Post-War High Styles For Everyone

Victorious and wealthy, the United States emerged from the Second World War in 1945 as the most powerful nation. Its influence spread quickly across much of the globe.

A post-war birch veneered ply coffee table

A late 20thC birch veneered ply coffee table

With industry in optimistic mood, US designers continued to explore new materials and production techniques in the post-war era. Several European designers joined them after Fascism drove them from their homes in the 1930s.

New Shapes To Fit The Body

The American furniture designer Charles Eames took an interest in chairs to fit the human body. His new, post-war concept in seating had simple, moulded plywood shells on steel rod stands. More luxurious versions such as his ‘Chair 670’ have buttoned leather upholstery, cradled in rosewood-veneered plywood on a base of cast aluminium. Experiments with form eventually led Eames to his ‘Lounging Shape’ chair – a hollowed blob on a spindly base.

Contemporary Vitra Eames Swivel Armchair numbers 368-138 with a black cloth seat

Contemporary Vitra Eames Swivel Armchair with a black cloth seat

Like all Modernist designs, these chairs focused on function, shunning decoration, shapes notably rounder than the severe early Modernist furniture. ‘Organic Modernism’ originated from the features that echoed those of waves, eggs, plants and other natural forms. A range of design fields eventually adopted the rounded lines, from strikingly curvaceous buildings to free-form glassware.

Eames and his wife Ray designed the Eames House, also known as ‘Case Study House No. 8’ in Los Angeles, a great example of Modernist architecture, notable for its use of colour, open spaces and being close to nature.

Eames worked with a number of like-minded designers. They included Finnish-born Eero Saarinen and German immigrant Hans Knoll and his Swiss-born wife Florence. The Knolls went on to found an international furniture manufacturing company. In 1950 it produced Harry Bertoia’s startlingly novel ‘Chickenwire’ chair, which was a diamond-shaped moulded shell of coated steel mesh resting on a spindly frame. In 1957 the Knolls manufactured Saarinen’s ‘Tulip’ chair, the white glass-fibre seat rises from an aluminium stalk with a flared circular base.

Mass production ensured that such pieces had a much wider influence than previous Modernist furniture. They also had a clean cut, efficient look, popular in offices and public buildings. The style is still recognisable in today’s office furniture.

American Industry Post-War

While progressive designers pursued functionalism, American industry pursued a mass market eager to spend, prioritising fun over form. The age of consumerism had arrived, fostered by advertising, particularly through television. The consumers relished a post-war style that was all their own, owing little to elitist imports of the past. The style often focused on novelty – as in the lavish Wurlitzer jukeboxes and the fanciful tail-fins of outsize automobiles.

decorative novelty silver plated wine cooler in the form of a hat

novelty silver plated wine cooler in the form of a hat

During the 1950s, manufacturers, retailers and advertisers recognised a huge new consumer group in teenagers. Their easy-going culture embraced rock and roll music and simple, workaday clothing. Their blue jeans, T-shirts, and big ‘sloppy joe’ jumpers became a fashionable style of an acceptable, classless form.

The Festival of Britain

Meanwhile Europe had to tackle wartime damage while stricken by post-war poverty. Britain was grimly determined to ‘win the peace’ in the face of continued rationing and the need to rehouse some 200,000 people. ‘Utility’ production of necessities, with controlled use of materials begun in 1941 and still continued. Utility furniture, made from 1943, basic and well designed with an Arts and Crafts air. The public considered it an unloved reminder of wartime austerity.

Mid 20th century Rosenthal green flash and cut glass vase

Mid 20th century Rosenthal green flash and cut glass vase

The six-month Festival of Britain became a bright point in these years, held beside the Thames in 1951, 100 years after the Great Exhibition. The Royal Festival Hall is a survivor of the exhibition’s concrete, glass and steel buildings. Seen by some 8 million people, the exhibition’s modern designs had a wide impact on style.

The bead-and-rod models of molecular structure in the ‘Dome of Discovery’ inspired the steel-rod base and ball feet of chairs and coffee tables. Popularised into the ‘cocktail-cherry’ style of black plastic coated rods tipped with bright plastic beads, and used for magazine and record racks, rows of coat hooks and wall decorations.

The Festival’s show buildings decorated with flat panels of faded red, pastel blue and milky green, all further muted by the presence of black. These colours appeared together in abstract shapes on textiles and overlaid with small, black markings, in curtains, upholstery and Formica panels. The same colours found in pottery, for example in Poole pottery designed by A.B. Rhead.

Europe’s New Look

When austerity eased in Britain and manufacturing picked up in the mid-1950s, the post-war American influence was strong. Furniture designers adapted the ideas of Charles Eames and others for the mass market, and also wedded metals, plastics and laminated woods to familiar shapes. Ernest Race, for instance, used bent steel and moulded plywood to echo Queen Anne winged chairs. Such designs, although modern, didn’t have the dramatic impact of Chicken wire and Tulip chairs.

More progressive ideas came from Italy, where designers worked not for the mass market but for a wealthy, pace-setting clientele. Designers such as Carlo Mollino created tables, chairs and lamps with smooth, sculptural silhouettes. The delicately poised lamps have become classics of modern design.

