written by Martin Snape
Granny’s attic is cooler than ever! Amazingly the pared-back and sleek modern designs of the 1950’s and ensuing decades have been with us for sixty to seventy years. In another generation they’ll be officially antique! The furniture of this period has been around long enough for it to fall out of fashion leading to a certain amount of inevitable destruction, but is now enjoying a reappraisal.
This has happened to such an extent that some ‘50’s and ‘60’s style pieces are now being replicated and sold as the last word in modern chic. The developments of the 1920’s and 30’s which were rudely interrupted by the unfortunate war years and ensuing austerity, were restarted with an extra urgency to embrace a cleaner brighter aesthetic. As far as furniture design was concerned the technological advances particularly in the aviation and construction industries, led to a whole range of improvements in mass-production and affordability. The general trend in furniture design over this period has been for informality and ergonomics, none more so than in chairs which have become iconic as torchbearers of domestic furniture design. Read further to find out what influenced the construction of modern chairs.)
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The industrial use of tubular steel, in particular as developed in the 1920’s by the Hungarian architect MARCEL BREUER, (1902-81). His famous “Wassily” armchair of 1925 has been much reproduced from the 1960’s and a good revival of this period can be had for £4-500. Other architects of this period experimented with tubular metal furniture, notably LUDWIG MIES van der ROHE, (1886-1969), whose simple arched cantilevered designs had a natural spring and compliance which added to their comfort. His classic “Barcelona” chair of 1929 with its simple buttoned leather oblong back and seat on a curving X-shaped frame, has been reproduced to this day by Knoll, his approved manufacturer. Good examples can be obtained at auction for £6-700.
Related: Learn more about the History of Design! 5 chairs that revolutionised Modern Design.
After the second world war, one ingenious solution was found for recycling aluminium from scrapped aircraft etc and 250,000 aluminium framed chairs were produced to a design by ERNEST RACE, (1913-64). These pared-back chairs with their slender frames could have been designed today. He contributed the “Springbok” chair to the Festival of Britain of 1951 which is made entirely of slender stove-enamelled steel rod with pvc-encased springs strapped across the back and seat, thus combining lightness with comfort. These together with much Festival of Britain goods, have become very collectible in recent times; examples should be obtainable for £6-800.
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The use of fine-gauge steel rod enabled designers to produce very light yet strong chairs as epitomised by a 1964 example by the American, DAVID ROWLAND (1924-2010). This chair, (GF 40/4) with its moulded plywood seat and back is virtually transparent with its slim chromed steel frame. £50-100. The ultimate rational shape combined with practicality could be represented by the “Plia” folding chair of 1969 by GIANCARLO PIRETTI, (b. 1940). This with its simple chromed steel frame with moulded perspex seat and back has become a relatively familiar kitchen or cafe chair today. £100-200.
Related: 10 Ingenious Chairs: Design Classics of the 20th Century
Coeval with the innovative use of steel, was the continuing development of timber. Again Marcel Breuer was one of the pioneers of laminated wood in chair construction together with the Finnish architect ALVAR AALTO, (1898-1976). Both were producing such work in the 1930’s; Aalto was the first to use laminated wood in a cantilevered design. ROBIN DAY, (1915-2010) was one of those who continued the moulded plywood tradition with his inexpensive laminated “Hillestak” chairs of 1950 and the rather more luxurious armchairs made for the Royal Festival Hall in 1951. (6 Hillestak sold Bonham’s 19/10/2015, $2,500).
At the more luxury end of the market, the famous lounge chair and ottoman, models 670 and 671of 1956 by CHARLES AND RAY EAMES, brought the English club chair up-to-date with its engulfing leather cushions enclosed by laminated wood shells. The partnership says that the shape was inspired by a baseball player’s mitt. This extremely comfortable and elegant chair has seen great market penetration and it is made to this day by Herman Miller and Vitra. Other copies are made but not officially sanctioned by the Eames estate. A good used example can be had for about £8-1,200. The matching ottoman is a misnomer for the accompanying footstool and could be obtained for £2-300.
Other notable plywood designs:
GRETE JALK, Denmark (1920-2006), chair, 1963.
CARLO MOLLINO, Italy (1905-73), armchair, 1952.
ARNE JACOBSEN, Denmark (1902-71), Series 7 chair, model 3107, 1955.
HANS BELLMAN, Switzerland (1911-90), chair, 1952.
POUL KJAERHOLM, Denmark (1929-80), chair, model PKo, 1952.
By the 1940’s many exciting new ways of working with wood had developed and HANS WEGNER, (1914-2007) the great Danish designer, produced some of the most elegant and ergonomic chairs which can stand together with the finest historic chair designers as exemplars of how a functional object can condense the essence of a period. His two most famous chairs are perhaps the JH501 of 1949 and the wishbone “Y” chair, No. 24 of 1950. These have all the proportion and clarity of late 18th century styles. Both have been much reproduced since and can be obtained for about £8-1,200 each.
Many of these new classics have 18th century overtones and a typical example is the work of the naturalised American, T.H.ROBSJOHN GIBBINGS, (1905-76), who worked as an interior decorator having emigrated to the U.S, and whose work whilst very traditional, often reviving Greek forms, has a sleek modern twist. His armchair of 1950 is straight from 1790’s England, but is in no way a reproduction.
Another late 18th century-inspired design which has become quite ubiquitous, is the “Superleggera” No.699 of 1951-7 by GIO PONTI, (1891-1979). As the name suggests, this is a lightweight seat of perfect and dainty proportions in stained ash, which would work with any decorative scheme. £3-500.
