Short Take: Domesticity and Hi-Fi Living

Bill Caraher

I’m totally enamored with J. Borgerson’s and J. Schroeder’s Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (2017) published by MIT Press. The book explores the remarkable world of album covers from the 1950s and 1960s not from the heights of pop music (which was still dominated by 45 rpm singles), but from the more offbeat and intriguing perspective of the newly introduced long-playing record. The book is lavishly illustrated in color and the authors present the album covers as a catalogue organized according two broad themes of “Home” and “Away.” The former includes album covers that feature home life, the joys of listening to music in a domestic retreat, and the latter features the covers of albums that offer to fill the house with foreign ambiance or to transport the listener the exotic locations.

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Borgerson’s and Schroeder’s most interesting observations center on the aspirational domesticity illustrated by these album covers. The home spaces are filled with musicians or listeners perched on Eames chairs in modernist, minimalist surroundings. The cover of Ornette Coleman’s iconic Free Jazz (1960) even featured art by Jackson Pollock. The album covers grouped into the “Away” category depict foreign places, relying on a series of recognizable tropes to bring the romance, exoticism, or adventure of international travel to suburban living rooms. At the dawn of the jet age, these images did more than offer a glimpse of exotic “other” places outside the grasp the ordinary middle class family and reflected the shrinking of the world where it was now possible to travel to Europe, Cuba, Asia, or even domestic destinations such as the newest state, Hawaii, or bustling, urban New York City. The albums, their covers, and the music served as guides to the new tourism of the jet age and allowed for it to be (re)experienced at home.

As someone who loves hi-fi sound, I recognized that some of the aspirational character of these album covers goes beyond their ability to convey the neatly arranged space of the modern home or evoke the potential of travel and extended to the very idea that mass-produced recorded music was available on demand at home. The growth of radio made music available in the home or office, but the listener remained subject to the whims of the radio station and was always aware (for better and for worse) of being part of a listening public. The home hi-fi allowed a listener to create a private soundtrack for their world, and this likewise worked to redefine music and the home stereo as a way of capturing the otherwise public experiences of performed music. The privatizing of the public experience strikes me as a key element in our middle class dream. Long-playing records’ promises of “Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound,” “Living Stereo,” “360 Sound,” and “Living Presence” demonstrate that record companies understood that listeners aspired to the fidelity of living performances in their homes.

I was also intrigued by the depiction of record players and turntables throughout the book. With few exceptions, the turntable was an understated device usually set off center in the album cover art. There were no wires powering the turntable (or any other electrical devices on the covers) and despite the claims of stereophonic sound, album covers never showed the two speakers necessary to reproduce the full effects of stereo recording. The turntable was a low-key and unobtrusive element of the neatly modernist home that could be hidden away in its cabinet until called upon to transport the listener.

This contrasts significantly with the contemporary vinyl revival, which has produced turntables that are designed for their owners to display in their homes as a marker of their sophisticated taste in music and audio gear (exemplified by the recent interest in turntables by lifestyle brands like Shinola). While amplifiers, speakers, and the other gear required for the true high-fidelity experience remain a delightful mishmash of industrial utility and modern design sensibility, the turntable has set itself apart as an opportunity to display audio sophistication. The rituals surrounding turntable use (and to be clear, I’m not a vinyl guy), their design, and the required equipment encroach upon the clean minimalism of the 1950s and 1960s album covers and introduce a muddled, functional aesthetic to domestic space that makes obvious the tools required to translate the public experience to the home. Unlike the understated, almost magical, reproduction of performed music evoked in 1950s and 1960s album art, the twenty-first-century stereo demonstrates the mastery of arcane, complex, and sophisticated technologies. If the space and design of the modern home sought to produce a subtle, domestic retreat open to both men and women, the twenty-first-century stereo embodies a crass, functional, and messy masculinity.

The covers reproduced in this book reminded me that you can hide the cables, the racks of LPs, and even the turntable, but the hi-fi experience was never quite as austere and tidy as album covers displayed, and there was something very contemporary about the particular tension between aspiration and reality. The  clean modernity of the technology present in our contemporary mobile phones, laptop computers, and stainless-steel appliances can never quite hide the messy tangle of cables, skills, and rituals designed for its mastery. Despite the neat potential of this aspirational domesticity, the recent vinyl resurgence reminds us that people still want to demonstrate technical proficiency in controlling their world.

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