An absorbing study of the role of style and design in early postwar American culture. Marling (Art History and American Studies/Univ. of Minnesota; coauthor of Iwo Jima: Monuments and the American Hero, 1991) examines the period when TV first leveled its electronic gaze at American life and a dynamic new set of visual and cultural values were born. She describes leisure pursuits like amateur painting -- and its ghastly derivative, the paint-by-numbers set -- that rose with the country's self-conscious new prosperity; the growth of automobile fetishism; kitchen gadgets and their meaning for ever-busier women; Elvis's nouveau-riche stylistic pretensions; and national unease over the comparative worth of less frivolous Soviet accomplishments. The book begins slowly, detailing the national obsession with Mamie Eisenhower's hair and clothing, but gathers momentum in describing Disneyland's antecedents, the psychosexual lure of chrome-laden cars, and the growing hegemony of design over function in the development of American products. Marling writes with flair, and her text engages the reader even when profound insight is lacking. Readers may disagree with her on occasion (that ""the French [fashion] salon is a woman's place, ultimately governed by her preferences and skills"" seems debatable). And sometimes the breezy tone is less appropriate -- memoranda showing how Betty Crocker psychologists exploited women's fears of failure in the kitchen arouse no comment from the author. Assertions that designers provided buyers a sensation of mobility and choice, and that these aren't bad aims, on the other hand, make sense. And Marling's right in noting that critics often missed what was pleasurable -- and antielitist -- about ""populuxe"" fashions of the '50s. Though Marling chooses to remain more chronicler than critic, this archaeology of our recent visual past is as important as any recent political history of the period, and far fresher in approach.