Retrostyle: A Day in the Fifties

Astro Lab: Asher Siegal's mid-century den.Photo: Danielle Levitt

The Doo-Wop Fan

As a kid in sixties Providence, Rhode Island, Asher Siegal was enthralled with his grandparents’ fifties stucco ranch: the blond-wood furniture, the painted vertical blinds, and best of all, the floor-model television, a version of the famous Heywood-Wakefield model. That his brothers sold it before Siegal could claim it makes him crazy to this day. It would have been a perfect fit in his one-bedroom apartment, which he describes as “John Waters Land.” With its pink-and-green kitchen (no microwave), boomerang-pattern wallpaper, and drapes printed in that familiar atomic pattern, Siegal’s home is a diminutive tribute to the space-age optimism of the fifties. It’s also the summation of 30 years’ worth of flea-market trolling, vintage-store rummaging, and eBay scouring. “I don’t shop at mainstream stores because they don’t have anything I want, except socks and underwear,” he explains. “Vintage hardly makes it through the wash more than once.”

He makes shakes in a rocket-shaped blender found for $10 at the Chelsea flea market and cooks “the most unhealthy cheese-laden” recipes from period cookbooks in vintage casserole dishes. When Siegel throws one of his frequent parties, he uses the pineapple-shaped pitchers and ice buckets inherited from his grandmother and plays music on the Blaupunkt console—which has a built-in bar, shortwave AM-FM radio, and hi-fi and was purchased from New and Used for $100. “I haven’t listened to a popular-music station since the early eighties,” says Siegel, who is 45. His all-time favorite album is Bobby Darin’s For Teenagers Only; he paid $2 for his gatefold version with a poster insert at a yard sale in Providence. He hit a fifties-aficionado milestone of sorts when he went to Viva Las Vegas, a four-day festival dedicated to the lifestyle of fifties America, and met a mass of kindred spirits. “These people understand that I’m not in costume,” he says with conviction. “This is what I like.”

Photo: Bettman/Corbis

New York in the fifties was a beatnik’s paradise, so get in the mood with Anatole Broyard’s exuberant Kafka Was the Rage ($13 at Biography Bookshop; 212-807-8655). Start your day by skimming the Revolutionary Communist Party’s Revolution newspaper ($1 at Revolution Books; 212-691-3345) and listening to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” by Pete Seeger—or cheat and buy Bruce Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions ($14 each at St. Mark’s Sounds; 212-677-3444).

Photo: Davies + Starr

Throw on a flannel work shirt by Adrian, a wide-brimmed peasant straw hat ($100 and $125 at Cherry; 212-924-1410), and vintage Levi’s ($950 at What Comes Around Goes Around; 212-343-9303), and head to the Morgan Library for an exhibit of Bob Dylan’s early career. Marvel over the handwritten lyrics of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and photos of a young Dylan fresh from Minnesota ($12 admission; 212-685-0008).

Photo: Davies + Starr

Find a muse at contact improvisation dance class ($13; Movement Research; 212-598-0551, ext. 1). After she gets the namesake hairdo at the Beehive ($75; 718-782-8376), she can change into her Claire McCardell floral day dress ($1,600 at Cherry) and paint her lips (Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow, $7.49; CVS); then take her to the Museum of Modern Art to hear John Ashbery and Bill Berkson pay tribute to fellow New York School poet Frank O’Hara ($10; 212-708-9400). Afterward, take the train uptown to the West End, where Ginsberg and Kerouac used to drink, even though it’s now revamped and renamed Havana Central (212-662-8830).

Photo: Courtesy of Knoll

Back downtown, visit the gallery of the New York School of Interior Design (212-472-1500), where ten pieces by designer-architect Florence Knoll are on display alongside shots of her interiors. Later, flip through a copy of The Hound of Earth, a novel by best-selling fifties author Vance Bourjaily ($45 at Argosy Book Store; 212-753-4455) then stock up on Spam for your fallout shelter. Curl up on your Edward Wormley sofa ($8,500 at Lin/Weinberg; 212-219-3022), and rest up for an evening of poetry readings at KGB, the crimson-lit bar tucked away in the former headquarters of the Ukrainian Labor Home, a club for Ukrainian Socialists (212-505-3360).

Line Vautrin Boxes

Photo: Courtesy of Phillips de Pury

Any object by the whimsical French sculptor and jeweler Line Vautrin, who worked in gold and talosel, a type of resin that she patented, is commanding a record price. “It’s absolutely gone crazy,” says Marcus Tremonto, senior specialist at Phillips de Pury & Company. A Vautrin mirror that sold for $1,500 in 2000 would likely fetch $90,000, even $100,000, today. The point of entry for Vautrin-o-philes are her two-to-three-inch keepsake boxes, some of which are included in Phillips’ Design and Design Art sale on December 14 (212-940-1265) and could go for as little as $3,000.

Additional reporting by Sarah Bernard.

Retrostyle: A Day in the Fifties