Categories / Trend Reports
Trend Report: Atomic Age Design
Marc Schenker September 2, 2021 · 14 min read
The History of Atomic Age DesignTo 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: WikipediaAtomic 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
Image Credit: ArenamontanusEven 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.canAs 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 DesignThere’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.)
Atomic Age Design in Graphic DesignBecause 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 EffectsFurther 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 PackThe 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
Atomic DooDadsWith 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:
Atomic Age Design in Web DesignThough 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.
Image Credit: Atomic Heritage FoundationFirst, 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.
Image Credit: The InkaBilly EmporiumWhen 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.
Image Credit: Atomic RanchThe 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 DesignWhere 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 ClockAn 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 MuseumThe 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 TableclothBark 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: ZazzleFrequently 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 BuildingAptly 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 HowzitOn 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 FutureWhat 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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