, Art Deco and other aesthetic styles, the term “Mid-Century” would be coined years after it first emerged. Cara Greenberg, interior design journalist, first used it in the title of her 1984 tome, “Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950’s.” This was essentially an American movement that gained traction during the prosperity and population growth that followed the end of World War 2, and the resultant urban living trends that required simple, sleek and mobile designs. It was just to be expected that homes and apartments in the newly liberated Philippines, still very much influenced by the American colonial era, would take a cue from this “look.”
In the mid-1950’s, we resided in a four-door, two-storey apartment along Mayon Street, in the La Loma district of Quezon City. The units were later separated by short concrete barriers, but in this photo, only shrubs and wooden picket fences segregated our Apartment 153-B from the rest. Ground floor windows were wooden jalousies, while upper floor windows were sliding glass panes framed in wood; both were secured by metal grills with a diamond pattern that was common during the American era. The half hollow block – half wooden exterior walls were typical of apartments and “project” housing in the country’s capital in the 1950’s. These clean and uncluttered lines were a hallmark of Mid-Century design. Our neighbors, the Banzons, lived in a single-detached home whose perimeter walls combined concrete with pierced steel planks (PSPs), otherwise known as Marston Mats, the perforated steel matting used by the US military as temporary runways and landing strips in the Pacific theatre. These surplus materials left over from the war were commonly used for fencing by enterprising Pinoys.
Inside the small apartment, a two-tiered glossy black table stood at one corner, providing space for stacks of competing Life and Look magazines, the definitive photography-heavy American publications in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Flanking it were two low, rectangular seating benches with thin cushions having alternating solid and argyle patterns, a classic retro design that dominated the day. The boomerang-shaped coffee table with hairpin legs reflected what was then considered a “futuristic” profile that included Space Age motifs like geometric patterns, flying saucers, atoms, and parabolas.
At the opposite wall was positioned a longer low bench with round steel legs, thicker plain cushions and a potted indoor plant (my father was a “plantito” long before the term became in vogue). Issues of The Manila Times, the oldest extant English language newspaper in the Philippines, and the largest in the 1950’s, piled up on that bench. Throw pillows with a variegated leaf pattern on the fabric provided a nostalgic accent. A scroll of narrow bamboo reeds hung from ceiling to floor, a backdrop for a succession of paintings to be displayed on that wall.
Probably at age 4, I posed on this white wooden accent chair with tilted spokes for its backrest, a decorative style that was distinctly 1950’s. Beside me, the low bench had been moved to make way for my father’s RCA-Victor Hi-Fidelity mono turntable. The 33-rpm vinyl records that he spun with regularity – Eartha Kitt, Roy Hamilton, Mario Lanza, Nancy Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Sergio Franchi, Robert Goulet, John Raitt, the Trio Los Panchos, and movie soundtracks from “Rome Adventure, “April in Paris,” “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” and “Carmen” – would influence the music preferences in my adult life.
A period accent chair in a metal frame, with foam-filled leather upholstery and wooden arms, highlighted our small living room. In this early photo, my mother was wearing a plaid-patterned knee-length swing dress so reminiscent of Mid-Century fashion. Zippers in those dresses were sewn at the side, rather than at the back.
Apart from the beige glazed vase that adorned the wooden shelf, the ceiling lamp in the background that illuminated our dining room was very much an expression of that era’s style. The lamp was a replica of an iconic piece of 1952 design from American architect and industrial designer George Nelson of the Herman Miller furniture company fame. Whimsically named “Saucer Pendant,” it was a skeleton of wire frames sheathed in white fabric, a bubble lamp whose disk shape, flowing lines, and somewhat ethereal glow when lighted evoked an image of a UFO, a term coined by the US Air Force as early as 1947.
My father, who frequently tended bar for guests in our apartment, wore a knitted Ban-Lon t-shirt for this occasion, unmistakably associated with 1960’s men’s fashion. The hammered aluminum ice bucket and the dark green “Royal” soda and ginger ale bottles at the lower level of the metal trolley cart were standard ware for Mid-Century mixologists. A bottle of Dewar’s “White Label” whisky was very much the preferred label of Scotch during those days, and went quite well with classic cocktails like Highballs and Old Fashioneds.
Relegated to the kitchen because of my less than immaculate dining manners, I often sat on my wooden high chair next to our “Frigidaire” refrigerator, a traditional top freezer model. The brand was so popular in the 1950’s that many people referred to any refrigerator in those days as “Frigidaire” regardless of brand. Behind me was a large glass bottle of water that my mother retained for the usual interruption of supply, and a “Lion’s” brand can of soda crackers, well known in the 1950’s before its maker M.Y. San created today’s more popular “SkyFlakes.”
Perhaps there was nothing quite like my father’s Studebaker that embodied that era. The 1951-model rocket-nosed Commander with its bullet-like front end evoked a jet intake that complemented the overall aerodynamic shape of the four-door automobile. Posing with my sister in front of this ebony black machine sometime in 1958, we had no inkling that the family car, so reminiscent of post-World War 2 space and rocket technology, would be a vestige of a Mid-Century life that would stay with me forever.
“The more things change, the more they remain the same,” wrote Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, the 19th century novelist and editor of the French periodical Le Figaro. Perhaps the same can be said of Mid-Century Modern design. Baby boomers like me grew up with it, and are often attached to it as a recollection of our youth. Its clean lines, gentle organic curves, and simple functionality endears this aesthetic even to a modern generation, like my daughter’s, who are exposed to movies of old on Netflix, not to mention the incessant memory trips of their parents. Its allure has a timeless look that is suitable even in today’s contemporary home. I tried to recreate this retro atmosphere in my own apartment today, and quite frankly, it’s like the Fifties never left.
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