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Unpacking the Bachelor Pad

By Jessica E Sewell Published 2012

© Universal Studies

Image from Pillow Talk (1959). Split screen heightens the contrast between the feminine apartment of Jan Morrow (Doris Day) and Brad Allen (Rock Hudson)'s bachelor pad.

The mid-1950s saw the invention of a new, highly mythologized housing type, the bachelor pad, articulated most fully in the pages of Playboy and in films. The bachelor pad is an apartment for a single professional man, organized for entertaining and pleasure, and displaying tasteful consumption. The bachelor pad was culturally salient at this particular historical moment because it linked a culture increasingly focused on consumption and what sociologists and cultural commentators in the late 1950s argued was a “crisis in masculinity.” The bachelor pad provided a compelling fantasy of individual consumption and economic and sexual power to counter that crisis, but at the same time, helped to produce the masculinity crisis by problematizing straight male domesticity.

As described in Playboy, the pad “is, or should be, the outward reflection of his [the bachelor’s] inner self—a comfortable, livable, and yet exciting expression of the person he is and the life he leads.”1 It is precisely this inner self that was seen to be in crisis in the late 1950s: men’s sense of themselves as individuals had been stripped away, a state that was blamed partly on the conformity of corporate America and partly on women.

Not only did women push men to work in order to satisfy women’s consumerist desires, but their control over men was also understood as spatial—as Philip Wylie argued in Playboy, women had taken over bars, clubs, and workplaces, and “wanted to invade everything masculine, emasculate it, cover it with dimity, occupy it forever.”2 The house similarly had become “a boudoir-kitchen-nursery, dreamed up by women, for women, and as if males did not exist as males.”3

The bachelor pad served as a way to think of an alternative masculinity, apart from work and family. In a 1958 essay in Esquire on “The Crisis of American Masculinity,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued that men needed to “recover a sense of individual spontaneity. And to do this, a man must visualize himself as an individual apart from the group, whatever it is, which defines his values and commands his loyalty.”4 Visualizing themselves as bachelors, living lives of leisure, may have provided just such an opportunity for already-married men to recover their individuality, as well as to base that individuality on consumption. At the time these bachelor pads were articulated, bachelors were rare: in 1956, men’s median age at first marriage was at an all-time low of 22.5 Although potentially a model for actual single men, the bachelor pad functioned primarily as a site to imagine a more fulfilling masculine domesticity and to conceptualize a masculine identity based on the consumption of goods rather than work or family.

Architecturally, Playboy’s bachelor pads are dream doubles of the suburban home. The classic Playboy bachelor pads are penthouses, so rather than being constrained by occupying just one portion of the floor space of an apartment building, they sit on top of the building, much like a suburban ranch house placed atop a tower. Space in them is open and flowing, following a central tenet of architectural modernism dating back to the 1920s. In addition, their integration of indoors and outdoors through sliding doors and continuous flooring reflected the 1950s–60s Californian trend in suburban house design. Similarly, the Playboy bachelor pads’ interiors are examples of the high style modernism championed by Architectural Record and modern architects. Each Playboy pad includes several pieces designed by prominent modernist designers, including Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Isamu Noguchi. Signature furnishings take center stage in the designs, often dominating the rooms, and are referred to repeatedly in the text. They are also pulled out and shown separately, and information about the designer, manufacturer, and price is included in captions. For readers, the Playboy bachelor pad designs could function as both aspirational fantasies and catalogues.

