With season six wrapping up last Sunday, I’ve been reflecting on the effect Mad Men has had. Sometimes it seems like Mad Men single-handedly made mid-century styles popular again. Each week for six seasons, millions of viewers have tuned in as much for the furniture, art, interior design, clothes, make up, and hair as for the storyline. In the years since it premiered, stores from Banana Republic to Manhattan Home Design rolled out Mad Men inspired collections. It’s undeniable that mod is back in a big way.
And it’s popularity has been a boon for preservation. Mid-century buildings are suddenly cool again. Preservation organizations have harnessed the power of pop culture by throwing Mad Men themed fundraising events and awareness campaigns. The series has become a touchstone around which to discuss preservation and preservation issues. Mad Men itself even joined the conversation when it featured the demolition of Penn Station in Season 3, which was the birth of the modern preservation movement in the US.
Many television series have been set in the past, from westerns such as Gun Smoke to teen dramas/comedies like That 70s Show, The Wonder Years and Freaks and Geeks, but few have had the cultural impact of Mad Men. I think the secret* lies with show creator/runner Matthew Weiner’s notorious attention to detail. His staff tirelessly works to make sure each peculiarity, from the size of a bouffant to the size of a pastry is accurate. This translates into set design and wardrobe that is thoughtful, clever, nostalgic, sumptuous and beautiful. It also feels authentic, never theatrical or costumey (unless the scene, of course, is meant to be those things).
One key to authenticity is Mad Men’s use of a variety of sets and styles. With the exception, maybe, of the SCDP/SC&P offices and the Drapers’ apartment which were newly furnished, no scene design is comprised solely of pieces from one era. Nor is every set a “1960s” set. Take the Draper residence in Ossining, for example. It is based off of a 1910s colonial revival design and is filled with a hodgepodge of furniture. It’s easy to imagine that some of the pieces are family heirlooms or holdovers from Betty or Don’s singledom and that some of it is new. The Francis residence, a Victorian, is similarly decorated with a range of styles from early American to modern. If in each scene every stick of furniture and nicknack and chotsky was produced in1968, it would feel fabricated and fake. That’s not how people live now and it isn’t how people lived then, either. So the mix and match approach of Mad Men’s set design feels real to us in the present and it makes it easy to see how mid-century pieces can work in contemporary spaces, too.
When possible, Mad Men also tries to utilize the built environment – it films on location in places that existed during the time period. Of course, the “authenticity” of using these places is questionable considering they are in LA locations masquerading as NYC places, but I think that charge (which has actually been leveled by some preservationists) is a little nitpicky. Showcasing existing historical locations, whether they be in LA or NYC makes a scene feel more real and is good for preservation. In fact,one shooting location, La Villa Basque actually became the center of a preservation campaign. Shortly after Mad Men filmed, “The Suitcase,” the restaurant planned to overhaul its historic interior. (Unfortunately, despite pressure from preservationists and the media attention generated by its link to Mad Men, the remodel was completed.)
Alas, only one more season of Mad Men remains. Even so, I’m left with a lot of hope. I hope preservationists use this next year to their full advantage and ride the Mad Men train all the way to the station – educating and inspiring and saving places all along the way. I hope Mid-Century Modern styles remain popular and the discussion around buildings of the recent past continues. And I hope there is another period drama in the future that helps people to reexamine the buildings and places around them, that preservationists can hitch their wagons to, that makes preservation topical and interesting a cool. (Are you listening Matthew Weiner!?) Here’s to the Mad Men Effect and here’s to season 7!
*I think another reason is pure chance. Mad Men came along at just the right time. Mid-Century Modern was already on an upswing (however small) and the series catapulted it to the forefront of design trends.