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California Modern: 1950

California Modern: 1950

1950. Cocktail hour at the Spencer residence in Santa Monica. Note the mirror-view television sunken into the table. Architect: Richard Spencer. Color transparency by Julius Shulman. View full size. Is Uncle Miltie on tonight?

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What goes around comes around...

I'm from New Zealand, and this style of interior is becoming extremely popular again. I think it's wonderful, nothing like a public toilet.

Kind of Cold In Here...

I agree with all those who find this room cold and impersonal, but I suppose it would be a good place to hang out and smoke a couple packs of butts, like these people are doing. Girl in the black dress is exceptional by the standards of any era. For those who like this room I suggest a visit to Aqueduct Racecourse. That was built in 1961, but style hadn't changed all that much, and the little foyer below the grandstand escalator is still furnished something like this. A real time warp.

Another world


I can't even imagine how wealthy one would have to be to live like this in 1950. When I first saw the picture I assumed these people were all movie stars. My father was born in 1947, and his working class upbringing in Northern England, in an unheated home lacking an indoor bathroom, would have been almost literally on another planet compared to this. Astonishing.

More on the Spencers

I found the Spencers' wedding announcement (in the January 28, 1949 Long Beach Independent). Based on the accompanying photo I'd bet that they are the two standing by the fireplace. Most remarkable was her wedding dress - "an apple green dressmaker suit and orchids." He was described as an industrial engineer, originally from Denver, who studied abroad. She was the former Josephine Caruso, whose parents had a Long Beach address and who graduated from Polytechnic High. "They will make their home in Santa Monica Canyon."

This room is ugly and the people look strange.

Why does the woman in black appear to have been decapitated and then had her head put back on the neck? What is wrong with this picture? There certainly is a lot wrong with the room. It's about as homey as a public toilet.

Time is relative...

Our family was totally working class, but, I remember the homes (and offices) of more "sophisticated" people looking much like this when I was a kid. Ours was a two-university town. This looks like the home of a prof or department head, and it resembles a lot of the university architecture being built at the time, the time being the early 1960s for me. It took a decade or more for California Chic to percolate down (and up) to the likes of us in Southern Ontario.

That mirror TV cabinet

Let's see if we can figure out how that mirror cabinet for the TV worked...

We need two mirrors to keep from reversing the image. Could the TV screen be facing the photographer, with one mirror out of sight reflecting the image up to the mirror we can see? No, then the viewer would see a sideways image, unless the TV is on its side. Probably the TV needed to stay upright? Or could it be on its side, or upside down?

[Mirror view televisions, whose sales peak was sometime around 1948, were used for the larger screen sizes (17 inches and up) back when the bigger picture tubes were too long to fit front-to-back in a standard cabinet. Generally the tube was wired to display a reverse image. The standard design was an upright cabinet with mirrored lid. Some used a prism or extra mirrors. They were superseded by direct-view sets once picture tubes got short enough to fit front-to-back in a 24-inch-deep enclosure. Custom installations continued to make use of the principle. - Dave]

The lobbyists

This room looks more like an upscale lobby or waiting room than a room in somebody's home. I'm guessing the little Spencers didn't play in this room.

I think one of the biggest reasons the woman in black looks so contemporary is her millennial borderline-underweight figure, in a time when most of the starlets were more pneumatic.

[You'll note from the caption that the owner of the house is the architect who designed it. - Dave]

Time Traveler

I can't believe that woman in the black outfit is from 58 years ago. I am intensely curious as to how she aged in the following decades... How did she look in 1965? 1974? 1995? The writer Robert Benchley once had to console a man who was in love with a woman who'd been dead for a hundred years. I feel myself falling in love with this woman, and wish I had a time machine.

As seen on AMC's Mad Men

The woman on the right sure looks like Betty Draper. Of course this would have been before she met her future hubby, Don.


Do you suppose the fire is actually burning that wood? If so, Mr. Sandals wouldn't be able to keep his hand on the fireplace screen very long. That is unless he is so mesmerized that he doesn't notice.

[Some people are just too cool to get burned. - Dave]

Neal Cassady by the wall

With Kerouac chatting up the local hipsters, while traveling "On the Road."


Sandals on men are just wrong. Sandals with a suit are an abomination. This guy wuld probably be wearing flip flops to work today.

1950 Armani

When I saw this, I immediately thought of Armani Casa, the style is so similar. And the woman on the right in the black dress with the small pois pattern is pure Emporio.


Going out on a limb here that those sandals are huaraches which were big in the 60's. I know because I had a Rat Fink surf themed LP, Surfink, in the 60's that mentioned huaraches. I suppose that qualifies me some.

True date of this photo

The unbroken horizontal top of the bodice on the sleeveless and strapless gowns gives me pause about the date 1950. I've found only one photo of 1950, "Carmen's Armpit" by Norman Parkinson, that shows a model in such a gown, but the top of that bodice has a break in the overfold to suggest cleavage. By 1952 such gowns as appear in this photo were worn; by 1954-1955 they were common. The short hairstyle on the blonde belongs to 1951-1952, or to 1955, especially if she has a flip curl in front. This image could be as late as 1955. Perhaps a source for the unusual TV setup will help pin down the exact year.

