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Trend Report: Atomic Age Design

Marc Schenker September 2, 2021 · 14 min read
When you hear the phrase “Atomic Age” bandied about, your mind naturally drifts to power and space. Atomic Age design is a highly imaginative movement that plays on these themes of nuclear energy, atomic science, and space exploration. Coinciding with the start of the Cold War back in the 1940s, Atomic Age design looked to the future, full of speculation, wonder and, yes, fear about technology, space and the role of mankind in all of this. The end result was a visually inventive movement that combined elements of midcentury modern design with some retro aspects, and couched all of that in terms of outer space and the then-nascent Space Age. Join us for a walkthrough of Atomic Age design in all its futuristic glory.

The History of Atomic Age Design

To understand this contribution to design, we have to travel back to a time in the world when geopolitics were very uncertain. We’re talking about the Cold War, those decades of tension between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, characterized by their arms race and proxy wars (regional, local conflicts around the world) that both countries supported. Today, we know how the Cold War ended—with the Soviet Union and its communist satellite states collapsing. However, at the start of and for much of this conflict, there was a very real fear in the U.S. and the west that nuclear war, with all of its destructive power, would break out on a global scale with the Soviets, thereby threatening life as people in the 20th century knew it.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Atomic Age design is the epitome of how an entire culture can take its worries and fears over the then-real threat of a nuclear showdown—and actually convert it into a design trend. Although the Cold War lasted from about 1946 to 1991 (with the fall of the Soviet Union), this design trend preceded it slightly, being in fashion from about 1940 to 1963. At the core of this trend was also the series of advances that science was making during this time. While they represented great leaps forward for the human race, they also signaled potential doom due to the ease with which we could destroy ourselves. Atomic Age design coincided with:
  • July 1945 – The atomic bomb is developed by the US, Canada, and the UK as part of the Manhattan Project and then used one month later on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing World War II to a close
  • 1947 – Denis Gabor invents the hologram
  • 1948 – The US invents the world’s first atomic clock
  • 1951 – Nuclear power is used for the first time to power households in the US
  • 1952 – The US develops the world’s first thermonuclear weapon
  • 1956 – IBM invents the very first hard drive
  • 1957 – IBM invents the IBM 610, which is the first-ever personal computer controlled by one person and a keyboard
  • 1957 – The Soviet Union builds and launches Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite
  • 1960 – Theodore Maiman invents the world’s first usable laser
One of the most prominent places in which this trend first appeared was in American homes. To get a better idea of the aesthetics behind this trend, have a look at some of our favorite atomic age-inspired digital assets:
Thanks to the post-World War II boom in the States, mass suburbanization was underway across the country, with simpler and leaner homes being constructed frequently. If you lived in one of these homes in the period of this design trend, chances were great that you saw something in your home that was inspired by the atomic age. Items in your home were based on the structure of the atom and incorporated this in their aesthetic appeal. There’s maybe no better, blatant example of this than the Ball Wall Clock from 1949, made by industrial designer George Nelson, who was the director of design at the Herman Miller furniture company. Not only does this interior-design piece look like an homage to the atom, but it also demonstrates a more lighthearted and almost ironic or playful approach to design. This specific characteristic was certainly absent in earlier design trends of the 20th century, whether it be Art Nouveau (more nature-based), Art Deco (more focused on technology and sleek shapes), or Cubism (concerned with deconstructing objects and then reassembling them in a highly abstracted form). As the decades under this design trend wore on, more of this playfulness in design was in full display in other objects that would become staples of mid-20th-century décor. Who could forget the Keraclonic TV, with its glaring, futuristic aesthetic? The picture tube, in contrast with the classic TV sets of its time, features a rounded and sleek shape that more resembles the helmet of an astronaut in outer space. Even the screen of the Keraclonic TV looks like it could be the visor of said astronaut’s helmet, with the astronaut’s eyes almost peeking out from there.
Image Credit: Arenamontanus
Even lighting fixtures of its day received the Atomic Age treatment. It wasn’t uncommon to see lights that were designed in the shape of an atom. Essentially, it was the same approach as the aforementioned Ball Wall Clock, but each “atom” in the “molecule” is actually a light that connects to the others through a central skeleton. In this example, this atomic fixture gives off a wonderfully warm, orange glow, making it perfect for a party atmosphere.
Image Credit: Dun.can
As the 1950s’ style wore on, an interesting phenomenon occurred with Atomic Age design—it morphed into Space Age design, which is considered an offshoot of it. As such, Space Age design was slightly different from its parent in only minor details. For instance, whereas the parent emphasized interior, industrial and architectural design, Space Age design concentrated on a larger collection of consumer products, such as clothes and even pop-culture media like the classic 1960s cartoon, The Jetsons. Space Age design is largely seen as coming into existence when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 in 1957.

