Mid-Century Not Out

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 anMid-Century Interior  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.

Swedish Ace

Winter gloom getting you down? If it is and you happen to be in London over the next few weeks I recommend you hot foot it over to Bermondsey where some instant sunshine can be found.

The Fashion and Textile Museum (who knew?) currently have a rather wonderful exhibition about the architect and designer Josef Frank and his work for the Swedish company Svensk Tenn. Linens pulsate with tropical blooms in eye-popping colours; a curtain fabric is printed with an abstracted map of 1940s Manhattan in red white and blue; and floral patterns with names like Dixieland, Himalaya and Hawaii are as fresh as the breath of Spring. It’s Prozac by the yard and a revelation if you thought that 1940s fabrics were all about cut moquette and black out curtains or that design in Sweden starts and ends with the Billy bookcase. But that’s the thing about Swedish design – it packs a punch.

You’ll be hearing a lot more about Sweden this year and it’s all done to one word: Lagom.  Remember hygge? It was the Big Thing from Denmark that you would have to have spent the last six months living as a hermit in a cave not to have heard about. Well, it seems our appetite for all things Nordic remains as healthy as ever. Lagom is a Swedish word which (very roughly) translates as ‘just enough’. It stands for moderation and not going over the top and has its origins in the country’s Lutheran religion. Lagom is central to the Swedish sense national identity and influences all aspects of the country’s life, language and culture. Anyway, it now appears that lagom has the power to enhance our lives in a similar way that hygge had just a few short months ago. I won’t go into details here, lest I have to add ‘Lifestyle Guru’ to my already heaving CV. Oh, but maybe I’m being too harsh. As so often in life, I think it’s a case of “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like”. Personally, I prefer the more tangible aspects of Swedish culture and, for those intent on getting some lagom in their life, I’d say look no further than Swedish design.

Lagom is at the heart of a favourite Swedish saying: ‘enough is as good as a feast’. At its best, Swedish design isn’t about having enough of one thing but the right amount of morethan one thing; a melding of different styles and influences which unite to create something uniquely Swedish. For this reason, the history of Swedish design is a history of happy marriages – the formal with the informal, Neo-Classicism and Rustic, Functionalism and Classical; Modernism and traditional crafts.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: General view of exhibits in the show space during the "Josef Frank Patterns-Furniture-Painting" exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum on January 26, 2017 in London, England.. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Fashion and Textile Museum)

Swedish design is about getting the ingredients and the proportions just right. What do I mean? Well let’s go back to where we started. At first sight, you couldn’t get further away from lagom than a room full of Josef Frank’s fabrics, but that’s not how they’re intended to be seen. Used economically, however, on a series of cushions, a blind or to upholster a chair, they bring it that room to life: lagom in action. Used in this way, the mantra of moderation, actually adds to rather than restricts creativity and it’s in the very DNA of Swedish design.

The roots of a distinct design identity in Sweden can be traced to the 18th century, when, after an extended stay at the court of Louis XVI at Versailles,   the future King Gustav III initiated a style of decoration that took its lead from the Neo-Classicism that was sweeping Europe at the time. Gustav III was a patron of the arts, founder of the Swedish Academy and commissioner of the Royal Opera House. Since his death (from a gunshot wound sustained at a masked ball - quite a party, by the sounds of it) the king has become synonymous with this style of furniture. The Gustavian style emphasised elegance, simplicity, lightness and comfort and offered a more liveable and more modest interpretation of Neo-Classicism than that found in England or France. It is a pared back version of French neoclassicism. Large mirrors, which maximised the light during long winters, were gilded, while chandeliers tended to have five or seven arms with candleholders. The style spread from the royal palaces of Drottningholm and Gripsholm to the town houses of the well-to-do and out to their country cottages, where it became more rustic and homespun but was still recognisably Gustavian in its origins: countryside homes were decorated with painted furniture; either white-washed or painted grey or soft cream.  The light painted finishes provided a reflective quality that was desired during the long dark winters. Life in the region was primarily responsible for shaping Scandinavian design. Long, harsh winters with very few hours of daylight kept people indoors for many months. Besides, most people lived in small houses. So it was imperative to make homes feel cosy yet airy, with every object in it reflecting as much ambient light as possible.

By the early 1920s the phrase on everyone’s lips was Swedish Grace. Swedish Grace was born out of Functionalism, the uncompromising aesthetic that sought to eradicate decoration and produce furniture and homes for the Machine Age. But pure Functionalism was always a bit too extreme for lagom loving Swedes and by the following decade designers like Josef Frank developed a style that was a more easily digestible version of Functionalism– still uncompromisingly modern but with the edges rounded, a style that would make a home feel cosy and comfortable, characterised by elegance and simplicity and even a little (whisper it) decoration. But it was in the middle decades of the twentieth century that Swedish design entered its golden age.

