Vinyl may be back, but it is an indulgence in which most Spotifiers do not partake. Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP In Midcentury America by Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder (MIT Press) is a slice of American postwar life. It is also an indication of how music is visually interpreted. “We can’t actually see the music we hear,” writes Daniel Miller in the foreword to this fascinating new book. “Many classical music compositions have titles that claim to convey something such as a mountain, a stream or an ethnic identity.”
Sometimes this comes through a cover, other times only a faint mood is evoked. But the LP covers of the ’50s and ’60s still tell many stories. I asked Borgerson and Schroeder to discuss the relations of picture to sound and the importance of the distinctive pre-Rock LP covers they’ve collected for Designed for Hi-Fi Living.
Your collection as shown in this book is not what I collected. The mood music, the travel themes, etc., seems from an aspirational generation. Why are these the records you chose to “celebrate”?
Designed for Hi-Fi Living began with the album covers and purposely features neglected and under appreciated categories. Hawaii was probably the first thematic category of used vinyl album covers that we purposefully gathered together. We’d noted on vintage covers the use of women’s bodies, languishing near-naked in a champagne glass or bursting out of a brilliant purple background with the heading, in voluptuous font: Organ Moods. When we found these covers of women in cocktail glasses, draped over Wurlitzer keyboards or posed next to waterfalls or behind palm fronds, we bought them. One day we put all of them out on couches, windowsills and tables, comparing them and starting to think about them in the same way we thought about advertisements or branding campaigns in our writing about marketing communication and branding.
The covers were staged in a compelling way. Many had great colors, greens and blues and reds, maybe an exotic vision of a beach and the ocean. Suddenly, we realized that almost all of these were Hawaii LPs, such as Lure of the Islands, or Lure of Paradise, or Enchantment from Hawaii. That intrigued us. We found that many were released in 1959, around the time Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state. At some point, we found covers that featured white “mainland” women “going native,” especially on LPs like Your Hawaiian Honeymoon or Aloha Hawaii: blond-haired and blue-eyed, they donned native cloth and flowers, showed off pale skin, and attempted come hither looks in what was supposed to convey, we guessed, honeymoon paradise. We were seeing not just gender, but the significance of skin as expression of race and place. We wanted as many examples as possible, an archive that we could draw on for work on representations of race and gender and a colonialist gaze, because we were analyzing these aspects in our projects on advertisements and marketing communications. So, collecting began in earnest. When first looking at those Hawaii LP covers, and analyzing them over the years, we probably had some glimmer of insight into many of the issues we discuss in Designed for Hi-Fi Living. Our archive now includes well over 600 Hawaii albums.
When we flipped through used record bins we were noticing colors and layout and font—that’s probably what we saw first, then figures, particular locations, themes, repeated patterns that denoted an individual LP being part of a series, such as Columbia Records’ “Adventures in Sound” or Capitol Records’ “Capitol of the World.” And, we were finding covers with faded but evocative shots of Europe—a couple walking on the Champs-Élysées, or views of multi-windowed villas along a Venetian canal, and these often overlapped with “honeymoon” or “holiday” records that we noticed had been cropping up in our collection, maybe originally picked out for other reasons, like how the woman was posed or color design.
The brilliant orange and greens on Columbia’s Music for a Backyard Barbecue, from 1955, probably made that cover pop out to us. And then you see the woman in dress and pearls, the huge white barbecue grill, the boy in kimono, toy dog, and the table laid out with silverware, napkins and watermelon slices. It was so detailed, and odd. We realized that this album was part of a series called “Music for Gracious Living,” and so (before our more recent temptation to look for harder-to-find LPs online) we added another element to our mental list of desired covers and kept our eyes open every time we dug through old records. We found Buffet, another in the “Music for Gracious Living” series, next. The recipes on both of these were throwbacks to ham mousse and mayo-based salads. What could we do but begin to collect covers that included vintage recipes and forgotten foodways?
Then, there were covers that highlighted objects we were interested in, like those that included a turntable, or vinyl records themselves, or Scandinavian design, such as famed Dane Georg Jensen’s hanging lights on Coffee Time. And the joy of finding a cover that featured modernist classics, like a Bertoia or Eames chair! What was it about these vinyl records that found connections to, or resonance with, modern design? Initially, we were just focused on the presence of the chair as a design object that we enjoyed looking at, but then we started to ask questions; when we realized modern painting and sculpture also made an appearance, we wondered about this, too.
