Mid-Century Modern: Inside the Mad Men’s Living Room

Places! Don & Meagan Draper’s NYC apartment, c. 1968

According to a brief shot of an envelope in a recent episode of Mad Men, Don and Megan Draper live on Park Avenue. No surprise there for an up and coming power couple; where else would they live if not in one of the most stylish areas of the city?

A “real” luxury NYC pad, 1957

Mad Men offers a portrait of 1960s Manhattan, a city that is at the apex and center of American power. It is here that the rich and powerful live and work; it is the place where the American Dream can be realized.

But in the Mad Men version of American history, the city is also a place where that American Dream is carefully constructed and sold by the slick handiwork of the cynical mad men. Mad Men’s New York is a city that is claustrophobic and empty at the same time; it is lonely and crowded; heartless and hard. It is a city that exists within a country on the verge of decline, ready to implode, and certainly, by the spring and summer of 1968 (as portrayed in Season 6), in the midst of exploding.

In the Drapers, Mad Men gives us a Manhattan couple who is also on the verge of decline. They too seem ready to implode, despite having achieved “The Best of Everything.”

An Ironic Reader of Rona Jaffe’s 1958 Bestseller?

Like renderings of other New York City (fictional) apartments, the Draper pad offers a vision of Manhattan that helps shape and define the enactment of the show’s larger morality tale. And it is within the Draper apartment that so much of that drama is played out.

The apartment conveys both an idea of the city, as well as a version of history. But the set design also reveals that it is very much shaped by contemporary ideas. Indeed, it is so carefully styled in an effort to appear somehow historically “authentic” that it looks like a miniature reproduction. Mad Men’s set decorator extols its virtues as having been constructed by following faithfully “period” sources and using objects obtained through a variety of avenues, including Craig’s List (e.g. the kitchen counter stools).

The result: cool, chic, and fashionable. It is sleek in the right places, colorful in the right places, and can be proudly described as “Mid-Century Modern (MCM),” a style that seems to be more en vogue at the moment than it might ever have been in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Draper apartment is constructed with a “split-level” aspect- so popular in the MCM era. The room’s steps and ledges provide platforms from which to stand and walk, and perhaps to plan and dream? And the multi-level floors lend an amphitheater-style aspect to the set (a perfect place to play out a MCM Greek tragedy).

The apartment also has a patio; and we imagine that there must be a sweeping view of New York from there. But for the consumed and consuming Drapers, who has time to gaze out over the city? They are too busy with matters that concern themselves.

Watch Your Step: Coming Home on Mad Men

In fact, the Draper’s NYC apartment reflects the fragile state of their own dizzying lives. While their home is colorful, it is somehow mournful and drab. And while it looks very much like a stage, there is no central point of view. There is no clear center to it, no obvious stage left or right; no “home.” It is confusing and layered; its many doors and rooms found down narrow halls seem almost unconnected, just like the characters themselves. There is privacy there, but it is a lonely brand of privacy.

In the Draper’s New York, much of the drama of their lives takes place in the hallways outside their apartment, in the elevators, or at the doors of the service entrances. And the world itself seems to play its drama right up to the edges of their tightly closed doors; the unsettling, shocking, and violent events of 1968 find entry into their home through televised images, broadcasting the disasters of a 1960s revolutionary America.

Despite the  Drapers’ carefully appointed public showplace of a Park Avenue apartment, Mad Men seems to say, the family is found to be enclosed and contained by it, enacting their own sad dramas as the America of the Vietnam War, assassinations, strikes, sit-ins and messy politics roars outside.

All the World’s a Stage at 623 East 68th Street

The Draper apartment offers a counterpoint to another fictional NYC apartment that provides a another version of postwar America: the Ricardos’ apartment at 623 East 68th Street (an apartment also constructed on a Los Angeles soundstage.)

Lucy and Ricky have no patio in their modest digs, but they do have a central sitting area, bedroom and kitchen. And in fact, this American family was shown to live in a place that appeared–and served– as a stage for outright performance; their TV apartment was constructed as an open area where the characters could easily break into song and dance, perform vaudeville numbers and comic routines, and all the while they could be seen (clearly) by the audience seated in the studio as the show was filmed by the trio of cameras.

The show’s lack of color, owing to the technology of the time, was unimportant in the breezy and comical “sit-com” that constituted the lives of the characters on I Love Lucy. In this version of America, there seemed to be no current events, no wars, no poverty, and the television served only as a place for Lucy to perform herself.

The Draper apartment stands in stark counterpart to the Ricardos.  The characters do not perform as Lucy and Ricky did, but instead they seem merely to exist; despite the luxury and color that surround them, they seem to be but the product of their own personal struggles, deeply wounded by the larger landscape of America.

Indeed, the Draper’s “modern” pad may exist in real life as a set in Los Angeles, but it also evokes a sense of a hyper-reality: it is a symbol of a city that once existed (in 1968), no longer exists, and, never did exist.

800 Park Avenue, right down the street from Don and Meagan, 1965

In fact, at the time, residents of the Park Avenue condos and co-ops would likely maintain more of a “traditional” (old money) style.  And as far as the Partridge-Family-style explosion of color in the Draper’s apartment, the late 1960s were more likely to feature neutral tones; beige was tres chic.

Moving In: The American Dream

Not coincidentally, as the 2013 sixth season of Mad Men unfolds, another tale of a New York couple, set across the park in the infamous Dakota apartment building continually crops up: Rosemary’s Baby. 

First, viewers see Don’s daughter reading Ira Levin’s 1967 book; Don and Meagan go to the movie which was released in June 1968; and later, the ad agency designs a Bayer aspirin commercial using the movie’s final scene as a hook.

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, the Draper’s fictitious neighbors, are another couple striving to make it in New York.

Their apartment lies just across Central Park from the Drapers, in the fictitious “Bramford” (Dakota). They move in with excitement and high ideals as their American Dream seems within reach. Rosemary is thrilled to make her home modern, to transform it from its 19th century Victorian self to its MCM version.

Scene design for Roman Polanski’s classic Rosemary’s Baby: The dark “before” version of the Bramford Apartment

Of course, all goes to hell (quite literally) once Rosemary’s actor-husband Guy makes a devil’s bargain to speed his success. The consequences of his deal-making penchant prove to destroy all that they have; but still, he argues to Rosemary, they have the “best of everything:” Guy says: “from now on everything’s going to be roses. Paramount is within an inch of where we want them, and suddenly Universal is interested too. We’re going to blow this town and be in the beautiful hills of Beverly, with the pool and the spice garden and the whole schmeer.”(Rosemary’s Baby, Screenplay, 1967).

Free Fall: Descent on Mad Men

The dream is a nightmare across the park in another version of 1968 American. And meanwhile, in 2013’s version of that same year, the city is a place where those seeking to achieve success are similarly cast about by fate, poor choices, moral failings, and the events of the wide world.

Mad Men’s New York is a place that is unstable. The show’s recurrent use of literal descents, in elevators, staircases, and of course, the opening sequence suggests a parallel not only to the idea of the rise and fall of fortunes, but also to the horrors of 9/11. For, Mad Men may present itself as showing a version of history; but it is a direct product of the post 9/11 world.
~Jenny Thompson

New York City as the Best of Everything

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