The style of Mad Men

It's one of the best shows currently on the telly. But why is Mad Men heaven for design geeks?

Mad Men

The second series of Mad Men, a drama show set in fictional 1960s New York advertising agency Sterling Cooper, has started on BBC4, and the third series is showing in America. Despite relatively low ratings, its viewers tend to be obsessive fans, fully-blown fanatics even. What is it about this old-fashioned, almost entirely studio-shot drama that drives people to such levels of devotion? Could it be the razor-sharp script? Possibly. The brilliantly convoluted plotlines? Probably. The use of unbelievably cool design classics from the early 60s? Definitely. Mad Men is heaven for design geeks.

Mad Men looks and feels completely authentic. The men are all called things like Don and Dick and Bob and Rodge, and sport immaculately brushed brown suits with skinny ties; the women are Peggy, Betty, Joanie, Mirabelle, and wear tight wool sweaters, terrifying pointed bras and nylons with proper seams.

Therapy-speak is unheard of – even husbands and wives remain at a polite distance – and everybody smokes. All the time. Even while doing the washing up. The office is the centre of the universe, especially for the junior ad reps struggling to grasp a piece of the American dream. And this authentic feel doesn’t just reside in the characters, plots and costumes – it’s reflected in the set design and the use of everyday objects from the period. 

I’m a particular fan of early ’60s design – the squared, dark wood chairs, geometric patterning on curtains, rugs and dresses, and, of course, the cars. Mad Men has examples of all these, and of countless more gorgeous-looking objects casually used by the characters over the course of each episode. People drink Scotch from classy bowl-shaped glasses, and cocktails from elegantly small Martini glasses. Bread pops from silver chrome toasters that look like Airstream trailers and mysterious femmes fatale drag on foot-long cigarette holders. Telephones are big and clanky, with heavy receivers that make any old yutz blathering into it look as important as the president.

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Even the Xerox machine – a piece of eagerly-anticipated technology installed in the copywriting office during season two – has an archaic, boxy charm. The ease with which these objects are incorporated into the show, without seeming tacked-on to give a ‘period’ feel, is one of the keys to its success.

Radios feature heavily in the show, as befitting a time just on the cusp of the switch to TV as the primary form of home entertainment. There are two particularly great examples of radios featured in the show, one from an episode in the first season, another from the second.

In the first, Sterling Cooper’s square-jawed creative director Don Draper is hosting a Saturday afternoon birthday party for his ten-year-old daughter in his perfect suburban home. Neighbours gather in the living room to sip cocktails and smoke while the children play outside (In a perfectly judged evocation of the times, the adults and children occupy totally separate spheres – no ‘helicopter parents’ here). The party needs music, and Don provides it by flipping up the surface of the wooden coffee table and pressing a switch. That’s right – there’s a radio recessed into the table, with the dials facing upwards. How cool is that?   In the second example, Don and his wife are driving home from a night out in his Buick. The atmosphere is frosty, and Don reaches over to switch on the car radio to try and fill the silence. Cut to the radio, which has exactly five, rectangular, off-white switches, and even if it could pick up 200 stations there’s no way the car designer would agree to more buttons because that way they wouldn’t spell out B U I C K in chunky ’60s type! 

The car radio perfectly illuminates what it is about ’60s design that’s so attractive – namely, the sense of connection between the user and the object, especially mechanical or electrical devices. The switches in the Buick are the kind you see on old hi-fis: if there’s a few in a row and you press one, whichever one is already down pops back up with a satisfying thunk. You just don’t get that sense of direct engagement with technology when skimming a thumb over the iPod wheel.

Of course, stereos, computers, Xerox machines and telephones are much more advanced now, and boast some great designs. But for a sense of real grown-up class and style, it’s hard to beat some of the classics featured on Mad Men, a show where even daily ephemera like magazines and pulp paperbacks look like collector’s items.