Mad Men, a widely acclaimed TV drama based in 1960s New York, has garnered millions of viewers and inspired everything from wardrobe collections to cocktail menus. This week it’s back for its sixth season and the Internet is abuzz with anticipation. What better time to look at Mad Men from a different angle: historic preservation?
While the “glass skyscraper” with the open floor plan is completely familiar and normal to us, it wasn’t necessarily so for the staff at Sterling Cooper advertising agency (a fictional company that occupies a building on Madison Avenue in New York City). The glass skyscraper is often credited to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German architect who immigrated to the United States on the eve of the Second World War (1939). Mies van der Rohe began his glass skyscraper work in Chicago in the 1940s; two of his most well-known works are the Dirksen Federal Building (1964) and the Lakeshore Apartments (1952).
And what about the open floor plans and the wide open walls that feature large Modern art pieces? Chicago’s Inland Steel Building (1957) by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Its construction with narrow steel columns around the perimeter enabled a revolutionary amount of clear floor space within. Its owners expressed preference to modern art; the architect on the job, Davis Allen, provided sleek modern furnishings as well. He designed lounge chairs of industrial-grade steel mesh, boardroom tables (known as “the surfboard”) accompanied by leather-upholstered chairs on thin, splayed steel legs… he even designed a sleek tin desk, the design of which became the trademark product of its manufacturer, Steelcase.
The 1960s were a time when companies were growing at a ridiculous pace and establishing headquarters in all the major cities. The company’s building, then, became emblematic of the company. From Chicago’s Sears Tower, the design for which is rumored to be inspired by the architect shaking out a box of Lucky Strikes, to New York City’s Chrysler Building, you may be so familiar with these buildings that you’ve even forgotten what they’re advertising.
So, as you turn to Mad Men’s Season 6, remember Mad Men’s unique place in history. Not only does it exist on the cusp of women leading in the workplace (thanks to women like Peggy), Mad Men exhibits the growing trend of huge companies and towering skyscrapers. Many of these leading skyscrapers are still an important piece of our skylines, a similar skyline to that seen by the Mad Men characters as they escaped the city by commuter trains for the more relaxed and growing suburbs.
– Susie Trexler