In the process of writing the book, we enjoyed encountering, and learning more about, graphic artist Mozelle Thompson, photographer Wendy Hilty, and a team of fashion photographers, Joe Leombruno and Jack Bodi, who worked under the name Leombruno-Bodi and produced memorable midcentury album covers.
Many of these albums are to music (in my eyes) what paperback covers were to mid-level, even Harlequin romance fiction. Would you disagree?
In some ways, the LP covers had even less to do with the music than many book covers had to do with the “literary” or story content. A Harlequin cover might be said to literally picture a particular scene in the book (the ravishing hero holding the heroine, with Ireland’s green fields and cottages in the background); this is rarely true in relation to the vinyl LPs’ musical content (though perhaps true of the “here we are eating the food we described cooking” photo on the Hear How to Plan a Perfect Dinner Party LP cover). However, insofar as overall atmosphere of a book’s story might be captured by a particular aesthetic or “scene,” perhaps this parallel could be made. In many ways, the vinyl LP covers are “advertisements” for a set of lifestyle values; this might be said of what the book covers also generally were peddling. This is addressed more holistically regarding the collecting process and observations we describe in question No. 1.
Hi-Fi Living is a great title. How would you define the Hi-Fi age?
As with our themes and chapters overall, we take our lead from the record covers themselves. In this case, we took inspiration from the RCA Custom series Music for Hi-Fi Living, a 12-volume set that takes the viewer through what we understand to be a “Hi-Fi” lifecycle, which included country club dances with formal, exclusive glamour and displays of wealth (Vol. 1), lots of romance, for example in dating (Vol. 2) and marriage (Vols. 4 and 9), engagement with the wider world through attention to the U.S. cultural capitols, such as Hollywood (Vol. 3) and Broadway (Vols. 5 and 7), and also travel further afield for added sophistication with a “Lazy Afternoon” by an exotic rocky coast (Vol. 8), a Latin Holiday (Vol. 6), or a destination in the modern luxury of a Pullman car (Vol. 11). The Hi-Fi age includes the related contexts, signs and outcomes of these scenarios.
What is the fundamental difference besides size and speed of 45s and LPs?
45s were originally targeted at teenagers, whereas LPs were targeted at the adult audience and audiophiles. The LP format allowed more detailed visual communication via the cover than the 45 typically attempted.
When I think midcentury I think of a sleek, minimalist design. In your modern section there are contemporary environments and furniture, some simple type, but little of the abstraction that was modern. How do you define midcentury modern?
There are aspects of graphic abstraction in the Space chapter, where orbits and other movements present simple lines and Spirograph-like patterns. Another example of modernist design in the book is the Sinatra Tone Poems of Color LP by Saul Bass, using parallel lines of bright and distinct color to express the song titles and moods. Since we were coming across and buying LP covers with iconic midcentury furniture and design, such as Bertoia and Eames chairs, Russel Wright dishes and Georg Jensen lamps, and also abstract art, such as paintings by Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis and Al Held, these elements came to anchor meanings of midcentury modern in our Chapter 2. We love the graphic abstractions, say in the Command label’s Persuasive Percussion LPs, but these have been reproduced elsewhere, and we featured just one example from the Command label. In assembling our examples, we were guided by Cara Greenberg’s Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, which is often cited for her usage of the term in referring to furniture design, as well as Dominic Bradbury’s more recent book, Mid-century Complete. Again, the longish response in #1 addresses how our collection took the form that is has and, thus, what appears in the book.
There is a lot of sitting on these covers. Can you figure out why?
An initial response is that most people sit while listening to music in their home, so one might say these cover photos are modeling listening behavior. Also, we feature many modern chairs, and a person sitting in them might be said to complete the picture. Other “Home” chapters in the book and the “Away” section, though, feature many people standing, walking and dancing. To push the enquiry a bit further, perhaps one reason LP covers that feature beautiful models sitting in classic midcentury chairs, such as Relaxing With Perry Como and Body and Soul With Norman Greene and His Orchestra, look so timeless and appealing is that they resemble reclining nudes from classical painting, with modernist furniture replacing Ottoman beds or Renaissance interiors. The reclining nude–interestingly, the model is not always depicted without clothing–has served for centuries as a way to represent ideal female beauty, as well as offer a titillating image. These LP covers echo the fine art tradition of reclining nudes, as they update them by incorporating modern settings, including midcentury chairs like Saarinen’s womb chair or the Eames shell chair. For contemporary record collectors, these LPs may represent a beautiful example of modernist-inspired “art” now; they are collectible as cheesecake covers, and sought out for their visual appeal as frame-worthy objects of desire.