Mad Men and the Appeal of Mid-Century Modern

Don and Betty Draper in a re-imagined version of
Roy Lichtenstein's In The Car (1963) by Jayne Tunnicliffe
I have contemplated sitting down to post about Mad Men about a hundred different times since I started my blog. But it has proven very difficult since I have yet to fully digest just how and why the show's strong aesthetic vision has connected with contemporary audiences. No doubt, the critically acclaimed television show that takes place in New York during the 1960's and follows the world of commercial advertising executives and the intersections of their private and personal lives (hence the "Mad" for Madison Avenue) exposes just how closely the world of advertising and the world of modern art were connected in the formative stages of the image-selling industry. In this sense, there is something both revealing and critically important to the underlying themes of Mad Men and the way the show examines mechanisms of need, desire, and visibility.

For example, there is a terrific scene in the first season of Mad Men when the show's main character Don Draper pitches an ad for the new Kodak slide projector to his client (click on image below to link to copyrighted clip). Instead of creating a straight forward and predictable ad that details all the features of the machine, Draper engages in the evolving technique of Madison Avenue ad executives to tap into the emotional sensorium of the audience. The entire pitch hinges on selling the idea of nostalgia gained through viewing illuminated visual images. As Draper suggests in the boardroom, "'s delicate, but potent." 

This is a fact not lost on the show's writers and set designers who have worked to cleverly reference the alluring visual art and design context in Mad Men's driving narratives and even directly insert many modern art pieces into the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Ironically enough, the show's final effect, much like Draper's pitch, delivers a kind of potent and desirable nostalgia of its own. I have personally collected some screen shots illustrating specific moments when modern art and design are featured on the show (see pictures below) and then discovered there is even a dedicated blog to this very subject which can be found here.

As a result, Mad Men has been deeply influential as of late in the contemporary world of fashion and design-- inspiring a renewed interest in all things modern and pop translating at a mass market level in the recent Banana Republic Mad Men inspired line of clothing from this past Spring/Summer, the popular MadMenYourself application (that I must admit I used to create a 1960's version of myself), all the way to the world of high-end interior interior furnishings where "mid-century modern" is currently all the rage. Commodity culture responding to a show representing the mechanisms of its master manipulators-- it is a postmodern mine field to say the least.

What then are we to finally make of this phenomenon and the idea some critics are describing as the "Mad Men effect" on the world of visual art and culture? And where do the connections begin and end? Does the recent record sale of a Roy Lichtenstein painting for example have anything to do with this interest? What about the already important influence of Andy Warhol that permeates the show? Is this a learned nostalgia or a market-driven one? etc.. etc.. This takes me back to opening remark of this post and my strong sense that the answer to the Mad Men craze demands far more careful consideration than a mere blog post or two. In fact, I am pretty certain there is a decent doctoral dissertation in it all somewhere. In the meantime, I will continue watching Mad Men with a critical eye-- both to the important questions about the intersection of art and commerce the show raises, but also to the wonderful aesthetic world that the show inhabits.

I am as seduced by it as many of you.