Midcentury Style Frames Storytelling in Hidden Figures

7 min read Today, a breakdown of the Midcentury Modern style – both at NASA and at home – in one of my favorite recent movies: Hidden Figures.

I just re-watched Hidden Figures.  It is a fantastic movie that checks all my boxes: painful-but-inspiring untold underdog history about nerd girls who are determined to show everyone what they can do.  Plus, it is beautifully shot with a fantastic soundtrack and some really great acting. What more could I ask?

If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this blog post and go stream it RIGHT NOW. 

Long story short, Hidden Figures is a biopic of three black female mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn working at NASA who contributed to the beginning of the space program.  They face sexist and racist barriers but push on through to success — i.e. finalizing the calculations to get a man into orbit (and back) for the first time.

The movie highlights some of the outrageous BS that talented women of color had to shovel in order to just keep on being excellent: segregated bathrooms, low pay, being left out of the loop and generally disrespected.  It is riddled with gut punch lines like Katherine’s white female supervisor leaving her with these encouraging words before she starts a new position: “They’ve never had a colored in here before, Katherine.  Don’t embarrass me.”

But I’m here to talk about the design of the movie rather than the dialogue:

Tuning up History with the Nasa Sets

The production designer, Wynn Thomas, talked about the research and choices behind the movie in this House&Garden article.  Like many other parts of the movie that were adjusted from real life for better story telling, the NASA sets are intentionally ahistorical.

“I decided to ignore the reality of NASA – all of the offices would have been boring rectangular concrete spaces. I wanted to design a ‘place of wonder’ for the Space Task Group. I wanted to design a room where ‘great things happen’.”

hidden figures_work spaces_nasa campus

They used the campus of Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta GA  (ironically an all-male school) and created sound stage sets to punch up the midcentury drama and general space-age wonder of the movie’s themes.

I ADORE the sets in this movie and I don’t mind that they aren’t all exactly based in reality. They help tell the story in a really dramatic way.  For example: the contrasts between the work spaces of the West Computing Group team (the African American women) and the (white male) engineering team are diagrammatically clear.

hidden figures_work spaces_west computing

hidden figures_work spaces_engineering office furniture

You feel the development of the character grow as Katherine goes from standing on the periphery with a box of her books and office supplies to inhabiting the engineering workspace.

The Real (Midcentury) Homes in Hidden Figures

hidden figures_vaughn house_dining

It is a delight to see Katherine, Mary and Dorothy at rest in a great Midcentury Modern house (Dorothy’s).  I initially worried that the Vaughn house was simply more pretty set decoration.  Being familiar with the shameful history of segregated housing in Midcentury American (and periods before and after), I wondered if even privileged and professional black women like these three would have had access to the cutting edge MidMod style housing like this.

One of the biggest shadows on midcentury modernism in America is that its optimistic futurism was often limited to white people.  In the post war period, even blue collar white families were able to afford homes in shining new suburban neighborhoods leaving more diverse communities in urban areas behind through “white flight.”  Redlining, racist zoning practices and even Federal Housing Authority mortgages all kept black families confined to less desirable and older residential areas.  This deserves its own post, and I’ll address it more in detail later!

I dug deeper in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures.  Dorothy and then Katherine initially moved their families into rental units in temporary war housing (segregated) that was extended long past VJ day.  Eventually they were able to move nearby to “comfortable, leafy, all-black subdivisions.”  Katherine’s eventual home on Mimosa Crescent (Shetterly, 133) in Hampton, VA is actually populated with modest Ranches.  In the movie she lives in the most stylistically modest home.  I have those exact cabinets in my 1952 kitchen.

hidden figures_johnson house_kitchen

We only see a kitchen and bedroom space in Mary Jackson’s house.  She has a suitably edgier interior style to match both her personal flair and younger demographic.  This strikes me as a borderline 70’s era style with multiple bold contrasting patterns and dramatic wood cabinets.

hidden figures_jackson house_kitchen

The piece of resistance of the home sets is Dorothy Vaughn’s very modern home.  Here’s her glorious midmod dining area and slightly anachronistic kitchen (check out that waterfall countertop).

hidden figures_vaughn house_dining background

hidden figures_vaughn house_kitchen

I was delighted to learn that they shot the homes of the three women in Collier Heights a historically black mid-century neighborhood outside Atlanta.

There is a really lovely photo essay for Southern Spaces on Collier Heights by Lydia A. Harris here.  Collier Heights was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.  Unlike the typical African American suburb from the midcentury period in which “white flight” left an existing neighborhood emptied for re-occupation by families of color, Collier Heights “was developed as a result of an African-American initiative, and it specifically served an African-American population.”

hidden figures_vaughn house_exterior

As such, they had a slightly atypical feature.  Many of the homes developed in this area had extra rooms intended for public space activities like “seated luncheons, dances, parties, receptions, fashion shows, games, relaxation, and television.”  Basically, since so many social areas in public America were hostile to African Americans at that time, homeowners took over that function.

Dorothy’s house has just such a space included.  All the main characters are dancing in their recreation room (with a very professional looking bar) when the news of the successful Sputnik flight is dropped into the movie.

Atlanta Magazine did another great profile on the neighborhood.  They also discuss the all important recreation rooms.

“The only noticeable difference between homes in Collier Heights and those in other upscale, midcentury Atlanta neighborhoods is the presence of elaborate party rooms, such as Herman Russell’s. Since African Americans were not allowed in restaurants and hotels, they entertained at home. And they did so in style.”

hidden figures_vaughn house_rec room dancing

hidden figures_vaughn house_rec room shelves

hidden figures_vaughn house_rec room bar

The Southern Spaces profile explains it this way:

Henry Herbert Bankston, a government worker and resident of Collier Heights, remembers, “I think about our getting together like we once did, and it was basically because we did entertain in our basement. Or in our recreation area, that’s what we called it. And that’s where we had our parties, that’s where we had dances, and all, and meetings, in our basements. See, we can come in here and entertain in this living room, but that recreation room downstairs is where we came and had our little dances, where we had our club meetings, and so forth and so on. Most of these homes around here are equipped that way.”

One of the architects of custom Collier Heights homes was J.W. Robinson an architect trained at Hampton University but was unable to practice for years due to racist policy.  He made ends meet by teaching High School geometry but “eventually went into full-time practice and was the first African American in Georgia to become a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.”

hidden figures_vaughn house_TV

The core cast gather’s at the Vaughn household later in the movie to watch the American launch in solidarity.

Great Design Throughout

The whole movie is not only a nod to the triumphant achievement of these women but a visual a paean to the optimism and even exuberance of the Space Age.  The color scheme of the sets is VERY consistent:

hidden figures_color dots


hidden figures_colors_west computing

hidden figures_colors_nasa workroom

All of this adds up to making the movie visually stunning, emotionally satisfying and historically informative on several levels.  A+

Just a little more

If you want to read more analysis of the design of Hidden Figures, check out this FANTASTIC analysis of the costume design done by tomandlorenzo.com.  They do a really strong character break down of how color and style of clothing help tell the story of each woman and eventually conclude that the women of Hidden Figures are dressed in “superhero costumes.”  I quite agree!

I also highly recommend the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.  It is a little less narrative and more generally historical than the movie but it is a fascinating picture of both early NASA and the lives of women of color during the last century.  It’s a page turner!

[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]