The bachelor pad’s interior needed to be stylish, because style is essential to the persona of the Playboy bachelor and his upwardly mobile aspirations. However, any interest in interior design was very clearly gendered, then as now, and was associated both with women and with gay men. Thus the design needed to be clearly masculine. Traditional modes of masculine design, however, modeled on the men’s club and the hunting lodge, were too completely homosocial, and inappropriate for a straight man who should want to entertain and seduce women in his home. Without these models to resort to, the design cues of heterosexual masculinity were subtle. While the dead animals and club chairs of these older homosocial spaces have no place here, their traces remain in the evocation of hunting through art such as the Lascaux motifs in the bathroom of a 1956 penthouse apartment featured in Playboy as well as in the use of leather, dark colors, and rich textures. Textures also expressed the ruggedness and roughness of masculinity, and set it apart from the femininity that had been historically linked with smoothness. We can see these masculine signs playing out in the 1959 film Pillow Talk, which juxtaposes the bachelor pad of Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) and the feminine apartment of Jan Morrow (Doris Day). The walls of Jan’s apartment are smoothly painted in light colors, and the overall color scheme is pastel, accented with images of flowers and gardens. In contrast, Brad’s apartment is relatively dark, with modern oil paintings and landscapes in dark wood frames, and dark wood and leather furnishings. One wall is of bare brick, and most of the others are covered in textured bark-like wallpaper. Straight masculinity is also performed through quite modernist absences; in Playboy’s 1956 penthouse apartment, “lamps, which would impede the clean, open look of the place, are virtually dispensed with; there is a complete absence of bric-a-brac, patterned fabrics, pleats and ruffles.”6

Liquor and technology also help to masculinize the pad. Each pad has not just one, but several bars, which permit “the canny bachelor to remain in the room while mixing a cool one for his intended quarry. No chance of . . . leaving her cozily curled up on the couch with her shoes off and returning to find her mind changed, purse in hand, and the young lady ready to go home, damn it.”7 Liquor serves as a marker of masculinity, but more importantly the bar is the center of entertainment, by means of which guests are both served drinks and entertained by the bachelor’s skill as a bartender. Technology similarly helps to entertain guests. Elaborate entertainment systems combining stereo and TV with the latest in entertainment gadgetry not only allows a bachelor to play music for his guests, but also become conversation pieces in themselves. Similarly, kitchen gadgets help him entertain guests with his “electronic showmanship” as he demonstrates his conveyor-belt cabinets, induction range, and “automatic electric cooking utensils.”8 Technology heightens the masculinity of the bachelor pad in several ways: it brings with it the associations of science and technology, it is a tool for displaying connoisseurship of both gadgets and music, and it functions as the means to total mastery of the environment. This mastery is expressed in the ubiquitous control units, which allow the bachelor to control nearly every aspect of the environment of the bachelor pad, including lights, doors, curtains, music, telephone answering machine, and even the automatic frying of eggs and bacon. Control panels express a fantasy of pure leisure, in which the bachelor can spend his entire life indolently in bed taking care of every need by remote control, as well as a fantasy of total control, in which the bachelor is able to control everything around him by the push of a button, even, perhaps, his playmate. Control panels serve not only as a means of performing mastery, but also of orchestrating the tools of seduction, including mood music, lights, and door locks. The entire apartment serves as a machine of seduction, which the bachelor controls in order to attract, inebriate, and eventually trap his female prey. This motif of seduction serves to heterosexualize the bachelor pad and its pleasures, helping to diffuse the queer implications of the bachelor’s interest in design and disinterest in marriage.

The bachelor pad is centered on individual pleasure and stylish consumption, framed in the context of the sexual conquest of women, but with much more complex meanings and potential uses. It enables a kind of fantasmatic escape from suburbia, serving as an architectural dream double of the suburban house. It is a site for men to imagine what a masculine interior that expressed their own personality might be, and a way to learn how to use consumption to construct a new model of manhood for themselves, one made necessary by the masculinity crisis that the pad also helped to construct.

Jessica Ellen Sewell, a Member (2011–12) in the School of Social Science and the author of Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890–1915 (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), is a scholar of American material culture, gender, and architecture. In 2012, she will be an Associate Professor of Architecture at Xi’an Jiaotong–Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. She is working on a book, “Bachelor Modern: Interiors and the Crisis of Masculinity in the Postwar United States,” which explores the relationship between the bachelor pad, gendered objects, masculine identity, and consumption in 1950s and 60s America.

Published in The Institute Letter Spring 2012