Nothing better evokes the post WWII optimism and better-living-through-chemistry ideology of America than the most genuine of fakes, Naugahyde. A PVC coated vinyl fabric unleashed into the American marketplace as a replacement for leather, it followed in a long line of heavily and effectively marketed, laboratory-launched imitations: Formica’s eclipsing of marble, Con-Tact paper’s mimicry and obfuscating of wood…
While countless hours and word counts could be amassed in dirtily detailing and decrying the toxic waste generating production practices of the vinyl manufacturing process, the Naugahyde story boasts far more fascinating aspects, namely the advertising coup d’état from the medium’s first and foremost svengali that inadvertently established it as the defining material of mid century kitsch culture.
To this day, the word “Naugahyde,” rather than invoking a still extant company that continues to manufacturer a popular, versatile, widely used, water resistant textile that is rich with history and remains Made in the USA, instead summons up the ultimate imitation and fraudulence, forever ingrained in the popular lexicon as a punch-line signifying ersatz second-rate quality.
And yet it wasn’t always this way. Named after the town in Connecticut where the Uniroyal Engineered Products that developed it was based, Naugatuck was the epicenter of American rubber production, dating back to 1847 and the birthplace of Keds sneakers and the rubber vulcanization process. The term “Naugahyde” was first used in 1936, much earlier than the mid-century lore would have led one to believe. But the term wasn’t ultimately necessary until then.
Post war America was deeply in love with vinyl coated fabrics. With rampantly expanding industry, the need for flexible, versatile industrial materials and the plastic industry’s willingness and desperation to provide just this, Naugahyde was the innovator in the field; Buckminster Fuller used it to cover chairs in his Dymaxion House, the United Nations used it for their chairs as well.
By the mid 1960s, America was producing 142 million yards per year of vinyl-coated fabrics, but not all of it used was actual Naugahyde. The originators had numerous competitors and lookalikes crowding the market.
To combat their weak brand image, they turned to Madison Avenue advertising guru George Lois, the man responsible for successfully selling the Volkswagen to America. Playing up the cruelty-free, vegetarian-chic elements of Naugahyde, Lois conceived what might be one of the most simple, yet devastatingly effective, advertising campaigns of the 20th century.
The Nauga was, and is, a mythical creature with a toothy grin, narrow set but wide eyes and a skin (s)he sheds once a year, resulting in Naugahyde. Alarmingly cute dolls were made and a complex origin story and mythology was launched in advertisements featuring drawings of “prehistoric” Nauga in their native Sumatra from “30,012 B.C.”, emigrating through Ellis Island and even donating their “hydes” to the War Effort in 1944.
The concept stuck like a sweaty leg to a Naugahyde couch. A Nauga appeared opposite Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, Nauga dolls were made available in showrooms – and the brilliant print advertisements continued. “The Nauga is ugly, but his vinyl hide is beautiful.” By drawing attention to the essential imitation and fakery of the material and essentially celebrating it with a fake narrative wrapped in a knowing, wry, winking humor, Naugahyde was vaulted into the collective consumer consciousness – the ultimate triumph of advertising achieved.
Unfortunately, time has not been so kind to the mid century fetishization of the faux to the level of luxury, and with modern ecological concerns, these materials look even worse. To this day, though, Nauga dolls are collectible items, kitschy reminders from a naively Utopian yesteryear. And the affecting aftertaste of George Lois’ ads lingers heavily over urban folklore with younger generations wondering precisely just where the hyde in Naugahyde comes from. Beware, beware the noble Nauga.
COPY FROM “THE GREAT IMPOSTOR”: That’s him. The one that doesn’t moo. The Nauga. But: His vinyl hide can give you the most gratifying feeling known to man: Cow’s hide? Beautiful. Horsehide? Beautiful. Alligator? Beautiful. (Only your taxidermist will know.) But unlike leather, Naugahyde won’t crack or stain. If you don’t want it leather-like, you can get Naugahyde that looks like linen. Wool. Silk. Tweed. Brocade. Burlap. Bamboo, for heaven’s sake. It fools all the people all the time. In 500 different colors and textures.
COPY FROM “INVITE A NAUGA TO YOUR PARTY”: Make the Nauga feel welcome. Punch him in the nose the minute he comes through the door. Spill a Bloody Mary on him. Get him with a pie in the face. Smear chocolate on his chest. Kick him around. His vinyl hide is Naugahyde vinyl fabric. It’s indestructible. Any soapy sponge, and Naugahyde comes clean.
COPY FROM “THE INDESTRUCTIBLE NAUGA”: Sadder but wiser mothers pray for permanent furniture. The Nauga answers those prayers. With the hide off his back. Naugahyde vinyl fabric. Naugahyde is so rough, it breaks a kid’s spirit. So comfortable, it gets overused. So durable, the kids are old before it is. With Naugahyde you can sail past the Jones’s.