The Characteristics of Atomic Age Design

There’s so much about this movement that immediately grabs at your eyeballs for attention. It’s a significantly stylized design, to be sure, but it also has roots in solid design methods. What makes it stand out is that it overlaps with quite a few other famous movements of its time, which is what helps to give it its unique aesthetic. When you borrow and end up being influenced by various trends, you’re bound to become very interesting. Here are its telltale qualities:
  • Science, space, and technology influences in appearance
  • Futuristic motifs like rockets and space travel
  • Sleek and smooth curves, edges, and lines
  • Geometric designs like arches, circles, and polygons
  • Vibrant colors
  • Asymmetry (proportions, colors, etc.)
When you look at many of these traits in closer detail, that’s when you begin noticing some of the overlap with other prominent designs of its era. Take its preoccupation with the future and technology. Futurism and Art Deco were both fixated on that a couple of decades earlier already, with the former having an obsession with speed, youthfulness, and machines while the latter focused on the fusion between machines and technology. The same thing can be said about Atomic Age design’s smooth lines and shapes. If you look at Art Deco again, you’ll see a lot of streamlined shapes and figures, especially with its own telltale qualities like sunburst and sunrise motifs, chevrons (inverted V shapes), and ziggurat patterns. Of course, if we look at Midcentury modern design, we a general overlap with many of Atomic Age design’s themes, everything from the streamlined shapes and lines to the modern and futuristic elements within the style.

Atomic Age Design in Graphic Design

Because of its lighthearted and playful approach to style, this trend lends itself very well to graphic design. Here are some examples of what’s possible when you have imagination, a sense of irony, and use text and pictures in communication.

Atomica Mid-Century Print Effects

Further establishing the ties between this trend and Midcentury modern, this print-effects pack is your one-stop solution to add that classic, vintage look to any of your designs. In no time at all, you’ll have your projects looking like they were produced in the 1950s—with a healthy preoccupation of atomic and Space Age design. All you have to do is put your original design into this Atomica PSD template, choose your automated action, and then sit back as this digital asset turns your designs into a masterwork straight out of the atomic age. The best part of these print effects is that they’re non-destructive, allowing you to refine your ink effects and colors to absolute perfection.
Some standout features include:
  • Ink Absorption, Edge Starve, Ink Mottling and Edge Pigment effects, all common to atomic age design
  • Your choice of ultra-fast automated actions and completely customizable actions
  • Actions based on authentic paper samples and textures straight from ephemera and artifacts from this era

Atomic Age Print Pack

The Atomic Age Print Pack will turn your original designs into graphics that look like they came right out of the early part of the atomic age, the 1940s. Design in this era was renowned for being memorable by utilizing deep, black halftones that were then printed right on top of one spot color for the ultimate in dramatic contrast.
To make the era’s design effect work for whatever project you’re working on in the 21st century, simply put your black, original artwork on one layer while putting your color background on another layer. Then, save the file, and you get this retro deep, black halftone effect that just screams atomic! This pack comes with the following features:
  • Deep, inky, black halftones that resemble fresh newspaper print
  • Rough-edged color bleeding, just like what you would’ve seen back then
  • Fully customizable with non-destructive edits that let you endlessly fine-tune your designs
If you’re ready to give your present-day artworks the 1940s’ atomic treatment, this is the pack for you.

