Set Design Inspiration – Mid Century Modern

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:

  1. Silhouette: What sort of general styles and silhouettes were common, and where can we find those in both vintage and modern pieces?
  2. Colour: What colours were popular at the time? And in particular, what colour schemes would have been used then that are rarely used today?
  3. 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.

DSC_0752In 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.

E.

 

A Brief History of Women’s Hats, 1900-1960

My Mother and I recently signed up for the Millinery course at Stratford Off The Wall, the place where I took my Faux Food class this past September. Over the course of the week, we will learn how to make either fascinators or buckram or soft-form hats. As the two of us do all the costuming for Bygone, I thought I should look up some authentic period pieces for inspiration, in hopes I can make something for a future show. There are so many styles of hats that were seen during the first half of the 20th century, that I decided to put together a very simple, very brief history for any other costumers out there who need a quick reference guide. Hope it helps!

1900’s
In the early Edwardian period, hats were a fashion accessory, rather than a necessity. Most were kept fairly small, sitting on the top of the head atop a pile of hair. More masculine styles had begun to emerge during the 1890s, and some of these were still popular during this period. Women were seen wearing traditionally male styles such as the “Boater” or “Trilbys”. Bonnets had grown out of style, and women preferred hats that soared above the head, sometimes called “3 Story” or “Flower Pots”.

1910’s
During the 1910’s, hats began to grown again in size. The brims grew increasingly large, often reaching past the wearer’s shoulders. To keep these large pieces steady, hat pins, sometimes over a foot long, were used to secure them to the hair. Large plumes and floral pieces adorned hats of this period. During the First World War, however, hats began to decrease in size, fitting closer to the head and sitting low-down on the face, giving the woman a youthful appearance. Hats became more plain, as it was seen as unpatriotic to be concerned with ones appearance during this time.

1920’s
Continuing the trend of the previous decade, hats continued to get lower on the brow and closer fitting on the head. The “cloche hat”, a bell-shaped piece that covered the wearer’s head almost entirely, became a staple of the period. Rather than tall feathers or blooms adorning the hats, design was seen through elaborate detailing in shape, with felt molded into waves and curls. Most hats of the period, particularly later in the decade, did not have brims.

1930’s
The 30’s saw the re-appearance of brims as well as a shallower crown to accommodate the full, curled hairstyles that were popular in this decade. As parasols were now out of fashion, wider brims became popular to protect the wearer from the sun. Towards the end of the decade, hats became taller and were perched on the top of the head, similar to the way they were in the early years of the century. Women’s fedoras (traditionally a male style) also became fashionable when paired with a tailored suit.

1940’s
World War II shaped the look of 1940’s women’s fashion. Because of rations, clothing was often utilitarian looking and closely fit, using as little fabric as possible. Hat materials, however, were not rationed, and so the decade saw the emergence of a wide variety of hat styles, overly adorned and frequently elaborate. Feathers, veils, and artificial flowers graced the tops of wearer’s heads, and the term “piece de resistance” or “resistance piece” implied that the fashions were in a way patriotic, and in protest to the Nazi occupation (a very different outlook than that taken during the First World War). “Doll Hats”, similar to some styles seen in gothic fashion today, were also worn. They sat a-top the wearer’s head, very small and very far forward on the brow, reminiscent of some Victorian styles. The turban was another look, one that covered all or most of the woman’s hair, and that was pulled up into a ‘v’ at the front of the brow; sometimes coined “v for victory”, once again connecting fashion with patriotism.

1950’s
Post WWII saw a decline in the popularity of hats as many women chose to now leave the house without them. In an effort to keep afloat, the millinery industry began to create variety and extravagance, making hats the “must have” piece to top-off a formal outfit. While most hats remained close to the head, “pancake” and “cart-wheel” hats, wide-brimmed, flat pieces that perched atop short hairstyles were also popular.

1960’s
The 1960s saw a greater decline in the wearing of hats, although the popularity of Jackie Kennedy made the pillbox hat extremely fashionable for some time. The decade’s higher, fuller hairstyles meant that hats needed to be small and sit on the top of the head. Fashion in the 60s was increasingly geared toward youth, and so hats began to be viewed as a thing of the past. Towards the end of the decade, hats as a daily accessory, except during the cold months, were nearly extinct. Brief re-emergence’s have been seen since then, but for the most part, the hat as an everyday accessory died out in the 1960s.

E.

 

Sources: http://vintagefashionguild.org
Google Search