The Here, The Now and The Then of Mid Century Design.
My Parent's definitely owned a G Plan sofa and a beloved teak coffee table at one point during the 1970's. They were on display in the "Good Room". I wasn't sure what all the fuss over the coffee table was about but I can still remember the Sofa's vibrant orange upholstery that scratched my legs when I sat on it of an occasion. It wasn't the most beautiful sofa and I'm not so sure it would be my style today without a little makeover but there was something about the simplicity of it's shape and form and the strong teak armrests that appealed to me.
The 1980's beckoned and when my Parents now wanted Antiques in our soon to be built new house, Auction houses became my weekend playground for the next few years. I'm not sure what exactly I learned about old furniture on those trips but I did come to understand the value of craftsmanship and quality and the notion that you had to either be very lucky, act quickly or work very hard to get a good price.
In the late 1990's, whilst living in London and for the first time in my life finally earning more than just the minimun wage, I began to develop a crush on mid century furniture. By now, my Saturday mornings were spent, hungover, in cold warehouses off Kings Cross, Fulham and Bermondsey. I trailed (much like I had with my Parents 15 years before) after my friend John as he searched for a DAF chair, an Eames Lounger Saarinen a Saarinen Tulip Table or whatever it was that he now 'needed'. All at once I had both a modest amount of money at my disposal and a new flat that required furnishing so I was happy to trail and mostly window shop.
It was around this time that it seemed that out of nowhere, Mid Century Modern was being spoken about in reverent terms. What it was actually about eluded me for another few years. I really didn't know very much about it, but there were two basics that I did know:
1. I was drawn to it, like a Moth to a flame.
2. I couldn't really afford it.
I scoured Car Boot and House Clearance sales and considered myself to have had some small wins; a (barely) working 1970's Roberts Radio, a bright red 1960's telephone that I willed to work with some haphazard wiring and an ever growing collection of 1960's Cornishware designed by Judith Onions.
But where did the term Mid-Century Modern come from?
In 1984 (unbeknownst to me) Writer and Art Historian Cara Greenberg's book entittled 'Mid Century Modern Furniture: Furniture of the 1950's' reattributed a term that was first used back in the 1950's to describe the movement that encompassed Architecture, interiors and graphic design.
We need to look further back though to really understand Mid Century Design.
The movement spans the early 1930's right up until the 1970's and It was borne out of modernism and a direct response to a war weary world. Modernist Architects such as Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Ludvig Mies Van der Rohe fled Germany for America as Nazism flourished in the 1930's and took their ideas with them. It was viewed as a social movement as much as a design one. During wartime, scarcity of raw materials and skills along with the devlopment of new technologies and techniques meant designers had to be more innovative and creative with what they had.
After the war, patented wood bending techniques (Alvar Aalto) and new techniques with moulded plastics fitted in perfectly with a lees formal, more laidback approach to life. The bad times were gone and there was a renewed optimisim and economic boom in across both Europe and America. The embodiment of this optimisim was seen in the US home design and thanks to the 'Post and Beam' architectural design that allowed floor to ceiling glass and expansive windows that brought "the outside in". The boom years brought cheaper fuel and open plan layouts were favoured now that central heating was becoming a household staple. These Clean simple lines simulatneously worked with nature and beautifully complimeted the revolution in furniture design.
The trend for lounge chairs and low coffee tables was symptomatic of this new informality and the need for storage was never greater in the post war years, especially in Europe, where modern city living meant smaller living spaces and a more mobile population. Furniture was designed to be affordable and mass produced. Swiss born Le Corbusier developed his furniture with a focus on bringing beauty to the cramped living conditions of city dwellers and brining comfort to the body.
George Nelson's Platform Bench for Herman Miller is one of the first examples of this and is often cited as one of the first memorable designs of the period. A brilliant piece of design or "Good Design For All" (Nelson's mantra) and a versatile yet elegant piece of furniture that could be used as seating or as a table. Manufacturer Herman Miller had a huge influence on the movement and collaborated with Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamo Noguchi among others. Mr & Mrs Eames had a straightforward ideology behind their work which involved "Getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least amount of money.” Ironically many of their early pieces are very collectible and cost a staggering amount of money today.
Meanwhile, in Scandinvaia, a similar movement in design was occuring pre and post war. Inspired by Modernism and the Arts and Crafts movement, the power of machine manufacturing was raged against and traditional methods of skill and craftsmanship were championed. Like the American movement there was a desire to create beautiful things for the masses that would make life better and simulataneously affordable. Nature was also the inspiration; neutral colours and simple clean lines were empolyed to achieve this. The long hrash winters of nortern Europe with few daylight hours inspired designers to create light bright airy interiors and it was this design trend spread all around the world and particularly in the US. It is a timeless look that continues to inspire the designers of today. The Stockholm Furniture Fair attracts 40,000 visitors annually so the passion for this design movement shows no sign of abating.
It has been more than 50 years since it's first release, yet the iconic Eero Saarinen Marble Topped Tulip Table is still hugely sought after and has long been on my own personal wishlist.
This sustained and now growing interest in mid century modern design is in part due to big brands (Knoll and Georg Jensen among others) rejuvenating and reinterpreting their old product lines and feeding the nostalgia for mid century and Scandinavian design that is huge (especially in film and TV) in recent years. The Bridge, Borgen, A Singla Man and without dobut the ubiquitous Mad Men all brought fine examples of beautiful design into households all over the world and opened up a new audience to it's elegance and style through fashion, cars, furniture and architecture. It is now part of our heritage and culture and is imprinted on our psyche and it's legacy keeps giving, for another generation at least.