The New York Times has a slideshow and an article by design writer Phil Patton about the set design of past presidential debates. The first televised debate featured John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Hans Wegner’s PP 503 chairs. And that’s quite the dandy little desk in front of the moderator there.
In the first televised presidential debate, Kennedy looked fit and tan; Nixon, with his five-o’clock shadow, looked nervous and pasty. Both showed a command of the issues, but appearances mattered. So did the set and furniture.
The set was extremely spare. The candidates sat in Danish modern chairs conceived by Hans Wegner, the famous designer, and spoke from behind skeletal lecterns that resembled music stands and offered no place to hide.
“The whole set was extremely modern, and that gave a sense of faith in the future,” recalled Carl Magnusson, a furniture designer.
The ambiance might have helped Mr. Kennedy as much as his tan: he was billing himself as the candidate of the future.
The ground rules called for the candidates to answer questions while standing. John Kennedy’s advisers thought this would benefit him because Richard Nixon was suffering from a knee injury. When Mr. Nixon shifted his weight behind the music-stand-like lectern, he gave the impression that he was ill at ease.