Atomic DooDads

With a name like Atomic Doodads, how can you possibly go wrong? This collection is a neat fusion of atomic and space age elements that you can use on your next design project or simply for inspiration. A set of lighthearted glyphs, these doodads are a motley crew of everything from roadside diner signs and futuristic, geometric patterns to atomic and molecular shapes and flying saucers straight out of 1950s science-fiction films.
Featuring quirky illustrations, icons, and symbols galore, this set epitomizes the playfulness of this design trend that has made it so endearing over the last several decades. Use these glyphs on projects like:
  • Newsletters
  • Brochures
  • Flyers
  • Logos
  • Emails
  • Websites
  • Blogs

Atomic Age Design in Web Design

Though a creature of midcentury 20th century, this design trend has come a long way. Today, it’s alive and well as part of eye-catching designs on the Internet. Here are some standout examples.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation

A nonprofit founded almost two decades ago, the Atomic Heritage Foundation strives to educate the public about the Manhattan Project. Unsurprisingly, its site is a treasure trove of atomic age web design.
Image Credit: Atomic Heritage Foundation
First, there’s its logo on the upper-left corner of its webpages. Note the molecular structure of the particles or atoms that come together to make the Foundation’s symbol. Then, there’s the card-based layout on its History page, which features thumbnails that demonstrate atomic-related photographs, symbols, and illustrations. Each card, when clicked or tapped, also opens up to more written information about a specific aspect of the atomic era.

The InkaBilly Emporium

The InkaBilly Emporium is a husband-and-wife-run studio in the UK that specializes in housewares, gifts and accessories—with a twist. The owners are completely obsessed with 1950s’ Americana pop culture, including atomic age design. As a result, their studio’s site boasts a lot of design elements that would be right at home at the height of this design trend.
Image Credit: The InkaBilly Emporium
When you land on the studio’s homepage, you’ll notice immediately that one of the hero images in the rotating carousel or slider is an homage to this trend, featuring atoms, patterns and space-related themes that you’d expect to have found in a 1950s’ American home.

Atomic Ranch

A site that’s devoted to covering Midcentury modern houses from the 1940s all the way to the 1960s, smack dab in the middle of the atomic style, Atomic Ranch shows off a good deal of atomic-related style on its site, starting on its homepage.
Image Credit: Atomic Ranch
The homepage’s three-column design and card-based layout give site visitors a peek at what’s in store in the rest of the site, which includes houses built during the Atomic Age, their unique architecture, and the furnishings you’d see in such thematic homes, along with accessories like atom-inspired wall clocks.

Atomic Age Design in Interior Design

Where this style was most prominent back in its heyday was in interiors. If you walked into the average American home in the 1950s, you could probably see one of these items greeting you. In addition, there have been entire interiors built just to showcase this theme.

Ball Wall Clock

An iconic object of this style, the Ball Wall Clock represents a move away from the sheer functionality of design in general and into more playful territory. This is in marked contrast to trends like Bauhaus, which emphasized function over form any day of the week. This is a switch we see in the history of design, whereby pre-World War II trends are more concerned with utility, yet post-World War II trends finally learn how to lighten up.
Image Credit: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
The Ball Wall Clock is designer George Nelson’s work, and it represents an atomic-influenced style. Each of the numbers on the clock face (or where the numbers would be) is an atom, connecting back to the center of the clock.

Bark Cloth Tablecloth

Bark cloth is a material that comes from the trees of the Moraceae family. When used as a fabric, it’s typically rough, which is why it earns the name it has. This type of cloth figured significantly in midcentury homes during this design trend.
Image Credit: Zazzle
Frequently used as tablecloth in the 1940s and 1950s, bark cloth was adorned with space-related icons and symbols, with the most recognizable being the iconic atoms and electrons whirling around each other. This look became fashionable for a period in the kitchens and dining rooms of everyday folks.

Los Angeles International Airport’s Theme Building

Aptly called the Theme Building, this structure and its interior were built at the height of this design craze, in the early 1960s. The building’s exterior is meant to look like a flying saucer with its landing legs fully extended. This was achieved by topping the structure’s steel-reinforced legs with empty, stucco-bedecked steel trusses.
Image Credit: Sam Howzit
On the inside, special attractions have been built specifically to showcase this design’s quirky elements. In the Encounter Restaurant, patrons can eat while enjoying the 1950s-style furniture, the angled windows, and the futuristic, spaced-out architecture.

Fears of the Future

What this design trend is best remembered for today is its representation of the zeitgeist at that moment in time. In the midpoint of the 20th century, World Wars I and II had ravaged the planet, and the start of the Cold War was what would become another prolonged conflict. People (and designers) were on edge given the implications for destruction from all the new technology that was being invented left and right. In spite of all this dread (or maybe as a healthy way of coping with it), what emerged was a light and playful design trend that captured civilization’s fears in a way that was highly aesthetic, unique, and memorable.
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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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