Mid-century modern furniture materials
Jul 9, 2014 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As we covered in our earlier mid-century modern post, technological developments were creating great strides in furniture design. We’d like to follow up that original article with a review of mid-century modern furniture materials.
Plywood was the darling of the furniture world during the 1940s and 50s. Even though Eames’ creations are often credited with starting the trend, the first company to make plywood furniture on a large scale was actually Japanese. Tendo Mokko’s bold shapes attracted out-of-the-box thinkers and showed that this material had international appeal. Plywood had a great trinity: strength, light weight, and low cost, making it a wonderful choice.
Artists saw the material as a way to make a chair out of a singular component. But a single piece didn’t mean it limited the designer: endless colors and finishes were possible. This concept was like the holy grail for furniture designers. It’s easy to see that passion come through in the abundance of work throughout the mid-century. While it required a high level of craftsmanship to form each item, there was an advantage to bending plywood. It conformed to new shapes easily thanks to its composition: layers of veneer are glued together, with the grain running perpendicular. The technique was so strong it allowed for more detailed manipulation. Eames and Eero Saarinen took the torch from the original masters Alvar Alto and Marcel Breuer, pushing the design envelope even further. Arne Jacobsen’s ant chair (pictured above) famously used this bending technique to make the first mass produced chair for Denmark.
As we’ve learned, Eileen Gray was the first to champion tubular steel in furniture design. The modernists loved working in this medium – it’s austere qualities lent themselves to the bold geometry designers favored. But over time, steel became more delicate and versatile. This transformation meant that, like plywood, metal could be sumptuous and curved. Harry Bertoia took advantage of this advancement brilliantly with the Diamond Chair. Made for Knoll, the chair is a work of art in its own right – the lightness belies the strength of the steel. That contrast was visually manipulated by a lot of other designers like the Brit, Ernest Race and American, Isamu Noguchi.
Following WWII, people craved comfort and ease in their daily lives. This attitude carried over to home furnishings as well. The popularity of the television set redefined the standard living room and encouraged relaxation. Two Scandinavian designers developed soft foams and fabrics for this new, casual customer base. Lines went from stiff to gentle and Eero Saarinen’s egg chair makes great use out of the materials’ possibilities.
Because of the versatility, there were endless color and pattern opportunities. This aspect married well with a consumer desire for individuality. Verner Panton was perhaps one of the most unique designers, boldly using bright colors and innovative forms. But it went beyond just the design and into the marketing realm as well. His cone chair caused quite a stir when it debuted in NYC. The police actually made the shop owner remove the chair from view because of the large crowd it inspired! Not to be discouraged, Panton pushed the censorship boundaries by draping the cone chairs with naked human forms (some real, some mannequin) for a magazine shoot. If his dramatic use of geometry didn’t grab you, the ads would!
Plastic and fiberglass
Like the development in wood, plastics were being thought of in new ways too. Thermoplastics like polyethylene, polyurethane, and polypropylene became instant favorites. Designers could finally experiment fully with ergonomics and mold a chair to fit the human body. By the 1960s many designers were comfortable with a plastic palette, but pioneering efforts started back in the 1940s. Eames and Eero Saarinen led the way, but Verner Panton in his true style created the first plastic chair made in one, continuous piece.
By the middle of the 1960s plastic had come into its own. Every furniture firm incorporated it into their designs in one form or another. Thermoplastics reached their full potential in 1963 when the British designer Robin Day became the first to design a mass-produced chair using this material. This development came just in time because with the dawn of the space age, people wanted something new and exciting. Like the artists said – it had to “pop.” Eero Aarnio took this concept literally with the ball chair. The chair was just a sphere with an open section for seating and because it mirrored the desire to re-think living room space, it became an overnight success.
Cause A Frockus would like to thank their tremendous resources: “20th Century Design: The Definitive Illustrated Sourcebook” by Judith Miller and the people who post their images without restriction.
For our readers: Of the new materials, which is your favorite?
Very interesting article. I prefer my furniture in wood, plastic is ok for items like lamps, and wire, in my opinion, really is item specific.
Thanks for the comment! It was a fun article to put together and we agree – wood furniture is a classic favorite and nothing beats a cool, retro plastic lamp.
May the vintage be with you as you continue growing your collection!
Just came across your page; lots of great articles to scour through! I was hoping you knew the maker of 6 bentwood dining chairs I just picked up. These are the same model as mine & the only example of them that I can find online: https://www.etsy.com/listing/218568905/antique-bentwood-chair-mid-century?ref=cat_gallery_11&ga_search_query=mid+century+modern+bentwood+chairs&ga_order=most_relevant&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_ship_to=US&ga_search_type=all
Thanks for stopping by! Those are great chairs – I wanted to ask if there are any markings on the underside of the seat or back. Without a marking it’s hard to narrow it down, so if you could take a quick scan and send me a pic if you find anything. (My email: firstname.lastname@example.org) I’ll reach out to my furniture resources in the meantime to see if anyone can help…
Not a single marking anywhere on these chairs. I really appreciate you looking into it! It’s going to be fun getting these cleaned up & choosing upholstery for them.
No worries – sometimes the best things involve a bit of investigation 🙂 I’m not able to provide a bunch more detail on these chairs without seeing them first hand, but this might be a designer to check out: Michael Thonet. He had some cool bentwood designs. Maybe this will provide some inspiration/information. And I’d love to see pics of the final product! We’re going to write an article on how to refinish/refurbish chairs & vintage furniture – anything special you want us to cover in this upcoming feature?
Found them! http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/1950s-bentwood-and-cane-chair-set-of-five-mid
made by Chaitmasters in Brooklyn from the 1950’s (if this is a reliable source). Looking forward to your refurbishment article! Would love to learn to upholster; maybe some piping added in for good measure. I’d love to hear what products you prefer with videos showing how to use them.
Thanks again for looking into this!
Yes, definitely Chairmasters. Here’s their 1957 catalog: https://chairmastersnyc.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/chairmasters-1957-catalog.doc