When dressing a period set it is important to have not only a good grasp of what was actually popular and available during the period, but also an idea of what most audiences will associate with it. “Mid Century Modern” is a huge decor trend right now, and so those looking to set a show in the 1950s or 60s are in luck – there are lots of vintage and new pieces available that fit the style, for a range of costs.
When trying to capture the essence of an era, I usually focus on a few key things:
- Silhouette: What sort of general styles and silhouettes were common, and where can we find those in both vintage and modern pieces?
- Colour: What colours were popular at the time? And in particular, what colour schemes would have been used then that are rarely used today?
- Accents: Are there any accent pieces (lamps, phones, statues, vases etc.) that are frequently associated with the decade?
I then research a bunch of photos and hit the thrift shops. While it is always fun to go to vintage and antique stores, I generally find that, for one, the costs there can be high and two, since those pieces are actually old they frequently look too worn to be used in a set that is meant to be of that time. Often times, the best solution is to go through thrift stores and see what more recent pieces can be recycled and reworked to fit the desired decade. But before I get to the little details, I start with the first thing the audience will spot: the colour.
The Mid Century Palette: 1950s and 1960s Colour Schemes
While many of the colours popular during the 50s and 60s are seen in homes today, the big difference is in how they weren’t afraid to mix lots of bold, contrasting colours, whereas we tend to tone them down with neutrals. Let your colours speak to the tone of your show; doing a drama? Why not try for a deep, forest green with red and golden accents? Have a cheerier, lighter mood in mind? Pastels were popular and can look stunning onstage. Don’t be afraid to play with unique colour combinations, and when in doubt, a quick google search will come up with some mid century colour palettes you can choose from. If you have the opportunity, one of the best ways to get a real retro look is to incorporate the bold carpet colours of the decade (though of course we don’t all have the resources to cover our stage floor).
The Mid Century Silhouette: 1950s and 60s Furniture
One of the most easily recognized features of the mid century furniture silhouette is the thin, tapered wooden legs. Often stained to look like teak, they sometimes had a metal cap at the bottom, and are relatively easy to replicate should you not be able to find an actual vintage piece. Eames-styled chairs, with thin wooden arms and legs and tailored, boxy cushions were also popular. I often find pieces from the 1980s that, from a distance, can work in a mid century set.
The Mid Century Vibe: 1950s and 60s Accent Pieces
The fun part of dressing a mid century set is hunting for little accent pieces that can really bring the whole thing together. Try to think of things that, not only have the right look for the decade, but that can be usable onstage. People in the 1950s and 60s smoked and drank more than most of us do today, so investing in a bar, some ashtrays and some retro glassware may be worth the while. A vintage lamp will instantly stand out as something not-of-this-decade and so can be a good choice as well. And of course, who doesn’t like to add a few vases or some kitschy ceramics? They are fun, often cheap, and help the overall vintage vibe of your set.
Bygone’s Mid Century Set: Dial m For Murder
In August of 2013, Bygone Theatre produced Frederick Knott’s “Dial M For Murder”, setting the show in 1956. While the set was simple, some vintage elements (along with some new, “vintage styled” elements) quickly conveyed a retro vibe.
In this shot you can see several key pieces:
1. The Bar – this vintage find cost us $100 and is currently in our living room. It was worth the splurge as it was a key piece in the show an a great spot for stage business.
2. The “Vintage” Couch – while this is actually our old living room couch (bought new at a futon store in downtown Toronto a few years before) the boxy, tailored style fit it in perfectly to our 50s living room. A couple bright accent pillows were added to bring it into our whole “martini” colour scheme
3. The “Vintage” Coffee Table – I suspect this table is actually from the 80s, because unlike a true mid century one from he 50s or 60s, it is made of particle board and plastic, not teak. I found it for $20 on kijiji and it is currently our living room table
4. The 1950s Lamp with Fibreglass Shade – another splurge at $100, but one I think was completely worth it. This lamp is so perfectly 50s, and that fibreglass shade stands out beautifully onstage. We used it a lot for practical lighting, so that was good as well. This too has made its way into our regular living room furniture.
When dressing a period set on the cheap, it is important to think about what the audience will really see. Yes, you can likely find a beautiful vintage Eames-styled chair, but at what cost? Our used couch had the right shape and colour, and worked great. Lots of 1980s furniture has the look of mid century modern from a distance, but is much cheaper as it is made of plastic or metal, rather than solid wood. Again, great onstage. If you keep your colour scheme retro and throw in a couple well-picked vintage knick knacks (we used quite a bit of Blue Mountain Pottery, cheap, and made it look like something Margot collected), you can avoid having to purchase too many things. Try to think of pieces that could be used in other shows, or other periods as well. Remember, just because something is set in the 1950s, doesn’t mean the character’s can’t have a few older “inherited” pieces as well. It’s all about balance. In this show, we paid particular attention to the costumes, which also allowed us to go a bit simpler on the set. In dressing a period show on the cheap, remember that, while you may put in the time researching exactly what is accurate for the year (I know I did!) most audiences won’t know the difference between something from 1950 and 1960. Play with what you can find and you’ll realize that a period set can be a lot of fun, and a lot simpler than it may initially appear.
3 thoughts on “Set Design Inspiration – Mid Century Modern”
Reblogged this on Michael Woods – Theatre Technician and commented:
A great article on set design
Great article covering the aspects of stage dressing. Color schemes are a great resource of vintage paint dealers, as you have demonstrated.
If you can find them in good, usable condition, from the usual sources online, and in used vintage bookstores, and antique shops, vintage retail catalogs such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, J. C. Penney, Spiegel, Eaton’s (for Canada), etc., are great resources for nailing down the styles, colors, silhouettes, nick-nacks, clothing styles for both genders and all ages. They sell furniture, kitchen and laundry appliances, and generally appeal to the broadest cross section of society at their time – the great working and middle class.
Sears in particular is fabulous at this, and there’s even a series of books which have been written, thoroughly illustrated and published, concentrating on each decade from the beginning of the 20th century. They each start at the beginning of each decade, and working their way through all the changes that took place from start to finish, illustrating the fashions which were popular for children and adults of all ages. While these would primarily be most helpful in costuming a play taking place in a particular time period, the general purpose catalogs could be extremely helpful in pinning down the entire living styles of any middle class family or individual for that particular year or period of years that follow. I have several, focused on the early to mid 1940’s, before the Post War period, when things made rather drastic changes with the resuming of production for the general consumer/retail market. But, if I were going to produce a stage play set in the USA during a particular year, these would be a magnificent resource for practically every aspect of set dressing and costuming.