top of page

Greg Castillo. Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Greg Castillo argues that the U.S. government promoted modernism as a symbol of progressive, middle-class lifestyles concomitant with the “American way.” While Elain Tyler May’s Homeward Boundd demonstrate how Cold War foreign policy trickled down and into suburban America’s domestic spaces, Castillo contends that Policymakers joined designers at trade and industrial exhibitions to wage Cold War battles on the domestic front in both of the rival camps of American vs. Stalinist neoclassical social realism for a decade leading up to the famous ‘kitchen debate’ between Nikita Kruschev and Richard Nixon at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. In short “everything about the postwar age was domestic” and the Kitchen debate was not the opening salvo in a clash of ideologies, but the conclusion.

Divided Germany showcased these rival ideologies as US designers displayed modern furniture within model homes at the West Berlin Industrial Exhibition in 1950. In these suburban model kitchens, women demonstrated the use of new appliances and portrayed ideal gender roles for American housewives. Following the 1950 Exhibition, the Mutual Security Agency (the Marshall Plan’s successor) followed with a 1952 Exhibition titled “We’re Building a Better Life” by Yale architect Peter Harden. In Stattugart, MOMA’s Edgar Kaufmann oversaw the instillation of a New Home Furnishings exhibit which included a collection of George Nelson furnishings and Pyrex measuring cups.  And in 1953-1954 Dwight Eisenhower created a traveling exhibition (through the U.S. Ad Council) called “People’s Capitalism” which traced the arc of American progress in a society where the middle-class owned stakes in the capitalist economy.

In the early 1950s, an existenzminimum aesthetic was championed by designers in both West and East Germany. However, such austere “ subsistence minimum” was too closely related with Western capitalism. In response, Soviets pushed an anti formalist, anti kitsch aesthetic as an antidote to “decadent” capitalist modernism, such as their 1953 conference and exhibition “Live Better – More Beautiful” which compared acceptable cultured furniture to a chamber of horrors of western modernist interiors of Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate (19278). But by 1962 (the year after the erection of the Berlin Wall) the East German state began to promote new housing blocs filled with modernist furniture as Kruschev began to turn from his version of Stalinism to something closer to state capitalism.

bottom of page