When we think of Scandinavian design in the twentieth century, I suppose it’s the Danes with their sculptural furniture in rosewood and teak and the Finns with their Functionalism that tend to grab the limelight. But, for my money, it’s the Swedes, with their ceramics, glass, textiles and love of pattern who provide a particularly sweet filling in the Scandi design sandwich. Let’s take a closer look at some of the people who put Swedish design on the map.

Bruno Mathsson (1907-88)

Bruno Mathsson was a furniture designer and architect. Like Josef Frank Mathsson believed in giving the machine age
a human face and designed furniture with the user in mind. The Evachair (1934) is one of the outstanding designs of Swedish modernism. It features a seat section constructed of moulded solid wood and woven hemp webbing that follows the body’s contours, providing comfort without the need for upholstery. Mathsson once said ‘comfortable sitting is an art – it ought not to be. Instead the making of chairs has to be done with such an art that the sitting will not be any “art”’. Mathsson practised what he preached and the Eva chair is a perfect synthesis of ergonomics and sculptural craftsmanship.

Stig Lindberg (1916-82)

One of the outstanding figures of mid-century Scandinavian modernism, Stig Lindberg was also one of Sweden’s most prolific and best-known designers. He designed across a range of media, including glassware and textiles, but it is probably his ceramics that are his best known work and which sum up mid-century modern Swedish style. Lindberg’s work has two distinct strands. One is sculptural, with elastic shapes and organic decoration, the other colourful and decorative. His Karnevalseries of ceramics, with decoration based on folk art and looking for all the world like illustrations from childrens’ books, was one of Lindberg’s most successful designs and a highpoint in 20thcentury ceramics.

Erik Hoglund (1932-98)

Sweden’s glass industry began to develop in the early 1920s and, over a short period, Swedish glass became a by-word
for restrained elegance and refinement, with firms like Orrefors and Kosta gaining international acclaim. But, for my money, a far more interesting episode in the history of Swedish glass is provided by Erik Hoglund, a man who brought a punk sensibility to the world of glass. Hoglund was chief designer at Boda Glass from 1953 until 1986. His early work at the firm really pushed the boundaries and included a series of heavily textured bowls and vases that was achieved by throwing potato peeling into the furnace. Hoglund’s designs, with their lumpy forms and earthy colours, were in startling contrast to his contemporaries but, despite this, were a commercial success and today Erik Hoglund is remembered as one of the key figures in mid-century Swedish design.

The Room Outside

Spring is springing up everywhere.

With the arrival of the first crocus, our thoughts inevitably turn to the outdoors and the garden - or the terrace, or the backyard, or the window box. Whatever the extent of your plot, one thing’s for sure, we love our gardens. It’s true to say that, over the last few years, the garden and all things horticultural have undergone a major image change. Gone are the days when having a nice garden meant little more than a well-tended lawn and herbaceous border. These days we expect our gardens to be every bit as stylish and distinctive as our homes – a Victorian style patio set and water feature just won’t cut it.  Planting and landscaping might be a garden’s backbone, but it’s the added structures and embellishments that transform it into something really special. But, while many of us are used to furnishing our homes with antiques, how many of us would consider buying period pieces for the garden?

Our love of gardening is as old as civilisation itself. The ancient Greeks were the first people in Europe to create gardens and adorned them with marble and bronze effigies of gods and mythological heroes. The Romans were equally keen on their gardens; some of the oldest surviving examples of garden furniture are in the gardens of Pompeii. Our Celtic ancestors cultivated small enclosures and the Tudors had their knot gardens – tightly clipped box hedges laid out in intricate patterns.  But it was in the late 1600s that the fashion for decorating gardens really took off in England. This period saw the fashion for highly formal French-style gardening, modelled on the works of Andre Notre, Louis XIV’s gardener at Versailles. When Charles II regained the English throne in 1660, one of the first things he did was to ask King Louis if he might borrow Le Notre. The aristocracy were keen to follow suit and before long, grand parterres and avenues, complemented by numerous statues designed to invoke classical settings and terminate views, were the order of the day. At first the taste was for statues depicting figures from Greek and Roman mythology – the Borghese Gladiator and Hercules swinging his club were particularly popular. The earliest ornaments were carved from stone, or, for the very wealthy, marble or cast lead. As the fashion for French style gardens took hold amongst the Francophile aristocracy and those eager to copy them, a vast repertoire of ornaments were introduced into the garden, including classical vases, fountains, obelisks, balustrades and furniture. By the middle of the eighteenth century the strict formality of the French garden had yielded to something softer. Designers now sought inspiration from the landscape itself. Rolling lawns and serpentine ponds became the order of the day and, in the hands of designers like William Kent, the garden became a complete work of art. Ornaments in the form of statues, temples or follies took centre stage with every element carefully chosen to work in harmony with its neighbour. Iconography was the order of the day and the positioning of garden ornaments often had a deep symbolic meaning which, although less decipherable today, would have been easily understood by most educated people at the time. This period saw the creation of the celebrated gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Stourhead in Wilstshire. Garden “ornaments” might include a replica of the Pantheon in Rome, a temple dedicated to Apollo or an underground grotto, containing that mid-Georgian garden essential: a live hermit, who would be employed full-time as a curiosity for visitors. The job of a hermit could be fairly lucrative but there were strict conditions attached to the job description – a hermit wasn’t allowed to speak and nor could he cut his hair or fingernails.

