While visiting Art Chicago this spring, we jumped at a chance for a private tour the Playboy Collection to see some of its coveted works by Andy Warhol, Leroy Neiman, and Alberto Vargas — along with any other seductive bits of the archive that might be on view. Much to our surprise, we were treated to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, a 1960s flavored exhibition that celebrates the Playboy lifestyle of that era. The stylish show, which was organized by Playboy art curator Aaron Baker, features photographs, illustrations, and paintings that he assembled while doing research about the early Playboy Clubs for both the producers of Mad Men and The Playboy Club, a new NBC drama that premieres this fall.
For the episode of Mad Men that featured New York’s 1963 Playboy Club, Baker worked with the show’s producers to recreate the look and feel of the one-time NYC hot spot for the show. He provided research materials and reproductions of the art that Playboy had used in the interior of the actual club in the early-60s. Following that project, Baker worked similarly with the producers of The Playboy Club, a series that takes place in 1963 and is set in Hugh Hefner’s first Playboy Club, which opened in Chicago in 1960.
“I believe that one of the reasons that Mad Men is so popular, and the reason that I think The Playboy Club show on NBC will be so appealing, is that both of these shows harken back to a time when design was at its zenith in this country,” Baker tells us. “Fashion was really rocking in that decade and people made an effort to be stylish and elegant — even just to enjoy an evening’s dinner. Playboy’s role in that style is that when Hef debuted the magazine in 1953, he envisioned it as a handbook for the urban male — that is, essentially, a guide to the good life.”
From the very beginning, Playboy told its readers about what cool cocktails they should drink; the sports cars they should drive; the way they should furnish their bachelor pads; the fashions they should wear; the books and music they should know about; and the lifestyle to which they should aspire. “Hef has always been a role model for how young men might their lives,” Baker explains. “After his divorce in the late-50s, he bought the Playboy Mansion and started to live that lifestyle.”
Hef, who had worked for Esquire magazine before starting his own publication, hired the best illustrators and photographers of the time, while providing new challenges for young artists. The archive holds tens of thousands of images and more than forty thousand individual artworks. According to Baker, Art Paul, the first art director and creator of the rabbit head logo, asked fine artists to be illustrators and illustrators to make fine art. Click through our gallery of images to see some of the creative talents that defined a decade.
Hef and Bunnies at the London Playboy Club, 1960s
LeRoy Neiman, Dry and Dapper, March 1956
Alberto Vargas, Vargas Girl, January 1966, “He only needed one shot for the leopard, but it took most of a fifth to get me.”
Robert Branham, Playboy’s Penthouse Apartment, September 1956
Walt Burton, Bunny Lynne Dressing, 1965
Larry Fredericks, The Lake Geneva Playboy Club, 1968
January 1958 Playboy Cover
Humen Tan, Playboy’s Electronic Entertainment Wall, October 1966
Alberto Vargas, Vargas Girl, November 1963, “Every time I meet someone I really like, either he’s married or I am.”