Thursday, 25 August 2011

A touch of Fifties class

A little something I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph, about the joy of Fifties furniture. Leave caustic comments here, or on the original...

It was billed as a “tonic to the nation”, something to get a war-weary population looking forward again rather than back. For six months in 1951, the Festival of Britain offered a glimpse of how the country might shape up once it had emerged from austerity. Blueprints for post-war living were set out at the “national village fete”, on a bombed-out spot by the Thames, in futuristic pavilions dedicated to the arts, the home, science and industry. Sixty years on, we’re still referring back to that future-facing show to shape the way we live today.

A cursory flick through this month’s home deco magazines suggests we still crave a flavour of the Fifties. Rooms painted in mustard, olive, penguin orange – pure (but not primary) colours that pop against the surroundings; textiles with wildly abstract geometric patterns, such as Lucienne Day’s pioneering Calyx print, inspired by the random geometry of nature; blond wood furniture that’s hand-crafted, rather than machine-manufactured. Habitat and Heal’s have ceramics, cutlery and lampshades with more than a nod to the midcentury movement.

BBC drama The Hour, set in a Fifties television studio, has shone a light on mid-century styling – and one light in particular. British company Original BTC’s canary yellow ‘London’ desk lamp, with its period-perfect cotton braided flex that is artfully woven through the curved chrome arm, features in shot so often it deserves to appear in the credits.

Fifties aficionado Wayne Hemingway, who last month hosted a weekend-long vintage event at the Royal Festival Hall, former centrepiece of the Festival of Britain, has created a range of 50s-inspired paints for Crown. Not to be outdone, Fired Earth has signed up Kevin McCloud to curate their Mid-Century Colours collection, the bold and optimistic palette including hues such as Garden City green, Skylon grey and Flamingo pink.

Using abstract colour bursts, wonky geometrics and molecular patterns for their designs, British textile and wallpaper manufacturers St Jude’s (, Graham and Brown ( and Mini Moderns ( have each devised Fifties-flavoured offerings that channel the spirit of the age, with its anything-but-drab aesthetic. Textile company Sanderson (, which last year celebrated its 150th anniversary, has invited contemporary artists to update its key post-war designs, notably the iconic Dandelion Clocks and Mobile patterns, for their Sanderson 50s collection.

But it’s in furniture that the midcentury revival is most keenly felt. Ercol, the British furniture manufacturer whose post-war signature piece, the Windsor Chair – with its elegant spokes that give a gentle geometric curve to the bentwood frame back – finds itself in demand on the high street again. Dave Brittain, head of furniture buying at John Lewis, says it’s more than pure nostalgia. “These pieces look as good today as they did years ago. Ercol’s curved and elegant shape looks fresh because we’re so used to the cabinet furniture being white-gloss and square.

“There’s a sense of craftsmanship that you don’t get from flatpack furniture. There’s a very obvious sense of construction – you can see all the joints, a subtle indication that this has been made rather than moulded. Something that has to be bent or curved or shapes – as was the Fifties fashion – cannot have been pulled off a production line.”

Nor have Ercol’s limited-edition collaborations with contemporary designers. Fashion duo Clements Ribeiro have added floral-patterned graphics to a one-off range of Ercol cabinets for John Lewis, while its Love Seat has been given a blue-dip paint job at Selfridges. The Conran Shop has its own Barton room set – from armoires to extending dining tables – designed by Sir Terence Conran and manufactured by Ercol. “When Ercol update their designs, there’s an appreciation of their heritage,” says Brittain. “They give their classics a twist and, in that respect, they’re the Paul Smith of British furniture.”

Keith Stephenson, co-creative director at Mini Moderns, says it’s no surprise that there’s room in the home of 2011 for a touch of Fifties. “It has long been a design influence,” says Stephenson, “but, thanks to the austerity of our times, the parallel between then and now has never been greater. The vibrant, forward-thinking Fifties aesthetic chimes so well with tough economic times. It’s a visual shot in the arm.”

* The Southbank Centre’s 60th anniversary celebration of the 1951 Festival of Britain continue until 4 September.

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