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When PLAYBOY Informed Sexy Design & Made The Bachelor Pad A Cultural Tradition

by Guest Contributor, The Selvedge Yard‘s Jon Patrick

Debuting in 1953, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine represented the ultimate liberated lifestyle for men of the 1950s, ’60s and beyond. Some called Hef’s imaginative, artistic spreads on architecture & interior design nothing more than self-indulgent, male sexual fantasy cloaked under a flimsy cover of so-called culture. For the man that wanted to be (or fantasized of being) the master of his own hedonistic domain — Playboy was his blueprint. And Hef perfected his own personal blueprint for tapping directly into the wallet of a new consumption-based male ideal that thought (and bought) with their crotch. The Playboy man now sought the aspiration of sleek, modern design that Hugh brilliantly linked with the primal desire of getting laid.

Whatever the angle, it cannot be denied that scores of men were introduced to, and educated on, the finer points of Mid-Century Modern Design and the masters behind the movement that is now an iconic part of our history. And the Bachelor Pad, dripping with sexy, come-hither vibe, an inhibition-busting bar, and the latest modern marvels to dazzle her, was born thanks to Hef — who literally fleshed-it-out and showed us just how good it could look, make you feel, and improve your net worth with the ladies.

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Playboy-townhouse-may-1962-5-xray

1962, The Playboy Town House — a luxurious and masculine, ultra-urban island of individuality in a sea of look-alike multiple dwellings. With tulip chairs and ivory chessmen, the ‘Playboy Town House’ was a combination of designer modernity and masculine tradition, and was clearly inspired by Hefner’s own Playboy Mansion. The financial success of his publishing empire had allowed Hefner to pursue the lifestyle of spectacular hedonism proselytized in his magazine and in 1960, he paid $400,000 (in cash) for an imposing four-story house in one of Chicago’s most fashionable neighborhoods. Spending a further $3,000,000, Hefner turned the building into a palace among bachelor pads and throughout the 1960s the Playboy Mansion was regularly used as the backdrop to Playboy’s features on opulent high-living.  —Bill Osgerby, author of The Bachelor Pad as Cultural Icon

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George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames and Jens Risom. Playboy Magazine, July 1961

George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames and Jens Risom. Playboy Magazine, July 1961.

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playboy mid century modern design interior bachelor pad

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Bill Osgerby, author of The Bachelor Pad as Cultural Icon —

Since its launch in America in 1953, Playboy had become best known for its nude pictorials—but these were just one ingredient in the magazine’s universe of cosmopolitan hedonism. Playboy’s success (its circulation had soared to nearly a million a month by 1959) was indebted not simply to its inclusion of pornographic centerfolds. Also significant was the way its pornographic content was integrated within a world of style-conscious, male consumerism. Playboy was a paean to a masculine lifestyle of material pleasure, page after page crammed with images of fashionable menswear and mouthwatering consumer goods. And, nestling amid this lavish cornucopia, were the features that caught the eye. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Playboy spotlighted a series of luxurious ‘Playboy Pads’— both actual buildings and fantasy blueprints—tailored to the outlook and tastes of the hip ‘man about town’. Sleek and sophisticated, these ‘bachelor apartments’ were icons of high-living modernity. Their plush interiors and accent on opulent leisure distinguished them as idealized habitats for a new breed of male consumer. This was a man who was affluent and independent, with a sense of individuality crafted around fashionable display and the pleasures of commodity consumption—yet this was also a man who took care that his aesthetic tastes marked him out as avowedly heterosexual and resolutely manly.

Playboy’s attention to design and furnishing diverges from the code of ‘separate spheres’ often seen as dividing the social realm into two distinctly gendered domains. According to this schema, the transition to modern industrial work patterns during the late eighteenth century deprived the middle-class home of its productive economic role. As a consequence, the home was transformed into a subordinate ‘feminine’ sphere where women’s identities cohered around consumption and the maternal guardianship of the home. In contrast, the ‘masculine’ realm of production and public life became more dominant. Here, middle-class men staked out their ‘manhood’ through their occupational and civic activities, and through providing for a household of dependents. This ‘separate spheres’ model has been deployed by an array of scholars, Michelle Rosaldo arguing that it has provided ‘the basis of a structural framework necessary to identify and explore the place of male and female in psychological, cultural, social and economic aspects of human life’. In some respects, however, the classic ‘separate spheres’ paradigm is unduly simplistic. As Steven Lubar observes, rather than being clearly delineated and discretely divided, a ‘wide area of interaction and connection’ has often existed between the ‘masculine’ arena of production and the ‘feminine’ domain of consumption. Attention to this interface, Lubar argues, allows for a better understanding of the historical development of each of the ‘separate spheres’, revealing the complex processes through which gender identities and power relationships are negotiated. Playboy’s enthusiasm for interior décor during the 1950s and 1960s exemplified this interplay.

Brimming with á la mode luxuries, Playboy’s ‘Playboy Pads’ were a leitmotif in the magazine’s wider celebration of consumer pleasure. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Playboy championed a world of indulgence, the magazine promoting itself as the stylish emissary for a new generation of prosperous and hedonistic American men. Consumer desire and display, however, were precarious waters for articulations of masculinity keen to avoid any hint of effeminacy. Since the nineteenth century consumerism and its pleasures had possessed markedly feminine associations, authors such as Elaine Abelson, Rachel Bowlby, William Leach, Erika Rappaport and Judith Walkowitz all highlighting the pivotal role of women in the rise of modern consumer culture.7 By the mid-twentieth century the feminine connotations surrounding consumerism were still pronounced. Self-conscious consumption, therefore, remained an uncertain fi eld for masculine identities keen to maintain their credentials of heterosexual manhood. Hence Playboy’s nude pictorials were crucial. The pin-ups served to mark out the magazine as an unmistakably masculine and heterosexual text, allowing readers— secure in the knowledge that their ‘manly’ identities would not be compromised—to cruise freely through the magazine’s bounty of fashion and furnishing. Playboy’s features, moreover, deployed a variety of aesthetic codes to stress the ‘masculine’ character of its engagement with consumerism. The regular interior designs, for example, were chic and elegant, but also carefully incorporated an iconography of status and power to underline the masculine and heterosexual integrity of the archetypal ‘bachelor pad’.

A place where men could luxuriate in a milieu of hedonistic pleasure, the bachelor pad was the spatial manifestation of a consuming masculine subject that became increasingly pervasive amid the consumer boom of the 1950s and 1960s. This ‘swinging bachelor’ was a man of means who had renounced the puritanical ideals of the traditional middle class. In place of family responsibilities and the work ethic, he reveled in a sybaritic world of leisure. Style conscious and consumption oriented, this was a construction of bourgeois masculinity that was firmly located in the ‘feminine’ realm of commodity culture—though its credentials to heterosexual manhood were always conspicuously signposted in the swinging bachelor’s attitudes, hobbies, dress sense and (perhaps most of all) in the design of his pad.

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hugh hefner chicago playboy townhouse bed

1973— Hugh Hefner working on an issue of Playboy from his circular bed at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago with the Watergate Trials playing on multiple televisions in the background. Hef was very hands-on from the beginning. When launching Playboy back in 1953, Hef wrote most all of the copy himself, quickly creating a cultural phenomenon.

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