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.

Hooray for Hollywood!

With this year’s Oscars ceremony almost underway, “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo goes beyond the silver screen to tell the story of a style straight from the Golden Age of the Hollywood.

It’s that time of year again. As the Academy get its envelopes in order and Hollywood’s publicity machine goes into warp drive, you’ll hardly need reminding that 2018’s Oscars will be taking place in a couple of days. Are you breathless with anticipation? Me neither, let’s do lunch. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good film, quite the contrary, it’s just that, as with so much in my life, my tastes lean firmly towards the vintage. And when it comes to movies - and movie stars - the Dream Factory just doesn’t make them like it used to. Talking of which, did you see Feud? It was indisputablythet.v. drama highlight of 2017, an intimate and intricate examination of the relationship between the undisputed movie queens of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The whole eight episodes was a perfectly crafted study into the rivalry between the two stars that had simmered for decades but which finally boiled over in 1962 during the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.  Amongst the stellar performances and electric dialogue, the scene stealer – cast aside - was Joan Crawford’s apartment; a symphony in royal blue and cream velvet, replete with Chinese Foo dogs and an artificial cherry tree. It was, quite simply, the very definition of Style, with a capital ‘S’. Of course, one would expect nothing less from a woman whose appetite for perfection knew no bounds and who once had on operation to have her back teeth removed – all the better to see your cheekbones, my dear

Joanie’s apartment – where we’ll return a little later – was an example of the design style known as Hollywood Regency. On the other side of the Pond it’s a term that requires little explanation. You’ll probably be familiar with the name, thanks to our friend the internet, we’ve started to encounter it in the U.K. in recent years, but just what is it? Well, let’s start with the name.  As monikers go, this one couldn’t be more apt: conjuring up the glamour and spectacle of tinsel town with the refinement and sophistication associated with Georgian England’s playboy in chief, the Prince Regent. Hollywood Regency was a style born of Hollywood for Hollywood. It was created for the homes of southern California’s elite and emerged in the 1930s, just at the point when Hollywood movies started to be seen as the epitome of all that was glamourous. It was a child of the movies, the offspring of set and costume design, which trickled out of the studios, into the imaginations of designers and magazine editors, and eventually into retail shops. The people who adopted it were the film stars, studio moguls and gossip columnists, tinsel town’s equivalent of royalty and aristocracy. Hollywood insiders know it when they see it but, for those outside the Hollywood culture, it can be difficult to recognise. What are its hallmarks?

Hollywood Interiors the Golden Age

As a style, it exudes sophistication and confidence, with an undertone of swagger. Hollywood Regency samples from a smorgasbord of other styles; modernism is its base line but elements of chinoiserie, Moroccan, neoclassical, art deco provide the beat.Glamour was its soul; every detail was intended to convey a sense of luxury and refinement. It was all about finish, gilded, lacquered and mirrored surfaces sparkled and gave an air of opulence and exoticism, but this was no mere showman’s style. A sense of refinement and impeccable elegance was central to its popularity – people this wealthy and fabulous didn’t need to advertise their wealth when they could display something far more precious – their taste. Small wonder it became the signature style of celebrities at a time when their stardom depended on their personal image. Stars had to be seen to be having parties and be at parties and their homes had to be decorated in a way which matched and complemented (but never overshadowed) their megawatt personalities. Just how Hollywood Regency came to be the style du jour is a story that could only have happened in tinsel town.

In 1930 William Haines was MGM’s top male lead and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Handsome with dark hair and piercing baby blue eyes, he was every studio executives idea of what a leading man should look like. Hollywood was at William Haines’ feet. Five years later his film career was finished and he was told he’d ‘never work in this town again’. Haines was gay and his movie career was cut short because, unlike other gay movie stars of the time, he refused to hide his homosexuality – or his boyfriend – from the public. He steadfastly resisted Louis B. Mayer’s demands that he end his relationship and enter into a studio arranged “lavender” (sham) marriage. His film career ended in 1935 with Mayer ripping up Haine’s contract and throwing it in his face.  For most people, this would have spelled The End, but Haines was not most people. With that enviable and peculiarly American talent for starting-over, he reinvented himself as a decorator. He had a feeling for antiques and talent with interiors what he lacked, however, was a client base. Step forward Miss Joan Crawford – Haines’ best buddy from his MGM days. In the fickle world of Hollywood most people would have thought Haines too hot to handle, but not Joan. Not only did she stand by her old friend, she enlisted him to give her L.A. home a facelift, and helped launch his career as Hollywood’s number one decorator. In fact, Haines would achieve far greater success as a decorator than he ever had as a film star, whose not-so-little black book of clients included Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard and Nancy and Ronald Reagan.

Billy Haines set out to find a lighter, more stylish alternative to the dark and gloomy Tudor and Spanish styles which had been in vogue during Hollywood’s early years. He achieved it by combining neo-classical elements, rebirthed from 19th century European designs, with rich textiles, sumptuously tufted seating and bold colourways, punctuating his schemes with unusual or eccentric artefacts to lead the eye around the room. This was the blueprint for Hollywood Regency. Haines was a true Modernist and loved clean lines, along with what he called ‘negative space’. He would leave objects floating in the middle of rooms, and favoured small-scale low-slung seating, understanding that the client would look grander – larger than life, in fact - if they were not overshadowed by their furniture. Haines never lost his taste for the dramatic; as well as bold colours, his clients were treated to oversized sculptures, satin covered fainting couches and strategic dashes of Brighton Pavilion style chinoiserie, like the Foo dogs, so loved by Joan Crawford. It was Joanie who called Billie Haines and his partner Jimmy Shields “the happiest married couple in Hollywood” they were together from 1926 to 1973 when William died. Jimmie took an overdose of sleeping pills shortly after, saying he found it impossible to go it alone. Over thirty years William decorated all of Joan Crawford’s homes and, yes, she did really have a cherry tree in her sitting room

Hollywood Style 3

Dorothy Draper was another designer who had a hand in the development of Hollywood Regency; she was also the person who invented the term. Born to a wealthy family, Draper was the first to professionalise the interior design industry by establishing Dorothy Draper & Company in 1923. She revolutionised the concept of design by breaking away from historical room styles and embracing a look that was consciously Modern.  Like William Haines, she was fond of the grand, theatrical statement – often referred to as “the Draper touch”. While Haines worked on a small scale, Dorothy Draper became well known for her over scaled and brightly coloured versions of classic traditional rooms which she christened “Modern Baroque”. It has been said that Dorothy Draper was to interiors what Coco Chanel was to fashion. She was confident, cultured and able to challenge traditional ideas of good taste in a playful way. Draper took traditional decorative elements and gave them a twist, playing with contrast and scale; Floral chintz, stripes, and banana leaf prints were exaggerated to add a punchy, poppy vibe to wallpaper and upholstery. Panelled doors were given a proto mod-sensibility with contrasting squares in black and white. She loved to use vibrant, eye-popping colours in never-before-seen combinations, such as aubergine and pink with a splash of chartreuse, or, one of her favourite combinations – “dull” white and “shiny” black. Both Billy Haines and Dorothy Draper understood that interiors were as much of a stage as anything that could be found inside a Hollywood studio and that chic refinement and luxurious glamour could make a great double act. Hooray for Hollywood!

Photo credits William Haines studio and Dorothy Draper

 

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.