Perspective: Hide That Thing

Ever since the first TV debuted 73 years ago, TV brands have been trying to make it disappear

Headshot of Robert Klara

When Americans got their initial look at the first commercially available television set at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the eerie, bluish screen glowing before them measured 5 ¾ x 7 ¾ inches. Nevertheless, the set—the General Electric HM-225—was the size of a refrigerator. There’d really been no choice on that front. GE designers knew that no self-respecting housewife in America would permit a contraption consisting of a cathode-ray picture screen, 22 vacuum tubes, a 12-inch speaker and untold resistors, capacitors and wires into her living room. So, in came the woodworkers, who sheathed the HM-225’s electric guts in a sleek deco hardwood shell. Ahhh, that’s better.

Without quite realizing it, early TV makers were also witnessing the birth of a dichotomy that endures to this day: Everybody wants to watch TV, but nobody wants to really look at a TV. What to do? The two ads here demonstrate how brands, and then brand marketers, tackled that problem in 1968 and just a few months ago.

“At first I thought how different these ads are,” noted Stuart Leslie, president of New York-based design and innovation firm 4sight inc. “But they’re really both tackling the same challenge: obtrusion into the living space. You want to watch TV and have a great picture, but you don’t want it thrown in your face. So you can minimize it. The problem is the same—but today, the technology has allowed us to solve it in a different way.”

“Minimizing it” was no mean feat in 1969 when the ad on this page appeared. Back in analog era—when Magnavox’s 23-inch cathode-ray picture tube weighed a good 50 pounds all by itself—the solution was an exercise in concealment. Minimization meant making the TV look like something else (or, as Leslie put it, “hiding it until it was acceptable”). Armies of cabinetmakers plied their chisels to transform the otherwise butt-ugly TV set into furniture that resembled sideboards and bureaus. Marketers shifted into overdrive, coming up with elegant-sounding names (the beauty on the right was the “Aegean Classic With Tambour Doors”) and ever more elaborate encasements, some of which would have looked at home in the sword room of a Scottish castle.

“Back then the idea was that you’d open it up and reveal the theater of the TV, and when you weren’t, your living room would look the way it was supposed to—just furniture and chairs,” Leslie said. Indeed, these “console televisions” would define the first three decades of the TV era, and every brand hopped on board. Emerson: “21-inch picture housed in an elegant English Mahogany cabinet, hand-rubbed to a high lustre.” Philco: “The stunning new Miss America Series rendered in authentic hardwood Mastercraft cabinetry.”

The problem of how to minimize the TV was still with us when liquid-crystal displays made their debut a few years back. But, as the Samsung D8000 set, opposite, makes clear, this time technology itself solved the problem. The compact sleekness of digital components might not have made TVs beautiful, but it made them unobtrusive enough to obviate the desire to hide them. As Leslie put it, “Now, it’s not about making the TV disappear anymore because the TV finally looks cool.” Or, at least, cool enough.

Too bad it put all those wood carvers out of work.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.