Another major seam informing post-war design was that of the Arts and Crafts movement and its celebration of timber construction with respectful reference to historic styles.
GORDON RUSSELL, (1892-1980) was influenced by the Cotswold school of craftsmen particularly Ernest Gimson, but became more interested in the mass production of well-designed furniture during and after the 1940’s. He was chairman of the Utility Design Panel in 1943, where simple, unadorned items were made available for newly-weds and people that had been bombed out. Later in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s a clean style evolved influenced by artist craftsmen such as Edward Barnsley where chairs in particular showed a marked late 18th century influence.
Other traditional forms reappeared in modernised form, notably the Windsor chair-inspired productions of Ercol of High Wycombe. This company was established by LUCIAN ERCOLANI, (1888-1976) in 1920. The wartime Board of Trade commissioned the company to produce wooden tent pegs amongst other things, but most importantly 100,000 low-cost Windsor chairs. These were inspired by the classic vernacular chair with its spindle-filled hooped back that had been popular since the 18th and 19th centuries and were notably taken up at the time by pioneers of the American west, as they could be made quickly from unseasoned wood using simple tools.
In the 1940’s Ercol patented a steam-bending process using elm which has an attractive grain and colour, but was regarded as resistant to such a process until that time. Typically £20-30 at auction. There were various permutations of the design, notably for upholstered armchairs which combine a more luxurious soft profile with the overall traditional form. £1-200.
E. Gomme was another High Wycombe company that in 1953 under the aegis of Donald Gomme, introduced a range of affordable furniture that could be acquired piece by piece; thus the range was what was to become the renowned G-Plan. As the clean lines of Danish furniture came to dominate this period, the company appointed the celebrated Danish designer, IB KOFOD-LARSEN, (1921-2003) to introduce the classic styles that combine 18th century proportions with light timbers such as afromosia and teak. Modern vintage furniture stores are a happy hunting ground for this well-made and affordable furniture.
JOHN MAKEPEACE represents the survival of a more purist Arts and Crafts approach, producing in the 1970’s some of the most exquisite finely-wrought chairs such as his “ebony gothic” of 1970; its tall lancet back made from laminations of this extremely hard timber, the seat of a silvered wire mesh, all contributing to a truly modern reinterpretation of mediaevalist forms.
As well as these evolved designs that have a more detectable link with the past, this was a particularly fertile and inventive period where all sorts of new shapes enabled by new materials such as plastics were developed. The limits of what was possible to do to seat the human form comfortably were stretched and sometimes the boundaries between furniture and sculpture became indistinguishable.
Moulded glass fibre enabled almost any shape to be made, combining strength with a certain amount of flexibility: the famous tulip chair, model 150 of 1955-6 by the Finnish architect EERO SAARINEN, (1910-61) is in the form of a delicate serpentine trough supported by a slender aluminium stem, reminiscent of a wine glass. These futuristic seats are quite inexpensive and should be obtainable for around £100.
VERNER PANTON, (1926-98) developed the first single injection-moulded thermoplastic chair in 1959. This ingenious stacking chair is of simple curvaceous form echoing the human outline to give maximum ergonomic benefit. £2-300. A whole group of amorphous jelly mould designs ensued during the 1960’s using this process with notable examples by fellow Scandinavian: EERO AARNIO, (Pastille chair, 1967-8); Italians SERGIO MAZZA, (Toga chair, 1968) and ALBERTO ROSSELLI, (Jumbo chair, 1969).
In the 1960’s Robin Day moved on from laminated timber to injection-moulded polypropylene and his “Polyprop” designs of 1962-3 can be found in village halls, schools and many places of assembly throughout the country. Their very ubiquity shouldn’t blind us to the fact that they brilliantly combine comfort and elegance with economy. Typically about £50-70 for a pair.
The possibilities that new materials, manufacturing techniques and mass production of clever design brought, also inspired some amusing deviations from the norm, sometimes veering into the wonderfully impractical and kitsch.
PIERO FORNASETTI, (1913-88), rejected what he saw as the absolutist ergonomic design aesthetic of period and produced some delightful hybrids, decorating modern forms with lacquered and printed neo-classical motifs. Typical examples were his chairs of 1955 with backs printed with Corinthian and Ionic capitals. Four of the latter fetched £3,500, 10th October, 2018 at Bonhams.
Probably the most disobedient of styles were those produced by the Italian Memphis movement, (1980-87) founded by ETTORE SOTTSASS. This defiant post-modern group produced colourful geometric furniture that had more than a touch of the children’s nursery about it, with its bold primary colours and refusal to be subtle. The late David Bowie was one of its more famous enthusiasts and his collection was sold at Sotheby’s in 2016.
“Bel air” easy chair by Peter Shire sold SEK36,000, (£2,925), Bukowskis, 19/4/218.
This article has pointed out some of the most outstanding designers of our time, but because of the democratisation that industrial production has enabled, much of their work can be acquired relatively inexpensively. Many pieces on the market will be unattributable, but will be of the prevailing generic style rather like Georgian furniture was and consequently bargains can still be had. As with traditional antique objects, a certain amount of time has to elapse before styles come back into fashion and some of these 1950’s-‘80’s examples are often still unregarded. Apart from the auction houses, much enjoyment can be had sifting through the many current “vintage” shops which have supplanted the traditional “junk shop” in recent years.
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Martin Snape was a director of Sotheby’s, Bond Street, where he worked as a Senior English and Continental furniture valuer for 32 years. As well as valuations, Martin has presented lectures on all aspects of furniture history and design, including specialized courses at the Sotheby Institute and other professional bodies. Martin is now on our panel of furniture specialists at VMS.