Whilst few of us have the sort of garden that can accommodate miles of gravel paths and numerous classical temples (or hermits), a well-placed statue or urn can bring a flavour of eighteenth century grandeur to a modern day garden, acting as a focal point and adding a sense of drama. Early examples from the 17th and 18th centuries are rare and, on the rare occasions they do appear on the market, command high prices. More easily available are statues from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many of these were made of composition stone or terracotta both of
which became popular in the Victorian period as way of producing good quality garden ornaments that were cheaper than stone. Henry Doulton started making terracotta garden ornaments in the late nineteenth century and by 1900, Doulton were England’s main manufactures, with a range that included window boxes, fountains and sundials. Terracotta is highly durable and has the advantage of being frost proof, enabling it to survive the rigours of an English winter. Composition stone was invented by the Romans but also took off for garden ornaments in the Victorian era. Figures and ornaments are moulded rather than carved, so multiple copies of the same piece could be produced relatively cheaply. Properly weathered, a piece made from composition stone is difficult to tell apart from a carved-stone original.

Garden furniture only started to appear widely in the nineteenth century. Before then the only seating used in a garden would have been benches of marble or stone and these would have only have been within the reach of the upper classes. In the early nineteenth century, as gardening for pleasure started to become a pastime of the middle class, wrought iron seating started to appear. This would have been made to order by the local blacksmith and, for this reason, no two pieces of wrought iron furniture will be identical. Wrought iron fell out of favour as the century progressed but remained popular on the Continent, particularly France where furniture by Arras was made for use in public parks well into the twentieth century.

The Victorian era saw a return to formality with terraces, elaborate flowerbeds and manicured lawns, complemented by a plethora of ornaments once again being de rigeur. Mass production, thanks to the Industrial Revolution brought garden furniture within the reach of an aspiring middle class, eager to ape the taste of the gentry in the big house. The invention of cast-iron made their dreams an affordable reality. There were many foundries making cast-iron garden furniture but perhaps the best known is Coalbrookdale.  Based at Ironbridge in Shropshire, the firm began by making architectural ironmongery, such as drainpipes and gutters but by the 19th century it was producing a vast number of garden seats, plant stands, urns and fountains, and all manner of other paraphernalia for the well-dressed garden. Leading designers of the day were commissioned to produce designs and, in its day, Coalbrookdale was a by-word for quality. The foundry is still in business and, as the maker of the Aga stove, still plays a big part in middle class aspirations.

It’s often the case that the most distinctive garden ornaments are made from objects that weren’t originally intended for the garden. If it’s a quirky, original look you’re after, you need to think outside the (window) box.  All that’s needed is a bit of lateral thinking: for example, a gargoyle head can make an excellent wall fountain. Stone troughs, originally used for animals to drink from, were at one time a feature of every village. Bedded out with plants they make an imposing statement and are highly sought after today. Beaten coppers vats, originally used for boiling laundry or making cheese, are solidly constructed with rivets and take on a wonderful patina with age. They are now enjoying a new popularity, not for laundry but as vast bedding planters. It’s not just large items that make a statement. Vintage garden tools used for gardening can be used as smaller decorative elements leaned against fences or left on tables. Wheelbarrows and old carts are the perfect containers for planting out vivid summer blooms, while garden rollers simply need propping up against an old brick wall to look good. Terracotta flower pots, trowels made of metal from the 1950s, rakes with handmade teeth and branch handles and early 20th century metal buckets and enamelware watering cans all add a distinctive personal touch.

Rolling acres or roof terrace, rustic or urban: antiques offer a stylish way of decorating the “room outside” and there’s not a gnome in sight.