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.

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.

Socialism and scatter cushions

He was the creator of era-defining textiles, a writer whose ground breaking ideas forever changed how we think about our homes and, according to a recent study, a peddler of poisonous wallpaper.  “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo asks “Will the real William Morris please stand up?”

When William Morris (1834-1896) died at the age of sixty-two, his physician declared that the cause was "simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men." We know him best for his easy-on-the-eye textiles with their scrolling leaves and biscuit cutter birds. The designer of patterns such as Willow Bough and Strawberry Thief, his is the face that launched a thousand National Trust tea towels. We probably think that that’s all there is to know about Morris: move along, nothing more to see here, but we’d be wrong. This multi-faceted man was at one time or another (and sometimes simultaneously) a designer and manufacturer of furniture, wallpaper and fabrics, stained glass, and tapestries; an accomplished weaver; successful businessman; a pioneering preservationist; an active Socialist and social reformer; a successful poet and novelist; and in his last years, the founder of the Kelmscott Press. We see him in photographs with tousled hair and wild, unkempt beard; part Byron, part Marx. His passionate belief that everyone should surround themselves with beauty revolutionised the way we think about our homes and his influence went well beyond these shores. If these days he’s known as a pattern designer in his own lifetime he was actually better known for his writing. Morris was a revolutionary force in Victorian Britain – the original Angry Young Man whose rages against the shortcomings and injustices of the world changed the fashions and ideologies of the era but is life was filled with paradoxes. He was obsessed with the medieval,  but he also had a socialist vision of the future. He’s considered by many to be the spiritual Godfather of modern Socialism and a champion of worker rights yet he died a multi-millionaire and was a part owner of the world’s largest arsenic mine.  Will the real William Morris please stand up?

Morris was born in Walthamstow, east London in 1834. The financial success of his broker father led to the family moving in 1840 to Woodford hall, a large house in rural Essex, as well as providing young William with an inheritance large enough to mean he would never have to concern himself with the tedious business of earning an income. Morris enjoyed an idyllic childhood growing up in the countryside, exploring local parkland and churches and immersing himself in the novels of Walter Scott, helping him develop an affinity with the natural world and historical romance. William was a privileged boy, but had a mind of his own. He a was forced to leave Marlborough College in 1851 following a “rebellion” but still made it to Exeter College, Oxford in 1853. He first planned to become a clergyman but, following a trip to northern France and inspired by the gothic architecture he saw, opted for architecture. Morris was a rebel by nature and one, very much, with a cause: ugliness. We all know his famous dictum Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. For Morris this was nothing short of a battle cry against poor taste. What started him on his crusade was what he saw as the sheer tackiness of the Great Exhibition in 1851. This colossal event, staged in the specially built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, had been intended to display the best of British manufacturing, a dazzling showcase for the Workshop of the World. For Morris it was neo-Renaissance, neo-everything nightmare of poor design and shabby art. Tales of the teenage Morris’s visit to the Crystal Palace are legion and range from the strange to the ridiculous – my favourite being that Morris was so appalled by the poor taste on show that he staggered from the building and was sick in the bushes.

For Morris shoddiness was a punishable offence; ‘Shoddy is King’ he railed, ‘From the statesman to the shoemaker, everything is shoddy’. From that point on he dedicated his life to creating useful and beautiful objects for the modern home.

While working in Oxford Morris had a chance meeting with a local stableman's daughter, Jane Burden. Consciously flouting the rules of class, Morris married Jane in 1859. Morris and Jane moved into Red House, their home in rural Kent, the following year. Morris wanted his home to be a ‘small palace of art’ Unhappy with what was on offer commercially, spent the next two years furnishing and decorating the interior with help from members of their artistic circle. And what friends: Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabrielle Rosetti, Ford Maddox Brown. As George Martin was to the Beatles, so Morris was to the Pre-Raphaelites; the unofficial eighth member. It was at Red House that Morris began to find his forte - he was, in truth, an abysmal architect and a lousy painter, but he had an affinity with interiors. At heart, he was a pattern-maker, taking his inspiration from the English countryside to create the patterns that made him famous.  Having decided to branch into textiles, he apprenticed himself to a dyer's workshop in order to "learn the practice of dying at every pore" even going as far as grinding his own pigments. Over the course of two decades Morris produced over 600 chintzes, woven textiles and hand-blocked wallpapers. They were distinctive for their soft, flat colours, their stylised natural forms, their symmetry and their sense of order. His patterns were revolutionary at the time, and quite at odds with prevailing mainstream fashion.

Having gained a taste for interiors, and the experience of 'joy in collective labour', Morris and his friends decided in 1861 to set up their own mega-design partnership: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, later re-named Morris and Company, but nicknamed ‘The Firm’ by William.  It was virtually a Pre-Raphaelite co-operative with £1 share contributions from Burne-Jones, Rosetti and Brown. From its London headquarters the Firm issued a selection of carefully crafted household items, painted furniture, metalwork, pottery, carpets and cushions. All were guaranteed to have been created by an expert hand using artisanal – the word still meant something – methods.

Morris was a radical thinker of his day;  a prolific poet, author, publisher, campaigner and socialist reformer; “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization”, he said.  By the 1860s skilled workmanship was being replaced by machines. He was a dedicated socialist, and wrote passionately about the growing gap between rich and poor, which had been intensely accelerated by industrialisation. Morris saw salvation in a return to a medieval craft-based society, one where happy, contended workers would produce objects with integrity. If this is sounding at all familiar we need only look to the nearest artisan hipster baker or be-whiskered craft brewer. Although Morris preached passionately for the return of the medieval craft ethic, his objection was – contrary to what you’re likely to read elsewhere - not so much to machine production as to poor workmanship. He loathed mass-production but understood its place in society. In fact his first registered design was a trellis of African marigolds for machine-made linoleum. William Morris lino, who would have guessed?

The most ironic aspect of Morris’s aims was that, although he aimed to make good design available to all (‘I do not want art for the few, any more than freedom for the few…’), ultimately his own furnishings — made painstakingly by hand using the best natural materials — were typically too expensive for anyone but the wealthy industrialists Morris hated.

Morris was a founding father of the Socialist movement and a champion of workers’ rights. He   campaigned against many things, banning arsenic in wallpaper was not one of them. Arsenic was a major component in wallpaper manufacture and by the 1870s, when Morris was at the height of his fame, its ill effects were becoming well-known. Morris  inherited his fortune from an arsenic mine in which he still held stock for a number of years. By the 1870s, the Morris family’s Devon mine was reportedly producing over half the world’s supply of arsenic. And while he did ultimately divest his interests in the company, questions on Morris’s apparent hypocrisy—and why he never actually visited these notoriously bad workplaces—casts something of a shadow over his right-on credentials.

Happily, this is the Lorfords blog, so we can leave the politics at the door. In design terms William Morris was a true visionary whose influence was felt well-beyond his own lifetime. With his hands-on philosophy he pioneered the idea of the artist-craftsman and his designs helped to lay the foundations for the modern movement. Today, we find ourselves returning to many of Morris’s preoccupations with craft skills and the environment, with local sourcing and vernacular traditions. But perhaps his greatest legacy was his avowed belief that, rich or poor, male or female, aesthetic beauty should be a central feature of everybody’s life and home.