How the mid-century bachelor pad challenged and informed gender norms of the time. This post is based on a lecture by Modsy’s VP of Style + Design Historian, Alessandra Wood.
The bachelor pad has become somewhat of a cultural icon. It’s the crash pad of single men—the domain where they watch sports, entertain friends and dates, and create a home that’s not a mismatch of hand-me-downs but a cohesive space that reflects the preferences of the dweller (with hopefully not a futon in sight).
When we think of the concept of home and how one creates a space that makes them feel comfortable and reflects their style, we probably aren’t shocked by the idea of a single man (or woman!) creating a nice home for himself. While today we’re in an era where home probably feels less gendered, this was not always the case.
In fact, in the 1950s, the home was still very much seen as the women’s realm. Less than 100 years ago, it would have caused some raised eyebrows, had a young, single man taken care to decorate his home, or had a young, unmarried woman opted to live on her own. These things were just not done. It wasn’t the norm. But where did these “norms” come from, and how did they change?
Home as Women’s Realm
The home became known as a woman’s sphere in the Victorian era. During the Industrial Revolution, there was a cultural shift that caused a more distinct split between the domestic and public spheres. As the world got dirtier and scarier—with loud machinery, the rise of factories and mass production, and murderers like Jack the Ripper wandering the streets—women and children (at least those in middle and upper-class families) spent more and more time at home. With that, the public sphere became the men’s realm, and the domestic sphere was owned and run by women.
This continued up until World War II when women were thrust into what were traditionally men’s roles. With men off fighting in the war, women stepped into industrial and manual labor jobs to meet the needs of the time. But when the war ended, there was a big cultural push for all those Rosie the Riveters to go back home, to “put women back in their places.” With this, women resumed “traditional” gender roles and the idea of the nuclear family was established.
So, in the mid-century, the home once again became highly gendered and was considered the space of women. Women were seen as decision-makers in the home, and a bulk of domestic advertising was geared towards them. While their husbands brought home the money, it was the wives who were largely making the decisions around spending.
Around this time, after World War II, there was a major housing shortage in the USA, and white middle-class families were fleeing the cities and moving into suburban developments. With all of this, the ideology of “The American Dream” was born, with people striving after that quintessential lifestyle portrayed in shows like The Wonder Years.
Of course, all this—the nuclear family, the gender roles, the suburbs—was all created around heteronormative ideals and catered toward white families. Those of different races, gender identities, relationships statuses, and values need not apply.
How the Mid-Century Bachelor Pad Challenged Gender Norms
However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, these norms got shaken up a bit. There are so many cultural things at play during this time. But when we hone in on interior design, it was the advent of the bachelor pad that contributed to this shake-up.
Prior to this, it was not accepted that you could be both a masculine man and a person who was proud of the design of your home. But with the advent of the bachelor pad came a challenge to the idea that home was strictly a woman’s space. Of course, while challenging gender stereotypes it was also reinforcing stereotypes of 1950s masculinity—but it was a step in a different, less-gendered, direction.
Playboy’s Penthouse Apartment
Playboy magazine, which launched in 1953, was known for touting a hyper-masculine ideal. But in the late 1950s, it started trumpeting the idea that an interest in a well-designed life and home can be part of this modern masculine man. As part of this, they created the modern bachelor pad when they published a feature on Playboy’s Penthouse Apartment. This “dream home”—sketched out by a real architect—showed the idealized design for a bachelor pad apartment, and what sophisticated single men would include in their homes. In this, they began rewriting the narrative of gender expectations in domestic interiors. A man can care about creating a well-designed home, without the help of a wife or mother!
Essentially, in creating this penthouse apartment, they layered in the notion that mid-century masculinity could include someone who cared about their own personal appearance and the design of their space.
So, what did this penthouse look like?
- It’s located in an urban apartment building and owned by someone who had a good stream of income—contrasting with the norm of wealthier people moving to the suburbs)
- It has a large footprint overall, with a super modern design
- The kitchen is quite small—indicative that this fellow is probably eating out or getting takeout more than he’s cooking
- About one-third of the apartment is taken up by the bedroom and office, showing the importance of both work and sexuality to the modern man of the time
- The entertaining space of the living room is also quite large and is filled with designed objects and cultural artifacts, showing off how worldly this type of man is
- The bathroom is also spacious, suggesting that men can care about their appearances
Overall, this home is beautifully designed and leveraged the most recent and popular designs. Publishing this piece made it “safe” for hyper-masculine men to dabble in this home space that had for so long been seen as the women’s realm.
In 1961, Playboy furthered this idea with their “Design for Living” article, which highlighted rising stars of mid-century modern design—all of whom were men. In this, they once again gave men permission to care about what they brought into their homes. By introducing the readers of Playboy to another level of arts and design, they were showing them that they could have ownership of their homes and see a well-designed and considered home as a new symbol of their masculinity.
This shift in mentality continued as other men’s magazines imitated this formula and with Playboy publishing other bachelor pad dream homes, like the Playboy Townhouse.
What it Meant to Be a Bachelor in the Mid-Century
All of this led to new ideas around what it meant to be a bachelor in the mid-century. If you look at the articles and advertisements that were published in the late 50s and early 60s, themes begin to emerge. The “ideal” bachelor was surrounded by the latest technology, was well-read and worldly, had a well-stocked liquor cabinet within arms reach. Photos of women in these rooms reinforced the ideal of a heteronormative identity—proving this guy was interested in beautiful women. Early on, these bachelor pads featured twin beds—indicating there was no funny business happening in this space. But as time went on, this began to shift. By the time Playboy released sketches of their townhouse, the bed was a huge fixture within the bedroom, with plenty of room for a partner and a room well-stocked for entertaining guests.
Ultimately, all this showed that a bachelor like the men these spaces were designed for has a refined palette, cares about design, and is single and free to enjoy himself—not being tied down by a wife or kids.
As men started having their own spaces and caring about their home design, it presented a cultural challenge to the traditional idea of masculinity—and it was one of the small steps that brought us to where we are today.
Now, Back to Today
Today, bachelor pads are still very much a cultural icon. In their most ideal realities, they include grand views from high-rise buildings, modern, no-frills furnishings, and the space to entertain. Sounds nice, right?
Fortunately, the idea of a single man or woman, living on their own, is no longer revolutionary. Because of these cultural strides taken in the mid-century, we all have so much more freedom to live the way we want and design a home we love. At Modsy, we’re big believers that design isn’t gendered and you should create a space that reflects you. It’s simply a matter of figuring out what you like and want and bringing it into your home, regardless of trends or cultural norms!
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