In rotation with the Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis albums, a midcentury American household likely had vinyl records like Songs for an Evening at Home or Holiday Abroad in London. These LPs were more about aspirations than music, presenting an idealized vision of postwar home life in the United States, and the culture and travel that should accompany that lifestyle. In Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America, recently released by the MIT Press, authors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder delve beneath the kitschy album art to explore how this genre of mood music reflected an era of shifting desires.
Borgerson and Schroeder have collected records together for over 20 years. They write in the Designed for Hi-Fi Living preface:
Over time we discovered a couple of kinds of albums that particularly attracted us — those LPs that fit into what we now call the home and away genres, often focused on making the most of your new kitchen and entertaining friends and also leaving home, and traveling, say, to Hawaii. After looking at, playing, and living with thousands of vintage albums, we began to reflect on how midcentury records like those in Columbia Records’ Music for Gracious Living series and many other wonderful examples, fit in. What were they for? Why were they made? Who bought them?
The book is divided into sections on “home” and “away,” with themes such as “Honeymoon” and “Modern Art and Design.” That now iconic midcentury interior design was reinforced by its presence in album art, where it was frequently paired with jazz. For instance, Ahmad Jamal sits on George Nelson’s Herman Miller MAA office chair on the cover of All of You, showing he and his music are both centered in American modernism. Relaxing with Perry Como has the Harry Bertoia Bird Chair in the album art listed in the liner notes (although no mention of the woman in a pink chiffon negligee modeling on it). Similarly, a Franz Kline painting appears on Countdown: Time in Outer Space, and a Jackson Pollock on Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. Each presented a unified guide to good taste.
Often, the name of the musician was secondary to the lifestyle depicted on the LP, whether that was the art to be appreciated, or the international locales to dream of visiting. Some of these LPs were even sponsored by airlines, an industry which saw a resurgence of civil aviation that had been curtailed by World War II. It’s Alaska features a “Broadway-type musical production” about touring Alaska, with a fuchsia cover including a husky dog, indigenous art, and a woman in a fur jacket sitting on a grizzly bear rug, her legs seductively bare.
However, the excitement over Alaska, which became a state in 1959, was far exceed by the consumer frenzy for Hawaii, named a state that same year. Hawaiian Music from the Kodak Hulu Show, which simultaneously promoted photographic film and tourism, Hukilau Hulas with drawings of and step-by-step notations for hula dancing, and Destination Honolulu featuring the Pan Am airline logo, all tantalized consumers with exotic, yet accessible, honeymoons and holidays.
“We probably come closer to understanding why these album covers matter if we see them more as part of the history of consumer culture and advertising than of music, as, after all, that was their point: they promoted their contents in a lifestyle context,” Daniel Miller, an anthropologist of material culture, writes in a foreword to Designed for Hi-Fi Living. Indeed, whether Music to Paint By, “prepared expressly for Celanese Coating,” Dancing at the Habana Hilton soundtracking a pre-Cuban Revolution trip to the Havana Hilton, or Music for a Backyard Barbecue, these LPs promised a sophisticated American identity that could be purchased. And if Cairo, Beirut, or the beaches of Hawaii were out of reach, you could still journey to these distant destinations through your home Hi-Fi stereo. Music for a Chinese Dinner at Home, or Music of the African Zulus!, brought the world to the midcentury living room.
Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America by Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder is out now from the MIT Press.