A midcentury momentum

Popular 1950s paradigms are now being revitalised for contemporary living, says Nicole Swengley.

October 30 2010
Nicole Swengley

It’s an aesthetic that’s easy on the eye and senses – simple, fluid shapes and natural, tactile materials coupled with joyfully optimistic colours and pleasingly abstract patterns. Design from the 1950s has, of course, been popular for quite some time. The desire to source authentic vintage pieces continues to be met by specialist outlets such as Talisman, which recently opened a new Belgravia showroom, while shows devoted to all things midcentury modern attract increasing visitor numbers. But the trend is moving in a significant new direction. And what’s different now is that designers and manufacturers are not just turning to the 1950s for inspiration, but are reworking and revitalising the designs to create a fresh new look that’s tailored specifically to contemporary interiors and lifestyles.

Take designer Chris Eckersley’s Arden chair. Here, a traditional Windsor chair has been updated and refreshed by extending the back bow so that it passes through the seat and fits into the side-rails, creating a strong, contemporary shape. Finished in natural solid ash or with the back and legs painted in a choice of colours, it’s a fine example of a metamorphosed 1950s design (from £280). Just as appropriate for a contemporary home is Eckersley’s 1950s-inspired Arden sideboard, with its short, pointy legs and practical, vibrantly coloured sliding doors (£1,925).

Jasper Morrison has also picked up the 1950s baton and moved it on: his Basel chair is a fresh take on a traditional 1950s kitchen chair (£221), while many of Steuart Padwick’s designs are rooted in the 1950s, including his Pointe furniture: solid oak desk (£1,950), bed (£950), wardrobe (£1,195), chest of drawers (£895) and bedside table (£375). Similarly, Jaime Hayón’s lounger for BD Barcelona Design (armchair, from £3,375; footstool, from £940) and the polycarbonate Henry chair and footstool by Claudio Dondoli and Marco Pocci (chair, £295; footstool, £130; seat cushion, £150) are inspired by 1950s designs, yet satisfy contemporary sensibilities and requirements.

“This isn’t a retro or nostalgic thing”, says Liz Cann, design director of British fabrics-and-wallpapers company Sanderson. “It’s a youthful look and relevant to the way we live now. It suits people’s lifestyles, the clothes they wear and how they relax at home.” Cann says Sanderson’s 150th anniversary this year “opened our eyes” to the design potential in the company’s archives. The result is a vibrant new collection, “50’s Prints & Wallpapers”, launching in January 2011 (prices not yet confirmed at the time of going to press). But good design is, by nature, hard to improve on, so Cann says, “We’ve literally kept as close as possible to the original with some of the really iconic designs in the 50’s prints collection.” She cites Lucienne Day’s Perpetua, Marian Mahler’s Mobiles, Seaweed by Sanderson in-house designer Ashley Havinden, and Festival, designed by Jacqueline Groag for the 1951 Festival of Britain information centre. Others, such as Heronsford, have been redrawn and rescaled, while retaining their original integrity.

Along with these archival stars, the collection embraces contemporary interpretations of 1950s designs, such as Fiona Hayward’s Portobello, whose dissected fruit and vegetable pattern resembles a 1950s lino print. Hayward, a contemporary graphic pattern, is based on 1950s Poole pottery. Meanwhile, Dandelion Clocks (fabric £32 per metre, wallpaper £33 per metre), again designed by Fiona Hayward and launched last year to huge acclaim, will be available in additional 1950s-inspired colourways: a bright yellow ground topped by primary colours or aubergine with olive green. The design has been “airlifted” to bed linens, kitchen linens, china, trays and candles too.

Dandelion Clocks is semi-floral – but not overtly so – and abstract without being minimal,” says Cann. The colours have been a huge part of its success because they fit so well with contemporary decorative schemes. There are berry pinks, a figgy charcoal with rusty oranges, dark red on a neutral ground and ‘chaffinch’, which is a soft sea blue with sharp lemon.”

Anyone in search of truly authentic 1950s fabrics should check out the lively Lucienne Day textiles (at £75 per metre) stocked by Twentytwentyone. These were reissued with Lucienne Day’s consent in 2003 and are produced under a licence held by the Glasgow School of Art Centre for Classic Textiles. Modern digital printing has allowed perfect reproductions of the original designs, with a full complement of colourways and the patterns available stretched as art panels for wall-hanging.

It is, of course, a measure of a designer’s brilliance if his or her work inspires others. Heal’s launched its own reinterpretations of Lucienne Day’s designs in September as upholstery fabrics (£45 per metre) and a home accessories range, including a rug (£700), lampshade (£50), pouffe (£125), scatter cushions (from £40), lambswool throws (£200), bedlinens (£28 to £95) and tableware (£5.50 to £25). It created this collection with the aim of introducing Lucienne Day (who died in January) to a new generation of homeowners. The initiative also seems appropriate given that the designer produced more than 70 outstanding patterns for Heal’s during a 20-year collaboration, from the 1950s to the 1970s.

