Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
A voiceover of Don Draper reciting the lines leading this post while thumbing through a copy of Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency bring one of my favorite episodes of Mad Men to a close. He’s reading them from O’Hara’s poem “Mayakovsky,” which first appeared in print in 1957. The choice of this poem by this poet for this drama is one of many brilliant moves Matthew Weiner, the television series’ creator, has made during the show’s storied history as we move toward the end of an era with its final episodes.
Mad Men’s End of an Era
It feels inconceivable that come this Sunday we will begin the final journey we will take with Draper, a powerful character who has presented a contemporary take on the mid-century modern psyche of New York City’s avant-gardists during the 1960s. Draper’s odyssey is sublimely representative of the experimentation and chaos of the era, as is O’Hara’s story and poetry, and the work and lives of the artists he gathered around him long before he was an executive at the Museum of Modern Art.
The New York School of Poets
The poem cited above celebrates Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Russian Futurist whose work O’Hara regarded highly. It’s spot-on in its tone, as the “catastrophe” of O’Hara’s and Draper’s personalities prove, making them both model citizens of their time—a slice of history that conjures up a cocktail of images we now see as signifying a new American age replete with its own art and literary royalty dubbed the New York School. Though they would not have dubbed themselves as salonières, there were modernism’s version of the age-old term. Also a caldron of creativity at the time was the intersecting worlds of design and architecture. The blending of Bauhaus and Scandinavian sensibilities, European Modernism and American ingenuity were swirling like a vortex to create a watershed moment for new thinking.
Mid-Century Modern Design Superstars
A handful of the greatest stars during this time were Ray and Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, Florence Knoll, Georg Jensen, Hans Wegner, George Nelson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to name but a few.
Matthew Weiner and his Mad Men team got this part right, too, tapping furnishings by some of these visionaries for the vignettes that coalesced into the perfect backdrop for the unfolding of this period drama. Case in point is an episode during the same season in which Don reads O’Hara’s poetry that has Betty Draper reclining on a Barcelona chaise during psychotherapy, her neck primly placed on the black leather bolster so as not to muss her coif.
By creating such a sophisticated representation of the era in design, Weiner’s team has amassed an entirely new audience for the mid-century modern aesthetic that reaches beyond those of us who live, breathe, eat and sleep design heritage.
Currey and Company Mid-Century Modern Products
I’ve been watching to see which savvy manufacturers would realize the style is now a solid fixture on the scene, and it doesn’t surprise me that Currey & Company is chief among these as they unveil new products with a fresh array of mid-century influences at High Point Market in a few weeks. I was particularly taken by the lighting I saw as the company’s creative director Cecil Adams previewed the new collections with me.
The two light fixtures I’ve chosen to illustrate this post today exemplify one of the most fascinating things about the era from a design perspective: by the early 60s, the coexistence of disparate expressions were on the radars of enlightened American style-setters. Both elegant ornateness and pared-down simplicity had made their way into the marketplace; handcrafted genuineness gave up some of its territory to machined leanness; and the ultimate in traditional craftsmanship suddenly existed side-by-side with the height of experimentation.
Frank O’Hara: Poet and Trendsetter
In hindsight it seemed design was everywhere and a certain political newcomer had something to do with this. When she went shopping for contemporary art for her new home, even the bohemian poets and artists took notice.
“A particular fascination in the new politics […] for O’Hara and his friends—as for most of America—was the thirty-one-year-old first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy,” wrote Brad Gooch in his biography City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. “She appeared just a few weeks after the inauguration in his [O’Hara’s] poem ‘Who is William Walton?’ inspired by news of the first lady’s visit to the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.”
Walton, who was a contemporary artist, journalist and close friend of the Kennedy family, was an advisor to the First Lady on the redecoration of the White House. He had suggested the gallery as a perfect choice because it was renowned as being a hotbed for the most cutting-edge contemporary art in a city known for such.
