When you think of space age design, it is usually the 1950s or 60s that will instantly spring to mind. Who can ignore those spindly atomic legs on a sideboard, bold geometric patterns on the curtains or Jetsons-style tailfins on the Cadillac. Indeed as the world geared up to watch the first rockets orbit the Earth or man’s first trips beyond our atmosphere, industrial designers everywhere went into Space crazy hyper-drive. Unsurprisingly this trend would spill out into the design of our consumer electronics as well, although often at a slightly slower pace than regular household furnishings.
Up until the early 1950s it is fair to say most tech products on offer were both boxy and utilitarian. Their cabinets would be heavy and covered in classic veneers or earth tone vinyl or Bakelite that allowed them to hide in plain sight within the average interior. There were of course some companies such as Ecko, Crosley or Wurlitzer who dared to buck this trend, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.
By the mid-1950s three key things had changed which would throw open the curtains of industrial design and free our tech forever. The first was the invention of the transistor in 1948 and its initial use in a consumer radio (the Regency TR-1 in 1953). For product designers everywhere, this new invention was a major game changer because it made redundant the large and cumbersome glass valves that were needed to power most electrical products at the time. Both large and fragile, protecting the valves and giving them ample space to warm up safely was a crucial component of any design and left styling as a somewhat lesser consideration. In comparison to the tube, the new transistor was tiny, didn’t heat up, and was extremely robust allowing designers to shrink the scale and weight of their products and get far more creative with their shapes.
The second change that occurred was in the discovery of new forms of plastic that could be cheaply and easily injection moulded into shape. The new atomic forms seemed to push and show off the limits of what the new bright plastics could do, and unlike the earlier Bakelite these plastics did not need to be as robust.
The third change that occurred was in the explosion of the 1950s marketing profession that grew up to help sell our prized gadgets and gizmos. Understanding the endless value of novelty, internal designers began to work more closely with their marketing departments to create ever more vibrant product ranges. By the early 1960s Italian companies in particular were regularly contracting big name designers such as Ettore Sottsass or Achille Castiglioni to design some signature objects for them. And it was not just visually that things progressed either. As the space race intensified even the names of certain products began to be changed as well. A great example is the 1957 ‘Space Command’ TV remote controller range from Zenith.
For the Electronics Industry the mid-1960s to mid 1970s saw a hiatus in overtly space-related products, but the focus of the designs changed as well. While 1950s pieces had more of an Atomic and scientific styling to them, those of the 60s and 70s drew inspiration instead from the many (now iconic) sci-fi movies of the day. For example a company called Weltron released a range of spherical audio gear in the early 70s that was supposed to have been inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey, and other machines such as the Wega 3300 (released 1963) by Verner Panton or the Rosita Stereo Command (1975) by Luxus looked like they could have come off the set of Star Trek. In reality most of the big and small brands had a go at space age design but to varying degrees of success. The Brionvega RR126 ‘Phonographo’ stereo system is now considered a cult design from the period and highly sought after by collectors, but at the other end of the scale you also find items like the strangely shaped little Panasonic ‘toot-a-loop’ radio of 1970, or the Sanyo Phonosphere record player of 1973 that contained its own mini glitter-ball. Of course, for any true lover of Space Age design, perhaps the ultimate icon came with the Panasonic TR-005 television released in 1980. Shaped like an Astronaut’s helmet and complete with visor, this was Space age kitsch in its truest sense. It was also one of the last generation of space related designs before 1980s post Modernism killed the genre forever.
Today there is a strong interest in Space Age objects among the collecting community. Not only do the objects scream of cool mid-century design, but they are often elegantly thought out products too. What I most admire about many of the space age items from this era is the way they were willing to throw out the rule book about what their product should look like. Unlike other industries that tend to be extremely conservative in their design language, the post-war electronics firms (as a newly emerging industry) were willing to embrace and integrate the many fads of the day. In reality who says a radio needs to be shaped like a cuboid just because Marconi made his that way? Why not throw caution to the wind and instead go with something shaped like an egg, sphere, rocket or helmet? It won’t change the quality of reception or give you better programmes to watch or listen to, but it will certainly make you smile more when you use it!
Photo attribution: Nasa astronout tests by James Vaughan ; Westinghouse Radio by Joe Haupt ; Space Age TV by Anders Sandberg ; Zenith Space Command Controller by Todd Ehlers ; Akat-1 Analyster by Marcin Wichary ; Panasonic TV by Housing Works Thrift Shops