March 2024

Everything Old

Space Age design dominated postwar America

by Corbin Crable

This issue of Discover Vintage America will present decades of vintage NASA collectibles, which have chronicled our fascination with space exploration for more than half a century. It only makes sense to do this on the heels of NASA’s announcement of the Artemis 2 project, expected to launch sometime next year. Four astronauts will conduct a flyby of the moon in the first scheduled crewed mission of NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

Down here on Earth, we can detect space travel in many other facets of our culture. First, however, it’s probably best to make the distinction between Space Age design and Atomic Age design, which can often confuse people because the two terms were sometimes used interchangeably.

According to Architectural Digest, the Atomic Age began after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, ending World War II and signifying a new period in human history that would be marked by the potential use of atomic power and the terrifying prospect of Armageddon. It was in this year, too, that author George Orwell first gave a name to the hostility and tension between the United States and the Soviet Union – the Cold War.

Still, despite their dark origins, the design trends that came from this period were sleek, colorful and even playful. Atomic particles became incorporated into everything from architecture to kitchen appliances and from wallpaper to light fixtures.

Space Age design, however, began more than a decade later, with the launch of the Sputnik satellite in late 1957. This movement’s visuals possess their own distinct look, and ‘Space Age’ is no longer used interchangeably with ‘Atomic Age’ when referring to design trends. Unlike the fear associated with the use of atomic technology, visuals consistent with the Space Age were full of optimism in humanity’s exploration of worlds beyond Earth, and faith in the good our ongoing technological developments could harness. The movement found its way into pop culture with TV shows like The Jetsons featuring it prominently. Space Age influence can even be found in the world of fashion – remember the white go-go boots worn by Jane Fonda in her groovy sci-fi flick “Barbarella” (1968)?

Nowhere was Space Age design more readily present than in the 1964 World’s Fair.

There, innovations from the smallest ink pen to the hulking automobile to the fair’s pavilions pointing skyward possessed the sleek look of the Space Age – it was a sign of promise, of advancement, of technological evolution, all of which coincided with the Baby Boomer generation.

Space Age design became synonymous with the Midcentury Modern movement, having enjoyed a resurgence in recent years as it becomes more closely aligned with camp and kitsch.

Obviously, you can still find echoes of Space Age design at your local antique store or vintage market. Take a moment to appreciate it as we prepare to look to the stars and to NASA’s bright future in the coming years.


Contact Corbin Crable at​