MediaPost Publications, December 13, 2007
“Atomic Ranch” by Jim Irwin
As a middle-period baby boomer, I feel a vague sense of guilt because of the recent lionization of what Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation.” My generation, meanwhile, missed such character-building experiences as economic depression and world war — Vietnam and energy crises notwithstanding.
But wait! Our parents also did something not just noble, but cool! They moved into ranch houses with screen-block walls and turquoise Formica and Eames chairs and Saarinen tables and, out back behind the carport, Tiki bars! Who knew? Postwar affluence was right under our noses, and we kids were so steeped in it that it went right over our crew-cut and page-boy-coiffed heads, like Sputnik.
Now, however, comes Atomic Ranch, a shelter magazine that for sheer fun is pretty tough to top. It’s published by Jim Brown and Michelle Gringeri-Brown of Portland, Ore., whose fondness for what’s more or less formally called Midcentury Modern (MCM) architecture, design and style bubbles over on every page.
The Browns serve up heapin’ helpins’ of neighborhood profiles, how-to stories, readers’ experiences with restoration and Q&As. They sound a serious note when they editorialize about the disrespect that MCM continues to get from zoning boards, McMansion developers and insensitive remodelers, but for the most part Atomic Ranch evokes the spirit of optimism and informality that we boomers would like to think made the world a pretty neat place to grow up in.
This is not to say AR is about nostalgia, although there’s a fair portion of that. A recent article compares two homes in an MCM subdivision in Houston (which offered models with monikers like “Tropicana” and “Contemporama”). One home blends period and modern decor, while the other is a kooky agglomeration of angles and Technicolor splashes that doesn’t evoke the Jetsons as much as it does a MOMA exhibit.
Like most shelter magazines (although it goes beyond brick and mortar — or should I say glass block and aluminum?), much of AR’s appeal is found on the ad pages. Here you can find reproduction George Nelson 1956 Marshmallow sofas, Case Study stacking chairs, Marimekko fabrics — and real estate ads mainly for properties in the West and on the West Coast. (It’s that up-and-coming New Frontier ethos that infuses AR, although recent articles have located significant enclaves of MCM architecture in Australia and Western Canada.) The back of the book includes a detailed guide to advertisers and a calendar of MCM events.
The mag’s title “Atomic,” best as I can tell, is a just-this-side-of-ironic reference to the atomic age of the late 1940s to early 1970s, when there was a whole lot of talk about peaceful uses of the atom and a whole lot more reality in the form of thousands of nukes the U.S and USSR had pointed at each other. Indeed, a cute AR piece on collectible transistor radios includes an explanation of those little triangles at two spots on the AM dial — the frequencies you were supposed to tune to in case of “emergency” (read nuclear attack).
But no matter. We got through it, and in better shape than the Russkies, I daresay.
Compared with some other “period” shelter magazines that take themselves so darn seriously, AR doesn’t attempt to set itself against other styles of architecture or see itself as a repudiation of or counterattack against them — unless, as I mentioned above, MCM homes and neighborhoods are threatened by insensitivity and disrespect. The Browns are pretty diligent about keeping things lighthearted — and don’t we all want to have that attitude bridge our past and our present? Atomic Ranch does, and it does it with panache.