In a similar move, French furniture manufacturer Ligne Roset has introduced re-editions of the late Pierre Paulin’s 1950s designs, revitalising them for contemporary living. Tanis is a reinterpretation of Paulin’s CM 141 desk (from £1,389). Characteristics from the original 1954 design remain, but the finishes have been updated, with the writing surface now in black Corian or black laminate on a co-ordinating lacquered-steel frame and the drawers in natural walnut veneer. And Paulin’s fluidly designed TV chair, created in 1953, now has a base in satin-finish black lacquer or brilliant chrome, Pullmaflex suspension on the seat and fabric covers held in place by Velcro.

Meanwhile, CH 24 or the iconic “Wishbone” chair (from £447), designed by Hans Wegner in 1949 and produced in 1950 by Carl Hansen & Son, is available in several new colours originally specified by Wegner but not used until now (£509). Similarly, Fritz Hansen, another Danish manufacturer, has reintroduced the original dyed canvas colours in which Poul Kjærholm’s PK22 chair (from £2,121) was produced in 1956. Unavailable since Kjærholm eliminated the colours in 1964, substituting them with undyed natural canvas, the design now looks surprisingly contemporary.

It must be gratifying for 94-year-old Danish-born designer Jens Risom, who lives in the US, to witness the clamour for newly minted versions of furniture he designed back in the 1950s. Hard-to-source vintage Risom pieces now fetch large sums at auction, so it’s a joy to see contemporary editions of the originals lovingly re-created, with the close involvement of Risom himself, in an inspired collaboration between Jonathan Stephenson, of Shoreditch-based gallery Rocket, and Benchmark, the Berkshire furniture company run by Sean Sutcliffe and Terence Conran.

“Risom was a contemporary of Arne Jacobsen and Finn Juhl,” explains Sutcliffe. “He emigrated to the US in 1939 and designed the first range of furniture manufactured by Hans Knoll three years later. In 1946, he set up Jens Risom Design, which grew to become the third-largest furniture company in the US. His American version of Scandinavian modern furniture, created in the 1950s, was hugely popular until the company ceased trading in the mid-1970s.”

“When Jonathan and I secured the European rights to reissue his designs from the 1950s and 1960s, we were determined to make them as authentic as possible,” he adds. “No technical drawings existed, so we blew up line drawings in the original catalogues and made the pieces to the listed measurements. Then I spent months trying to source tiny, figure-of-eight steel fixings – only made in the US – to match the originals, even though they are such a minute part of the overall piece.”

The collection of 10 designs features an armless easy chair (from £1,293), side chair (from £623), desk (from £1,821), all-purpose table (from £1,645), two coffee tables (from £999), two magazine tables (from £799) and two benches (from £1,351). They are made in oak or walnut, like the originals, and upholstered in Elmo leathers or Kvadrat fabrics in colours similar to the originals, with the addition of bright catwalk yellow. “Jens is really excited by this resurgence of interest in his work,” his son Sven tells me. It’s the elegant-yet-practical design of these pieces that helps them look so utterly at ease in contemporary surroundings.

So it’s no surprise that Terence Conran – a rising design star back in the 1950s – has chosen this season to launch a celebration of classic furniture designs at his eponymous store, The Conran Shop. These contemporary re-editions are made under licence from the designers or their descendants, giving owners the pleasure of using a freshly made design that’s as close as possible to the original without the worn appearance that inevitably marks out vintage pieces.

Nearly a third of the 54 designs in the Conran Classic collection originated in the 1950s, and those new to the store include Jean Prouvé’s Trapeze table (£3,050), Ernest Race’s Antelope chair (£495) and various designs by Charles and Ray Eames, including the Elliptical coffee table (£1,385), LTR table (£173) and Eames Storage Unit bookcase, designed in 1949 (£1,557). Additionally, Arne Jacobsen’s Swan (£2,334) and Egg (£4,142) chairs have been reintroduced after a five-year absence. And Ercol, the UK-based furniture manufacturer has marked its 90th anniversary this year by refreshing its 1956 nest of tables (£525) in a trio of bright, contemporary colours and restyling its 1958 Butterfly chair (£395) using walnut to give it a more sophisticated look.

Even high-street retailers are carrying the trend forward. British stalwart John Lewis, whose in-house design studio dates from 1951, commissioned artwork throughout the 1950s from design luminaries such as Lucienne Day, Terence Conran, Jacqueline Groag and Pat Albeck. Now these designs have been reinterpreted and reworked for modern interiors. “We found an old desk diary in the archive with photos of 1950s designs, and used the styles and imagery as a starting point for this season’s Revival collection,” says Mockie Harrison, manager of the design studio home at John Lewis. “The vintage look has been popular for a while, but what we’ve tried to do here is recreate the essence of the designs while adding catwalk connections, such as geometric lines and contemporary colouring.”

One of the designs, Perry Green, comes in fabric (£20 per metre), wallpaper (£15 per roll), cushions (£30), bed linen (duvet covers from £30) and roller blinds (from £27). Further designs influenced by the era include Connections (from £16 per metre), Fragments (£20 per metre), Chevron (£22 per metre) and Seedhead (£20 per metre). Alongside these, the Chiltern dining chair (£175) – a reworked version of a 1950s Windsor chair – and dining table (£399), made exclusively for John Lewis by Ercol, are also attracting enthusiastic response. As Harrison says, “It all feels so fresh and new.”