1940s & 1950s Furniture and Interior Design
Nov 4, 2013 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
We’ve all admired the rational designs and organic forms from these time periods. Yet how can we decorate our own modern space with an accurate vintage twist? Join us as we learn more…
The 1940s | Influences and History
The strong modernist movement of the 1920s rejected any decorative elements, streamlining interior space and construction. Yet a decade later, traditionalism jumped into center stage – bringing all its artistry and embellishment with it. These two opposing historical roots defined the 1940s as a period of contradiction: stepping forward while looking back. French designers would be the last group to leave their traditional heritage, while Scandinavians would be the first to bring humanism into mass-produced pieces.
Cross-disciplinary collaborations were commonplace as artists, sculptors, painters, and craftsmen worked together to creatively adapt techniques due to war-time conditions. Designers also responded to the changing furniture needs of smaller living spaces.
After the war, everyone struggled to rebuild on a large scale while maintaining meaningful design. Focus shifted to lower and middle class people, affordability, and simpler shapes. Materials that were once used primarily for war purposes, were now re-imagined for furniture applications. America became the home for many talented European artists, who fled their native lands due to the war. This new style naturally leaned toward the eclectic, as a result of these blended influences.
Pre-fabricated homes were in big demand, both in the U.S.A. and abroad. These dwellings boasted open plans and airy spaces that embodied the quest for freedom. Often interior spaces would easily open to the outside, expanding the living quarters. Furniture, modular pieces, level changes, and screens were used to separate these different zones.
Home owners and designers alike sought to embrace a new future by creating distinct environments. Our list of key designers provide many examples of this 1940s mindset.
The 1940s | Five Key Designers, Firms, and Compositions
- William Haines, the US designer credited with creating the “Hollywood look.” He meticulously tailored interior design to match his clients’ lifestyles.
- Gerrit Rietveld, a Dutch designer who utilized orthogonal lines and flat color to create sculptural pieces. He explored creating furniture from one single piece of material. Renowned for his Zigzag Chair, Birza Chair, and Red & Blue Chair.
- The Kaufmann House, built in 1946 in Palm Springs, California by Richard Neutra.
- Eero Saarinen, a prolific designer who is responsible for such iconic pieces as the Womb Chair and the Tulip Chair.
- Charles and Ray Eames, as an industrial designing duo they mastered molding plywood chairs to the human form. They even employed automotive techniques to achieve their shapes. Their work with the Case Study homes helped inspire consumers nationwide.
The 1940s | Popular Materials & Motifs
- Wood became a heavily-used material due to its versatile nature and availability during the war. Bent wood furniture was very popular and even featured in fashion shoots for Vogue magazine. Metal was used sparingly for decoration. Paint and lacquer enhanced the design of many 1940s pieces.
- Arabesque design motifs were in vogue, especially for French designers.
- Consumers would often purchase furniture in sets, so their bedroom, dining, or living rooms would match.
- Multi-use and combinable furniture aided in the reconfiguration of smaller living quarters.
- Open floor plans supported the more informal and free lifestyles of the inhabitants.
- Lighter materials such as: glass, resins, vinyl, polystyrene, fiberglass, and melamine were employed to maximize the efficiency of mass-produced furniture.
Learn more about 1940s design with this book
The 1950s | Influences and History
With the end of World War II, new confidence paired with a rise in living standards. This dynamic mixture ushered in an age of consumer culture that would remain strong throughout the decade. The new style of the time was known as “contemporary.” This trend aimed to reflect all the current, liberating ideas (in a cheerful and hopeful way).
Unlike the prior decade, people were eager to embrace new and modern approaches. No longer would contradictions or tradition weigh down a designers’ process. Architects approached home design from the inside out, adapting the plan to the direct needs of the clients. Symmetry and geometry did not dictate floor plan arrangements. Again we see the open plans, zoning, and floor level changes that gained acceptance during the war. Daylight became an even more critical element to a contemporary home, blurring the lines between natural and man-made environments.
In general, the restricted rules of the 1920s and 30s modernist movement were relaxed. Designers could be more expressive in their use of color, material, construction (brilliantly executed with cantilevers), and texture. Yet the designers of the 1950s continued to face the challenge of housing the masses. 1930s functionalism was still important, but adapted to a contemporary frame of reference – aiming to convey individuality. One of the biggest questions facing architects at the time was to express or not express the structural frame.
The 1950s was a decade of infectious hope and designers clamored to bring form to the relaxed lifestyle of the time. Details mattered, spaces were linked, and verticality was maximized to create flowing and welcoming habitats.
The 1950s | Five Key Designers, Firms, and Compositions
- Arne Jacobsen, the Danish architect and designer had a prolific impact on the course of 1950s interior design. His Ant Chairs, Butterfly Chairs, Egg Chairs, and Swan Chairs are beloved to this day.
- Knoll & Herman Miller, remained the top two design firms of this decade, praised for their research in ergonomics, corporate interiors, and the hiring of talented furniture designers.
- Pierre Koenig, an American architect who mastered the use of steel in domestic architecture. He also worked on the Case Study Homes for John Entenza of Art and Architecture magazine.
- Craig Ellwood, an American designer who was well-known for his understated yet elegant designs. Famous projects include the Case Study House 16 and the Daphne House.
- Harry Bertoia, an Italian designer who worked for Knoll and other large firms. His Diamond Chair is considered a profound contribution to the furniture design of the day.
The 1950s | Popular Materials & Motifs
- Uninterrupted views seen through large picture windows maximized natural light, open spaces, and the pursuit of independence. Ribbon windows and curtain walls reduced the barriers between outside and inside.
- Vibrant and whimsical graphic designs complemented the shapes and items found in a room. For example, fruits and veggies in the kitchen or organic shapes echoing the living room furnishings. Bright color schemes typically accompanied these patterns.
- Rectilinear forms seen in flat roofs echoed the idea of the “easy to maintain” house. Flat roofs replaced the un-neccesary attic space and provided a patio for seasonal enjoyment.
- Stream-lined kitchens with a plethora of gadgets and appliances were very chic at the time. Since having servants’ quarters became a thing of the past, contemporary homes needed to be self-service. A well-appointed kitchen made all the difference for the modern housewife.
- Layering of textures, colors, and patterns pulled together to lend strong impressions to the environment. Popular materials included exposed stonework, wood paneling, or vinyl wall coverings.
- Lightweight, movable, durable, multipurpose furniture could easily be moved as clients reshaped their spaces to their changing needs and tastes. Gone were the days of bulky, heavy, and drab furnishings!
- Plywood remained the dominant material for this decade.
Learn more about 1950s design with this book
Cause A Frockus would like to thank our tremendous resources: Furniture & Interiors of the 1940s by Anne Bony, Contemporary: Architecture and Interiors of the 1950s by Lesley Jackson, Wikipedia, and the wonderful people who put their images up on Wikipedia Commons without restriction.
Who’s your favorite designer from these decades? Tell us about it, share a pic or a story!