Whether you’ve loved its honest look at the cutthroat world of 60’s advertising and relationships, or thought it was a self-indulging, depressing bore, Mad Men was unquestionably one of the most breathtaking examples of set design in the modern television era. Its accuracy and attention to detail with interior spaces, fixtures, furniture, artwork, and materials caught the eye of many a design professional (including myself) before they were even able to become invested in the series’ plot and characters. Though there were a few times I almost gave up on Don Draper, I’ll be sad to see those gorgeous set pieces disappear now that the series is done.
As the Mad Men sets evolved to reflect the changing aesthetic of the 60’s and the lives of the show’s characters during its 7-season run, each new set would inevitably elicit design commentary. Exquisite mid century furniture and materials typically stole the show, but I kept noticing less prominent aspects that stuck with me over and over. Why do we not design sunken living rooms anymore? With our current obsession with open concept spaces, would it hurt to have a divider panel or two? And does modern plaid wallcovering exist?
The Conversation Pit
Don and Megan Draper’s Manhattan Home
A very pointed departure from Don’s home with his first wife, Betty (see below), this stylish apartment with his new wife Megan immediately demonstrated the couple’s youthful metropolitan way of living, Don’s rising office status and his return to an essentially child-free lifestyle, and he and Megan’s collective eye for current trends.
The Draper’s living room is a hybrid of the two types, with some furniture positioned against the edge and several iconic mid century pieces floating in the middle of the room. Wide wood steps create several connection points between the kitchen, entry, and bedroom areas to the living room, making it more accessible that a typical conversation pit.
I admit there are potential pitfalls: even in open plan spaces, the sunken living room could implicitly feel separate from the rest of the room, creating an effect in opposition with its social purpose; the built-in furniture along the perimeter is much harder to replace as tastes change; and then there’s the obvious safety hazard of spraining an ankle – or worse – on the perimeter ledge. Due to these negative aspects of the conversation pit, after the 1970’s, many were filled in. I think it’s time to reintroduce them to the, well, the conversation.
Don and Betty Draper’s 1914 Colonial Home
Before we get too far, I want to nip the Seattle attire jokes in the bud. Now that we’re done with that bit of business, I’d like to plead my case for using plaid wallpaper more often in modern design.
It’s true that plaid is trending right now in fashion as well as almost every type of fixture or furnishing out there: upholstery, floor coverings, and even artwork. But there isn’t much love for plaid wallcovering right now, and I can understand why – it’s a busy print with historical and cultural baggage assigned to it.
But like fashion’s embracing of plaid in more than just a quaint or preppy context, the built environment can find a place for it on surfaces too. While product examples are still a bit scarce, a few companies offer modern plaid prints that don’t overwhelm:
Graham and Brown
Audrey Charcoal by Marcel Wanders Wallpaper
Fairburn Tartan Wallpaper, in Neutral and Red/Plum
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Offices
Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper’s offices both feature large pieces of artwork that were addressed directly during the series. In both cases, the clearly expensive art pieces were intended to do two things: showcase their owners’ aesthetics and values, and highlight their power within the firm.
Modern office design tends to focus on minimizing plush executive spaces – even eliminating them altogether – which is intended to downplay executive power. While I do understand that spending a large portion of the design budget on an art piece for a single person’s enjoyment doesn’t fit with this philosophy, there is a part of me that also appreciates the mystery of a piece of exquisite artwork hidden just out of reach. Place that same piece of artwork in an employee lounge, and it loses some of its magic.
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Offices
Wood paneling shows up in almost every major set piece in Mad Men: both the original Sterling Cooper and later SCDP office conference rooms and executive suites, Don and Megan Draper’s home, elevator cabs, and dimly-lit restaurants. We tend to associate wood paneling with mid century design, and unlike some of the furniture design trends we’ve seen skyrocket in the last decade, we haven’t been inundated with replica wood paneling.
And while I don’t advocate using wood paneling to quite the same extents as designers chose to in the 1960’s, with the beautiful array of wood paneling products available these days, I’m not opposed to more – much more – wood paneling in our lives.
Spaltart Wood Panels
Reclaimed Hardwood Wall Cladding
Fixed Room Dividers
Pete and Trudy’s Manhattan Home
The open concept floor plans of the mid century era created the need for a semi-transparent way to delineate space. The wall panels in Pete and Trudy’s home are quintessential 1960’s design, with their stockiness, solid-to-void ratio and graphic pattern. Though the living room is almost completely open to the dining area, the perceived weight of the dividers creates two separate spaces.
It’s difficult to find heavier room dividers like this today – while there are a plethora of lightweight options available (many beautiful in their own right), that sense of solidity found in mid century panels is missing.The best way to find wood panels like the ones above is to work with a local custom woodworking shop, but below are a few options that are more like cousins, rather than sisters, to the mid century divider.
Have you designed or used a sunken living room in any recent projects? Would you use plaid wallcovering or wood panelling in a room, and if so, what kind of space? What do you think of the current open plan trend in relationship to executive perception and interaction?