Midcentury Modernism in the Twenty-Third Century


Brian W. McGuire


Author, "Star Trek: Designing the Final Frontier"


Book Excerpt
Image details

This article summarizes the recent book Star Trek: Designing the Final Frontier, authored by Dan Chavkin and Brian McGuire and published by Weldon Owen International. The book is a thorough examination of the art direction and set decoration of The Original Series, outlining how Midcentury Modern design was employed to depict the world of the future.  The book presents 33 designers representing 10 countries and 32 manufacturers, and highlights 13 key episodes of The Original Series. Illustrations include episode images and stills, high-resolution images of design objects used in the set decoration, futurist architecture, vintage advertisements, and numerous sketches and storyboards of Art Director Walter "Matt" Jefferies, most never seen by the public. Also included is a catalog of featured items to assist you in propelling your living space into the 23rd century.   

Star Trek: Designing the Final Frontier can be ordered through the publisher Simon & Schuster or through the Docomomo US Bookshop.org storefront (a percentage of these sales will be donated back to Docomomo US).

Few can deny the profound impact that Gene Roddenberry's original television series Star Trek had on our perceptions of the present and our hopes for the future. Debuting in 1966 and lasting three seasons, Star Trek is still being rewatched, dissected, discussed, and rebooted.  Why has it persisted so long? 

The contained environment of a spaceship—the USS Enterprise—was a compelling metaphor for an idealized Planet Earth: a diverse civilization living and working together in harmony.  The story lines were often allegorical of contemporary issues, some of which still persist today.  The various themes that Gene Roddenberry tackled in Star Trek have proven to be timeless, perhaps because they speak of the human condition. Star Trek also resonated with viewers through its slick and promising imagery of the future.

Just as interesting is how the producers of Star Trek, on a tight weekly budget at Desilu Studios in Culver City, California, went about depicting the twenty-third century in a way that was practical, affordable, and believable. Paradoxically, they tapped into the present and the near past, sourcing from the design genre of Midcentury Modernism, known for its clean simple lines and futuristic feel. Happily, 1960s Los Angeles was a hotbed of innovation and a fertile source of forward-looking architecture and design. 

The format of Star Trek was "to seek out new life, new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." Which meant in theory creating a new planet every week. This potentially cost-prohibitive dilemma was accomplished by either the use of matte paintings as a backdrop for live action, on-location shooting where feasible, or building key structures de novo on a sound stage. Matte artist Albert Whitlock's representation of the planet Eminiar VII (Figure 1) shows how set design was heavily influenced by prevailing midcentury architecture: the stylized buildings in this image evoke actual structures one may still see today.

On-location shooting, such as that at the TRW Defense and Space Park in Redondo Beach CA (Figure 2, Figure 3) and the Schoenberg Concert Hall on the UCLA campus (Figure 4), showcased some iconic Modernist structures and highlighted the synergism between southern California of the 1960s and the overall look of Star Trek

An interesting example of construction on a soundstage is the all-steel Modernist cabin built (according to the story plot line) out of spaceship debris by a crash survivor (Figure 5a)—a heroic example of 23rd century recycling. In fact, this utilitarian dwelling closely resembles the D'Angelo-Conrey residence (Figure 5b), a private home in southern California that is still extant today.      

Modernism was not initially embraced by the typical consumer, appearing cold, stark, uninviting, even alien-looking. But for science fiction, Modernism was ideal for those very reasons: providing a forward-looking feel that never appears dated. Star Trek set decorators and prop masters scoured local furniture stores across the LA basin that featured the latest designs in order to depict advanced civilizations of the future (Figure 6). 

On occasion, set pieces were featured within a year of their introduction, such as Bill Curry's ColumnLite and StemLite lamps (Figure 7) and most notably Chromcraft's Sculpta Chair (Figure 8). Still other items hailed from as far back as the 1930s (Figure 9).

Pedestal or "tulip" furniture, pioneered by architect Eero Saarinen, was an established design from the mid-1950s, and appeared to be ubiquitous in the 23rd century on Federation starships (Figure 10), Star Bases, and throughout the known galaxy. Many objects that channeled the future were used as-is; others such as the Burke tulip chairs (inspired by Saarinen's design and purchased by Desilu for permanent set pieces) were slightly modified by the set decorators (Figure 11); still others were altered beyond recognition to suit the story line, most notably the Captain's command chair on the Bridge (Figure 12).

Brutalism makes an unexpected appearance in the 23rd century—and by no means infrequently (Figure 13). Featuring raw exposed concrete, unadorned surfaces, and heavy fortress-like massing, Brutalist architecture was a reaction away from lighter more simpler expressions of Modernism. Brutalist decorative arts were characterized by jagged asymmetrical abstract shapes, often using metal. Brutalism was controversial at its time and is indifferently appreciated today. In Star Trek, it appeared to be used as a devise for demarking cultures of the 23rd century engaged in conflict, such as internal class warfare or the angst of interplanetary strife. 

What does all of this teach us? First, what is considered retro and what is considered futuristic appear to be interchangeable—or at least with blurred distinctions—if the design is utilitarian and pleasing. Although over 70 years old, Modernism is clearly still relevant, and many of the items featured in Star Trek are in high demand today, some still in production. Second, as our attention becomes increasingly focused on environmental concerns and we find ourselves struggling to address climate change and deal with its deleterious consequences, the importance of preserving, recycling, and repurposing should be intuitive. Third, by appreciating the past, we may be ensuring our future, for, as one Star Trek episode title phrased it, "Tomorrow is Yesterday."

About the Book Authors

Dan Chavkin, whose sharp eye for design led to the book concept, began his photographic career studying at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Upon graduating, Dan moved to New York City to begin his career as a professional photographer shooting celebrity portraiture for many major magazines. An avid aficionado of all things Modernist, Dan began collecting midcentury Modern furniture, vintage film posters, and vintage periodicals. In 2014, Dan co-authored the book Hand-In-Hand about the midcentury designers Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman. As a result of ten years of photographing midcentury Modern architecture in Palm Springs, Dan’s second book, Unseen Midcentury Desert Modern, was published in 2016.

Brian McGuire earned his undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology and his doctorate in Biochemistry, both at Vanderbilt University. He spent his professional life working in new drug development (mostly oncologic and antiviral agents) for a variety of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in California and New York.  He has authored or coauthored numerous scientific papers for technical journals. He developed an appreciation for midcentury Modernism when he purchased a Donald Wexler-designed all-steel house in Palm Springs, where he met Dan Chavkin.  Brian resides in Ventura County California and parttime in Kansas City where he grew up an avid Trekkie.