Paris and Art in 1950s – influence on design

Paris, newly liberated from the German occupation, sprung to life during the 1950s as a centre for all modes of artistic endeavour, most notably in fine art, literature, and music. Its association with romantic literary figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Roland Barthes made the city incredibly appealing to every serious-minded man or woman. But the city’s allure was not just intellectual: Gay Paree was reopened to visitors, and they flocked in droves. Many high-end magazines in the United States and Europe, such as Esquire, advertised Paris vacations, which were now much more accessible due to the rise in commercial air travel.

Max Factor Pink & Orange Lipstick ad 1958
Max Factor Pink & Orange Lipstick ad 1958

Parisian motifs

Parisian motifs started to appear on almost every kind of clothing, household fabric, and crockery: palettes, streetside cafes, dressed poodles, and the Eiffel Tower. Designers looked to fine artists for inspiration as well as more familiar pictures. Many of the artists they selected, such as Joan Miro and Paul Klee, painted free-floating organic abstract images that could easily be transformed into repeat fabric or wallpaper designs. Similarly, Alexander Calder’s mobiles’ abstract shapes were easily made into precise graphic forms. Surrealist artists, especially Salvador Dali, whose metaphysical images complemented contemporary philosophical concepts, were sources of inspiration for designers. Artists were immediately elevated to the status of gods, and everyone aspired to be one. The art schools of Paris, London, and New York came to life.

Hanging mobile—sheet metal, wire and paint designed by Alexander Calder (1954)
Hanging mobile—sheet metal, wire and paint designed by Alexander Calder (1954)

Paris in Film

An American in Paris (1951), starring the French Leslie Caron and the American Gene Kelly, and To Catch a Thief (1955), starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, were two of the major film releases of the time. Leslie Caron, alongside Audrey Hepburn, was instrumental in popularising the ‘French Look,’ an impish ‘gamine’ style of dress that featured snug black pedal pushers, flattie shoes, stripey T-shirts, berets, plenty of red lipstick, and the obligatory Gauloise. A basket containing a baguette, a bottle of wine, spaghetti, and several paintbrushes was the ultimate accessory for the art-student version of this type.

American in Paris poster
American in Paris poster

Films like these often portrayed the jazz clubs, or ‘dives,’ of Paris. Contemporary and traditional jazz emerged as the musical epitome of a ‘with it’ artistic lifestyle, and similar clubs flourished in London’s Soho and New York’s Greenwich Village. The saxophone motif, which had gained popularity in the 1940s, could be found not only on record sleeves but also on any item or fabric willing to embrace it.


Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

Powell, P. (1994). ’50S & ’60s style. Grange Books.

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