Did life exist before Mad Men?* It’s a question I’ve been pondering a lot since the peerless series faded to black for the final time (*answer: yes, but it didn’t look as good).
Critics may have focused on the internal machinations at the Sterling Cooper ad agency but, as we all know, the real star of the show was the sumptuous mid-century styled sets: Gorgeous eyefuls of caramel coloured interiors with sleek, sensuously curved furniture and desk lamps that deserved their own mini-series. Has there ever been a tv series so determined to make the viewer drool with couch envy? Of course our love of all things mid-century was already well established by the time Don Draper sparked up his first Lucky Strike. Hard to believe that it’s twenty years since furniture of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s came in from the cold and started making serious headway in the style supplements and salerooms. Fashions come and go; nowhere is this more true than in the conjoined worlds of antiques and interiors, but, two decades on, mid-century is still here, stronger than ever. It remains the chic-style option it always was and, no longer hobbled by its former retroassociations, Mid-Century has taken its place alongside Art Nouveau and Art Deco as an established epoch in 20thcentury design history. Before you embark on a full Mad Men inspired home makeover, here’s my guide to the essentials of mid-century furniture, a style that remains as fresh and innovative in 2016 as it did half a century ago.
What do we mean by mid-century?
As the name suggests, the style dates from the middle decades of the 20thcentury, roughly from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s. Rather like Art Deco, the name was coined long after the period in question. When it first emerged, our parents and grandparents knew it as Contemporary, and as a decorative style it influenced everything from the shape of a sofa, a vase or a coffee pot to the pattern on a tablecloth. It was youthful, stylish and bang up to date, and that was exactly what people wanted. Every style comes with its cultural baggage and mid-century speaks of an era of confidence, one which looked ahead optimistically to a bright future of ever increasing economic prosperity with more money and leisure time to relax and enjoy life. Mid-century interiors were all about chic style and ease of living, and this was also reflected in the furniture. Small wonder it appeals to us so much today.
Deciphering the mid-century style can at first seem something of a challenge. Certainly not all modern furniture from this period will be in the mid-century style. Plastic inflatable furniture from the 1960s, for example, is definitely not mid-century (it would be an example of Pop design, in case you were wondering). As an illustration, let’s try this: At first sight a Danish rosewood and leather dining chair by Neils Moller seems to have very little in common with an American high-gloss white fibreglass Tulip chair by Eero Saarinen, yet they’re both hailed as mid-century design classics. So what’s going on? Well, I’d say what unites these seemingly unrelated chairs boils down to three things: simple, modern elegance, functional comfort and fine craftsmanship. In my view, it’s the mix of those three essential elements which is the hallmark of mid-century design. Mid-century designers had a dictum: Form follows function, in practice this meant no excess decoration or unnecessary flourishes. In less capable hands it’s a mantra that might have resulted in some very boring furniture. Fortunately for us, the generation of designers who followed it was one of the best the design world has ever seen. With the possible exception of the Regency period in the early 19thcentury, perhaps no other point in history has produced quite the same number of top calibre artists and designers as the 1950s and ‘60s: Charles and Ray Eames, Robin Day, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and scores more. Unlike the Regency period, however, when only the wealthiest could afford the best furniture, mid-century designers were driven by a mission to bring good design to the many rather than the few and embraced mass-production with the result that their designs are still relatively plentiful today and Amen to that. But the mid-century movement is more than a mere roll-call of designer names (nice though that is). The philosophy of good design available to all, which those great designers championed, was taken up by manufacturers at the more affordable end of the market, with many smaller factories producing good quality, well designed furniture within easy reach of the middle class. The names of most of these designers have mostly been lost to history but today, these pieces can be picked up at reasonable prices while still ticking all the boxes for style and quality.
Where did the mid-century style originate?
After World War Two furniture designers began to move away from the hard lines and polished chrome of pre-war German inspired modernism towards a softer, warmer aesthetic. The great architect-designer Marcel Breuer led the way and others soon followed. The mood was for something more human, more organic and for this everyone looked north. Since the 1930s Scandinavian, especially Finnish, designers had developed a soft modernism, relying on wood rather than metal and drawing on their own native skills in cabinetmaking, producing designs that were simple, understated and elegant. This fitted the mood exactly and Finland, Sweden and Denmark moved centre stage, becoming the benchmark for the best of mid-century style. What we tend to think of as classic mid-century furniture, in rosewood or teak with soft, fluid curves and simplicity of form has its roots in 1940s and ‘50s Scandinavia. It wasn’t just the north that had a part to play in the mid-century look. The 1950s was a time of convergence in design, when Italian, French and British, as well as Nordic influences began to merge together, creating a style that was truly international in its outlook. But at its heart the mid-century style was solidly American. America in the 1950s was the powerhouse economy of the world with previously undreamt of levels of wealth and international influence. A new generation of young designers set out to reshape the look of modern America, pushing the boundaries of furniture design by experimenting with new materials and manufacturing techniques.
Harry Bertoia (1915-78) was born in Italy and moved to the USA in 1930. He studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Fine Arts near Detroit, Michigan and eventually became head of the metal working department at the academy. Bertoia brought a sculptor’s eye to his furniture designs, particularly in the series of wire mesh chairs he designed in the early 1950s. The Bird lounge chair, designed in 1951-2 for Knoll, has been described as looking like a piece of sculpture suspended in space. The chair, which was mass-produced but by hand rather than machine, was made by welding a sheet of metal mesh into shape and then welding it on to the wire legs.
Mid-century designers eagerly embraced the possibilities created by new materials like plywood and plastic. Eero Saarinen (1910-61) was particularly influenced by developments in the field of plastics. His Tulip chair was one of the first chairs designed with a single pedestal base and was revolutionary when it was introduced in 1956. A true Modernist, Saarinen’s chair was a solution to what he saw as the clutter of chair legs under a dining table. A design classic, the Tulip chair anticipates the Pop design movement of the 1960s by a good ten years and is every bit as striking today as it was when it was new.
Although America and Scandinavia drove the mid-century look, other countries produced significant designers whose work is highly desirable today. In Britain, William Plunkett (1928-2013) was a designer with a background in engineering who worked in a highly individual style. Like Harry Bertoia, he combined his engineering skills with a sculptural flair and created a series of elegant metal-framed seating that won many design awards.
An essential ingredient in the mid-century interior was lighting. Lighting has, of course, always had a practical use in the home but was now more closely integrated in the overall decorative scheme. The floor lamp, designed in 1950 by George Rispal is a highpoint in mid-century lighting design. The coolie shade and cylindrical shade provide task and ambient lighting respectively, while the strikingly organic form, inspired by the work of German-French artist and sculptor Hans Arp (1886-1966), means it works as a piece of sculpture every bit as much as a lamp.
Well designed, refined, slick without being cold, at times a little decadent but never camp and very grown up; the appeal of mid-century furniture is highly seductive and it’s easy to understand why, twenty years after its rediscovery, it’s in ruder health than ever.