explainer / culture

How Restaurants Got So Loud

Fashionable minimalism replaced plush opulence. That’s a recipe for commotion.
Luxury didn’t always mean loud, and there are lessons to be learned from the glamorous restaurants of the past, including actual mid-century-modern eateries. From the 1940s through the early 1990s, fine-dining establishments expressed luxury through generous seating, plush interiors, and ornate decor. But more important, acoustic treatments themselves were a big part of that luxury.

Surfaces that today’s consumers now consider old-fashioned were still relatively new and exciting in the interwar and postwar periods. Just as stainless-steel tabletops, slate-tile floors, and exposed ductwork seem au courant today, so did wall paneling and drop ceilings with acoustic tiles in the 1950s and ’60s.

Architects also had different conceptions of what ideal work and leisure spaces should sound like. In the early to mid-20th century, designers were startled to discover that they might have some control over the aural impression of a physical space. Just as automobiles and kitchen appliances were seen as technological solutions to problems of everyday life, so ambient noise shifted from a symbol of progress in the machine age to a problem it produced—one that demanded a solution.

Early acoustics materials focused on absorbing sound—soaking up sonic energy rather than reflecting it. That approach produced its own idiosyncratic soundscape. As the science historian Emily Thompson explains in her book The Soundscape of Modernity, absorptive materials removed reverberation, producing “clear and direct” sound. “In a culture preoccupied with noise and efficiency,” Thompson writes, “reverberation became just another form of noise, an unnecessary sound that was inefficient and best eliminated.”

Absorptive design found its way first into schools and offices, where acoustics products were marketed as essential to creating quieter interiors and thus more efficient and less distraction-prone workers (or students). These products were advertised as “sound-conditioning” devices that would purify an environment of “unnatural” sounds. In catalogs for commercial and home interiors, sound-absorptive surfaces were linked directly to comfort, sophistication, and luxury.

Today’s interior designs are often seen as throwbacks to classic mid-century-modern spaces—sparse and sleek, with hardwood floors and colorful Danish chairs with tapered legs seated beside long, light-colored wood tables. The contemporary revival of this style tends to highlight these features to excess. However, photographs of restaurants from the 1950s through the 1970s reveal that interiors were opulent in the more luxurious lounges and supper clubs. Trends that today’s diners associate with luxury, such as hard surfaces and open kitchens, were, in mid-century, mainly relegated to lowbrow spaces such as cafés, cafeterias, and diners. The finest eateries—such as French and specialty restaurants, exclusive lounges, and cocktail bars—were the most highly ornamented and plush. Even high-modernist interiors made extensive use of soft goods, including cloth tablecloths, heavy drapes, carpeted floors, and upholstered seating. Across the board, mid-century restaurants had low ceilings, often with acoustic ceiling tiles.
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