In my last article, I talked briefly about mid-century modern influences on furniture design, this time we’ll step back a decade or two to talk about modern furniture (if you can call furniture made 70 years ago modern).
Strongly influenced by the Soviet Union, socialist movements, industrialization and increased capabilities of using man-made materials, designers started creating a new, stripped-back, exposed style of furniture. Rather than reproducing older styles, designers were trying to imitate industrial design and looking to create furniture that could be mass-produced and acknowledge it.
Birch became a popular wood because it was light, plentiful, easily suited to plywood and lighter colored furniture was becoming popular. This was frequently used in Scandinavian design, or what we usually call Danish Modern, and this furniture had a leg up on the rest of the world because the northern countries were less affected by the damages of WWII. Surfaces tended to be plain and without surface decoration. Tubular steel and chrome plating started to emerge, although the Scandinavians were always more fond of the warmer look of blonde wood. Other inexpensive materials like glass, cane and leather became popular.
Bent plywood and cantilevered chairs (missing the 2 back legs) began to take shape and even more common objects like magazine racks or cradles began being formed in bold geometric shapes. Exposed surfaces, like seeing the back braces on a chair, became the fashion.
The use of geometric shapes and bold primary colors were influenced by the paintings of Mondrian. For instance, Gerrit Rieveld from the Netherlands designed a chair that was simply 3 pieces of zigzag wood. His end table was 4 sheets of lacquered wood, a square top sitting on two end-to-end pieces resting on a round base. The 2 piece, glass topped dining table of Le Corbusier epitomized his “The house is a machine for living in.”
Modern style also brought us the butterfly chair, officially called the BKE chair for its three inventors: Anotonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy. It was based on a collapsible chair made for the British Army in the 1800s. By 1945, millions of butterfly chairs had been sold.
Many of these designs were influenced by the Bauhaus, the design school started by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer and nearly destroyed by the Nazis. Visual artists who studied there included Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. It was a Bauhaus designer, Mies van der Rohe, who coined the phrase “less is more”. Their aim, as I’ve written before, was to create an affordable and egalitarian “art for the people”. K.E.M. Weber had a stated aim to make “comfortable, hygienic and beautiful furniture inexpensively”.
These innovations were slower to catch on in the US. The intelligentsia thought it mostly a marketing ploy to sell new stuff, although the “Machine Art” show the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1934 helped give the movement authenticity. And, of course, inexpensive and stylish furniture is hard to resist even though many of the pieces looked far colder than we wanted our cozy homes to be.
If I were forced to summarize the Modern look in a few words, I’d say “streamlined and sparse”.