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What defines Atomic Age design?

Vintage metal lamp with starburst design
All photos taken at Atomic Antiques

Though originating as three distinct design movements, the terms Mid-Century Modern, Atomic Age, and Space Age are frequently used interchangeably today. This conflation makes sense, since there is a time overlap in these styles, and they all reflect integration of technology into functional living. Because of these commonalities, it is hard to discuss one without discussing the others.

Red and white streamline space age design lamp
All photos taken at Atomic Antiques

What is Atomic Age design?

The Atomic Age refers to roughly the years from 1940 to 1963. It inspired both fear of nuclear warfare and hope for a better future made possible through the use of technology. Art reflects life, and despite one of the darker moments in our history with the use of atomic bombs, motifs featuring the symbols of the Atomic Age began to be incorporated into popular design.

Pyrex bowl with geometric design
All photos taken at Atomic Antiques

What is Space Age design?

The Space Age began in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet sputnik into space, and it continues into the present. It brought new worries (the Russians!) as well as new hopes (life on Mars?). And, as you might expect, it also brought new design motifs such as sputniks and rocket ships. These design elements were frequently incorporated into Atomic Age inspired design and joined the atom in decorating everything from marquee signs, to light fixtures, to couch upholstery.

Glass lamp shade with geometric star design on streamline metal airplane base
All photos taken at Atomic Antiques

What is Mid-Century Modern (MCM) design?

The era of Mid-Century Modern design spanned from the end of World War II in 1945 to around 1970. It had roots in a style known as Streamline Modern, with its clean forms and lines and rejection of superfluous embellishments. Many American designers embraced wider post-WW2 availability of new materials (fiberglass, steel, aluminum, bent plywood and plastic laminates) as well as mass production, expressing their futuristic visions in the design of everyday objects. Many European designers of the time, however, leaned the other way, using traditional natural materials like wood and leather (think teak furniture) but incorporating them into the same streamlined forms.

Orange mid-century modern chair with metal legs
All photos taken at Atomic Antiques

How to recognize Atomic/Space Age/MCM design?

Thus the three design movements coexisted and fed each other, and never really went completely out of style before their resurgence began in the late 1990s. Whichever name we use for it today, we recognize the style by these particular elements:

  1. Streamlining and prioritization of function

  2. Clean forms and lines

  3. Atoms, starbursts, sputniks, amoeba shapes (a reference to natural science) and geometric figures

  4. Vibrant colors

  5. ”New” materials as well as traditional materials used in a modernistic way

Mid-century modern amoeba shaped tile top coffee table
All photos taken at Atomic Antiques

Reproductions of consumer goods in the Atomic Age/Space Age/Mid-Century Modern styles are widely available on the market today.  But if you’re looking for authenticity, antique stores and estate sales would be your best bet to find original pieces.

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