In this article, we’ll take another pedantic plod through the past (like the alliteration?) of furniture design. This time, we’ll look at those halcyon post-war years that brought us mid-century modern design.
The period between the end of World War II and the early 1960s brought a period of optimism and prosperity to America. John F. Kennedy becomes president, a man flies into space, and it seemed like a time when anything was possible. Gio Ponti and Carlo di Carli added sensuousness to furniture not seen since the height of Art Nouveau. Planned obsolescence seemed like a good idea and disposable furniture was the craze. Joe Colombo built a chair out of polyurethane foam covered cylinders that could be taken apart and put in a duffel bag. Wendell Castle made a chair of white molded plastic that looks like a sand castle with only a depression in the center to sit in.
The new plastics allowed furniture to molded into every imaginable, and some unimaginable, shapes. Places like the Superstudio and Archizoom reacted to the excess by making what they called Anti-design…furniture both awkward to use and ugly to look at.
But for most of the designers, form followed function and they expanded on the stripped-down look of the Modernists. To the Japanese influence of simple structures, they added bold colors, stretch fabrics and molded plywood. The use of the widely versatile aluminum influenced furniture design. Just as leisure became a more important part of American culture, so designers began to create chairs designed for slouching. Informality ruled and lines stretched and moved into organic shapes only made available by the new materials.
Like the pivotal work of Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson at the Herman Miller furniture company took off with a style demanding “durability, unity, integrity and inevitability”. America, because it could so quickly recover from the ravages of World War II, led the way.
Likewise, the Scandinavian countries were much less affected by the war and so they were able to begin production much faster than the rest of Europe. Hans Wegner designed his Model No. JH 501 chair that became so popular it was simply called The Chair. House Beautiful declared it the most beautiful chair in the world. It was the chair used for seating in the televised debate between JFK and Richard Nixon.
One of the more interesting aspects of Scandinavian furniture was the use of teak. Native to the Pacific Rim countries, large military exercises cleared huge sections of forest in Thailand and the Philippines and so teak became abundant and cheap. Finn Juhl was a master at shaping teak into free form furniture.
Other hot items were the drop chair of Arne Jacobsen, with its polyurethane shell in leather-upholstered foam and standing on copper-coated tubular legs. His 3107 chair was so popular that by the end of the 20th century, 6 million of them had sold.
One of the stranger pieces of the time was the UP5 chair by Gaetano Pesce. It was made from high density polyurethane foam and coved with stretch nylon. It was then placed in a vacuum chamber and shrunk to 10 percent of its original size and packed between two heat sealed sheets of plastic. When you got it home and opened the bag, air would seep back in and the chair would regain its full size and shape.
It was interesting time that combined wild shapes and simple straight lines. We had bean bag chairs. It was fun. We had fun. The furniture, however, was usually uncomfortable. Next time we’ll step back another decade or two and look the birth of the Modern.