The sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, with its dreams of utopian hippy communes and opposition to cold war conservatism, had a scattered effect on many aspects of world culture including design. Many young designers' work at the time focused on both their current realities and the future utopias their idealism had them believe were soon to occur. Not only did the sexual revolution influence the way designers were thinking about interior design and industrial design, it also influenced the way that utopian and dystopian futures were potrayed in literature and film.
Designers like Verner Panton, Gaetano Pesce, and Superstudio were taking inspiration from these movements to create objects and art that reflected free love and iconoclasm.
While many designers were making objects and environments meant to set the tone and complement a certain type of experience, some were designing the experience itself through material objects.
Sexual freedom, combined with the counter-cultural interest in reaching higher consciousness through Eastern meditation and/or hallucinogens, was the main inspiration for Haus-Rucker-Co’s Mind Expander Chair. This group of Viennese artists, architects, and designers created a chair that a couple would climb into, the woman would sit on the man’s lap, and they would pull down the cover and turn on the “rhythm machine” to expand their minds and induce their libidos.
The portrayal of the future as a utopia of sexual freedom is most famously seen in the films Barbarella (1968) and Sleeper (1973). Both of these films involve a futuristic device that triggers a state of ecstasy and eventually, an orgasm in its user. In Sleeper, the “Orgasmatron” is a large cylinder big enough to fit two people. The “Orgasmatron” is required for having sex since everyone is frigid - except for the Italians, obviously. In Barbarella, the “Excessive Machine” is used by the villain to kill Barbarella through a powerful orgasm. Spoiler alert - her orgasm breaks the machine instead.
As outlandish and campy as these objects seem, they were based on a real device known as the Orgone Energy Accumulator and designed by German psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. The Orgone Box was a simple wooden box, lined in metal, that one would sit in and supposedly reach physical and mental ecstasy. He proposed a pseudoscientific regimen of sitting in this box once a day, claiming that it would gather all of the surrounding orgones, an omnipresent esoteric energy, and concentrate them inside the box. Owners and proponents of the Orgone Box include William S. Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, and Sean Connery.
Long gone are the days of experimental design that had this level of sincerity and utopian idealism. Nowadays, designers tend to be more cynical, practical, or focused on issues more popular than sexual freedom. Though skepticism prevents us from believing in the power of design objects to alter our senses and achieve something as bodily as an orgasm, that should not stop us from looking to the future and designing the impossible.
Title image credits: Amore, Superstudio, 1972 – Fondazione MAXXI, Rome, Image Source: BMIAA