[This photograph was taken in 1950. - Dave]

The draperies

The draperies--I assume that is what they are--are amazing. But I really, really want that lamp on the right.

[Those are probably boards set at an angle. Your classic mid-century room divider or window baffle. - Dave]


The hi-fi system is highly unusual. They were not commonly built into coffee tables! They were commonly custom built, however. The components often didn't come with cabinets.

I assume that the TV mirror is so thick because it has a layer of that zebra-grain plywood on it. I also assume that the preamp sticking out near Black Dress's knees tucks in when not in use.

There would also be a record changer that slid out when the records needed changing. As someone noted, the records are those old-fashioned 78s. The 33 rpm LP record was just coming into vogue at that time, being introduced c. 1948.

About Santa Monica

I phrased that poorly; my intention was to zero in on Southern California in general, not Santa Monica specifically. What I was driving at was that Southern California had long been a place where the new, the novel, the offbeat was a familiar part of the culture; also that there was a particular style of upscale living - influenced by, among other things, the climate, the movie industry and that tolerance for the idiosyncratic and unusual. A scene like this, in a ritzy, high-concept-design postwar modern living/entertaining room, with a guy in open-shirt designer garb in sandals, well, this is so totally Southern California that I can't stand it. And it's 1950. We're witnessing the dawn of casual chic.

Yeah, Baby . . . So Cool!

This is probably the first Shorpy pic that truly makes me want to time travel and immerse myself completely into this scene. I love the coolness and sleekness and the fact that 58 years later, this looks like something that I could probably mimic today without too much fuss. Well, except the smoking.

Going Down

I thought it was simply a blocky coffee table, until I saw the opening to the steps leading to the chic pleasure dungeon.

The guy in the suit and the blonde are obviously planning an immediate descent.

Playboy Pad

The guy in the suit and sandals looks like a cross between Woody Harrelson and Hugh Hefner.

Spooky Chic

The very chic woman on the right looks so contemporary it's almost spooky.

Santa Monica

So, tt, what was "this lifestyle" that was on the periphery of your awareness?

Time and place

Sandals and a suit? Hey, this is California -- not only that, Santa Monica. As California goes, so goes the future, and it was true in 1950. Granted, I was only 4 then, and my family wasn't in any way immersed in this kind of lifestyle and fashion, but I grew up aware of it, so this scene is completely believable. About the only thing not cutting-edge that I can see are what appear to be 78-rpm record albums (they were literally albums) on the bottom two shelves.


The thing that struck me immediately was the prominence of books in this otherwise very spare room. Note the tapered, built-in bookcases, the hard-bound volume carefully placed on the coffee table and the stack of books in the centre unit of sectional couch. Clearly, those who "dressed" this room could imagine the living room as a space where people would read, and they wanted to project the possibility.

Today's living rooms -- and the "entertainment units" with which they are furnished -- are designed around electronics, with some allowance for a few magazines or decorative items. Bookcases, where you actually find them, tend to have oversize shelves for binders, photo albums and magazines, not octavo sized books.

Name that tune.

How about you all guess what suave, very cool and modern music that fits the scene might have been playing on the stereophonic hi-fi in 1950. I'm guessing something with Les Paul and Mary Ford.

[There was no stereo hi-fi in 1950, but what the heck. Miles Davis. - Dave]

Soviet Chic

I love the Soviet Chic concrete block wall. It reminds me of the university building where I currently work. Probably constructed in about the same era.

Two observations: (1) without a ladder, how do you reach the books at the top of the 12-foot-shelf? (2) I love that the flask on the table matches both the drink on the table (which looks like Hawaiian Punch to me) and the pillows behind the bored blonde.

[The "flask" is a table lighter. - Dave]

Steak Tartare

Is that a big plate of raw hamburger there?

[Probably not. - Dave]

Modern and Cold...

I like a lot of the modern designs from the 50's. However, this one looks too cold and industrial. This is one cocktail party that I am glad I didn't go to. Just look at how much fun they are having! Oh my!

Meaningful Look...

... between Standing Man and Black Dress Woman. Who knows what else they have in common besides biblical footwear? The night is young...

Where is Hugh Hefner?

This is reminiscent of the mood of the old TV Show "Hugh Hefner's Penthouse Party." It was all so "chic and stylishly sophisticated" and only the young and beautiful need apply. I do LOVE the streamlined clean look of it all but the guy standing by the fireplace appears to be wearing sandals with a suit, kind of a strange combo. And the powder blue chenille chair in the left foreground would have left lots of lint on black clothing. Quite a slick depiction of the trends of 1950, although most of it is timeless good design. Thanks for the flashback, I love your Shorpy time machine.

Looking like today!

High ceilings, simple, sparse furnishings, even the fashions look contemporary. Usually there would be a grey brick fireplace and evidence of robin egg blue palette or chrome and blond furniture around for the fifties. This could be 2009 decor.


Is that SHAG carpetting on the chair? And why is Mr. Spencer wearing Birkenstocks with his suit? Even the ladies shoes seems to be.... less than fashionable.

House overall seems somewhat dated, but functional, but the furniture (except maybe the TV) needs to go. And the TV needs to be an LCD pop up with something like Microsoft Surface. Otherwise, this looks like a bad retro-istic look at yesterday's today.

Swank pad

The future was going to be so cool, and look what we did with it.

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