This is a perfect example of worlds colliding, which happened with increasing frequency during the 60s. Culturally, it was both challenging—civil rights and gay rights among the explosive points—and expansive—censorship gave way to poets and artists being able to express themselves even in the edgy terms O’Hara and company now personify.
The Design Legacy of Jackie O
But tradition was nowhere near ready to forfeit its hold. Consider the fact that Henry Francis du Pont also advised the First Lady on her White House makeover. I can’t imagine two satellites of influence farther apart than the American collector and horticulturist, and the contemporary artist who escorted Jackie Kennedy into that art gallery.
If you’ve ever doubted why she represents such an arbiter of taste still, consider she was one of the first to gather around her such an eclectic group of advisers, making her forever an early example of the nonconforming female influencer. And as eclecticism and paradox infiltrated more layers of modern life, design grew to be the personal reflection of our very selves it is today. Thank you, Jackie O! Though Frank O’Hara never lived in posh digs, his influence on those who did was substantial.
Even after he’d risen through the ranks at MoMA, his typewriter was always on his kitchen table and the sink was filled with unwashed dishes.
Thanks to his popularity, he didn’t need the table for meals; in fact, it was di rigueur for hosts and hostesses to write on their invitations, “Frank will be there!” as a tactic to draw some of the world’s wealthiest collectors and most popular artists to their gatherings.
“The O’Hara of the sixties could be found more often Uptown,” Gooch points out. “Life at the Museum drew him into a more fashionable circle.”
He was following a societal move toward money and glamour that elevated collectors above the artists as influencers; and by the early 60s, he was traveling the world organizing collections for the Museum, visiting and spending time with artists whose names we have come to know as pop and contemporary art’s early movers and shakers, many of them to his credit.
His paradoxical legacy—as a globetrotting, bow-tied art-world idol AND the creator of poetry so gritty it would inspire Weiner to use it to reflect the turmoil of a New York City ad man’s disintegrating life—has meant O’Hara’s mystique has remained intriguing during the past nearly five decades since his death.
Mid-Century Modern Influences
It also makes him superbly modern, accomplishing strikingly for himself (and for Draper) the aspiration he penned in “Mayakovsky.” Four of my favorite lines from the poem are, “I love you. I love you, / but I’m turning to my verses / and my heart is closing / like a fist.” The four-part composition would not have existed had it not been for another New York School poet, James Schuyler, who helped O’Hara rather frantically organize a manuscript of poems to submit for the Yale Younger Poets prize.
Schuyler found two poems that O’Hara had written while experimenting with Mayakovsky’s brand of symbolism, then folded into a book and forgotten about them. Schuyler suggested they meld these with two other short poems in his disheveled piles to create one composition.
Gooch writes, “O’Hara insisted, since it was his poem, that Schuyler think of a title, which he did, inspired by the well-thumbed copy of Mayakovsky’s poems lying on O’Hara’s desk.”
I can see Schuyler rushing around the apartment with O’Hara, trying to help him compose a manuscript from the flotsam and jetsam of papers his friend had tucked into every nook and cranny—a physical chaos on par with Don Draper’s mental mayhem that has been maintained since he came on the scene over seven years ago.
Schuyler would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for a book of his poems, a recognition that eluded O’Hara, who tragically died in 1966 at the age of 40 on a Fire Island beach. The poets and painters who mourned him were the same new establishment who had forever redirected history with their sheer bravado. By daring to force a departure from the status quo, they created a new style that forever changed art and literature’s landscapes.
Continuing the charge are manufacturers like Currey & Company who pay close attention to heritage of all eras when producing new collections. This season is no different for this Atlanta-based company, which has showrooms around the country, as the new products being released call to mind the glory days of Mad Men, designs inspired by du Pont’s renowned Winterthur Collection and other stylistic periods. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when we think about those who have left and are leaving legacies, the plumb lines back through history often match up so seamlessly?