1950's photograph by Willy Maywald for Dior 'Robe Tuilerie'

1950’s photograph by Willy Maywald for Dior ‘Robe Tuilerie’

The Scandinavian style of furnishing, considered avant-garde at the beginning of the 1950s, had by the end merged with some US features to make the mainstream ‘Contemporary’ style.

In clothes, Paris had the strongest say. After wearing the fabric-saving skimpy skirts and mannish tops of the war years, women revelled in Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look. Full, flaring skirts, hemlines at the calf, softly draped bodices and rounded shoulder lines reached every small town. Men wore a fuller cut of suit with double-breasted jackets.

Britain Swings Ahead

London led the mass market by the 1960s. Newspaper colour supplements, introduced in 1962, helped spread awareness of contemporary design. ‘Swinging sixties’ people – whose taste in clothes included shift dresses, miniskirts and flared trousers – admired furnishings with a compact look spiced with novelty. British manufacturers were generally keen to explore plastics, glass fibre, fibre board, PVC, smoked glass and spun aluminium. Robin Day’s moulded polypropylene stacking chair on a steel-rod base was first seen in 1963 and still hasn’t dated.

Bernard LEACH (British 1887 - 1979)CH CBE Horse and Rider A rare earthenware figure with mottled orange and yellow colouring

Bernard LEACH Horse and Rider, earthenware figure

While the first ventures into space triggered by-products of bizarre futuristic design – in clothing, furniture and toys – there was a contrary interest in traditional skills. Studio pottery gained in status as Bernard Leach, Lucie Rie and others made pottery into an art form. Studio glass-makers benefited from 1960s research which devised new formulas for glass with lower melting temperatures. This enabled small studios to operate their own furnaces. Glass-makers created sculptural pieces with flowing forms that showed off the beauty of the glass itself.

Consumerism Versus Flower Power

A close link grew between design and the art world. Pop Art, entwined with consumerism touched clothing, furniture, posters and the sleeves of records with its brash colours and forms. Consumer-objects became fit subjects for art, as in Andy Warhol’s soup-tin paintings – which as prints and posters themselves became popular consumer objects.

Mass production created, and to a degree depended on, obsolescence – a short life for goods creating a need for more. Designers in all fields, in furniture, clothes, tableware as well as industrial goods, experimented with disposable goods such as furniture made from corrugated cardboard or cheap plywood, giant beanbag seats and inflatable plastic chairs.

Modernism failed to win over the public as far as buildings were concerned. Grand urban redevelopments with tower blocks, multi-storey car parks and flyovers were not comfortable to live in or among. All designs fields spurned thoroughgoing Modernism by the late 1960s. The views of experts and authorities had less weight with younger people.

Gentler ways and less conformist lifestyles appealed to the ‘hippies’ and ‘flower people’ anxious for an ‘alternative society’. Some sought a more human scale of values in the unmodernised regions of India, Africa and South America. One result of this was a vogue for ethnic clothing, ornaments, hand-woven rugs, big floor cushions and wall hangings. Others took a rosy backward look at rural life in Britain and chose a Victorian country style in clothes and furnishings. Yet others tried to express the drug culture of the late 1960s in frantic ‘psychedelic’ designs that often used Day-Glo luminescent colours.

High Street Style

As in all periods, many people in the 1950s and 60s remained largely unaffected by fashion’s whims. In their homes the well-to-do tried to combine historic styles with modern comfort and convenience. Interest grew in genuine antiques and in furnishing old houses in historically appropriate styles. Especially popular, country house designs applied even to small urban homes through wallpapers and fabrics.

In the post-war high street, the wilder manifestations of 1960s design squeezed out towards the end of the decade. A greater appreciation of good industrial design and of high quality became apparent. Inventiveness alone was no longer enough. As more and more people sought well-made goods, high street retail chains proved powerful channels for mainstream taste.

Some of the chains were long established: Waring and Gillow had originated in an 18th century Lancaster firm of cabinetmakers, and Marks & Spencer had been founded in 1903, for example. One of the most influential retail chains in the post-war period had been Habitat, founded by Terence Conran in 1964 to bring ‘good taste’ to a mass market.

Habitat’s success was in a careful selection of good modern industrial design, more homely, craft-based goods and a sprinkling of self-assembly furniture for young homemakers. Ikea has taken over the space it left behind.

Another chain that has satisfied a broad-based but identifiable band of customers is Laura Ashley. It played a large part in the 1970s revival of Victorian and Edwardian country styles in clothing, furnishings and wallpaper.

Tomorrow’s Antiques

A curious mixture of styles exists in every era; only hindsight defines the identifying style.

The internet has expanded opportunities for collecting. The time lag before any new object becomes collectable is shortening. Mid-Century pieces are already sought after as a cheaper, quality alternative to the high street.

Beautiful objects made by skilled craftsmen will always be cherished, but these are already being joined by industrial products such as Gameboys, original PlayStations and record players. Any object, no matter how humble, may eventually be prized if it embodies the spirit of its time or fits a very particular slot in the story of style.

With thanks to Reader’s Digest.

Have a look on our site to find examples of Mid Century items already on our catalogues, or set up a lot alert to be notified when similar items come in. You can also click on the images to view their respective lot pages.


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