Mid-century Modern Design

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.

Gustav Stickley

In my last couple of articles, I went on at some length about plywood, its use in furniture and how Charles Eames and his wife, Ray, were designing stylish furniture that could be produced en mass and inexpensively.  Today we’re looking at the flip side of that coin, the American craftsman movement and we’ll chat a little about what it was trying to do.

Sometimes known as the arts and crafts movement or mission oak, the American craftsman movement originated in the designs of Gustav Stickley.  Stickley was born in Osceola, Wisconsin, in 1858 and teamed up with architect Harvey Ellis to publish house plans in The Craftsman in 1901.  This style was characterized by “…a severely plain and rectilinear style which was visually enriched only by expressed structural features and the warm tones of the wood…”.  Like everything else, it is easier to see than to explain.

The Craftsman concentrated on home design, publishing 221 house plans over its 15 year run.  You can see many of the craftsman elements in homes built by Frank Lloyd Wright.  They incorporate open floor plans, use local materials whenever possible, have exposed structural elements like beams and light fixtures and use lots of natural light.

Although he started making chairs in Wisconsin in 1875, Stickley really began his style in 1904 after he moved to Syracuse, New York.  All his furniture was handmade, built mostly from oak, the joinery was exposed and upholstery used only natural materials like canvas and leather.  His wood was varnished but never painted.  He was so fond of the look of quarter-sawn oak that he built posts out of 4 pieces of wood so you could see the flecks in the grain on all four sides.

Despite, or because of, the singularity of his vision, he was not a particularly successful businessman.  By 1913, his company was losing money.  It went bankrupt in 1915, by 1916 The Craftsman folded and he sold his signature house a year later. Stickley retired from the furniture business and died in 1942.

So much for the facts, why is craftsman style important and why did it become so wildly popular again?  The inventions of the 1860’s which led to the industrial revolution of the 1880’s began to mass produce ornate products for the masses.  Stickley was a retrograde movement, an offshoot of the “return to nature and simplicity” utopianism of that time.  That he should make a product that folks didn’t really want (they preferred something more ornate, something that emulated what the wealthy owned) and a product that they couldn’t afford is why he failed as a businessman.

I think that craftsman style became popular again in the 1980s and 1990s for the same reasons.  It was a return to simplicity as life became (and becomes) more and more complex and as we become more removed from the means of production.  You can judge the renewed popularity of this style in the magazines American Bungalow and Style 1900.

In an age when almost anything can be cheaply mass produced, there is a renewed appreciation for the hand crafted items of yore.  Artisan bread companies are another great example of this trend.  And people will pay dearly to get piece of the pastoral past.  In 1988, Barbra Streisand paid $363,000 for a Stickley sideboard.

So, how can you recognize a real Stickley piece?  There should be the original maker’s mark, usually in red or black and in an inconspicuous place.  Second in value to Gustav’s work was L & JG Stickley Furniture Company (made by his brothers Leopold and John George) but there was also the Stickly Borthers (Albert) and Stickley and Brandt (Charles) and another dozen companies making furniture in the Stickley style.  I think it takes a true professional to spot a real Stickley.

The next time you see this style of furniture in a big box store, appreciate that it was intended to be both art and craft, a handmade thing in a time of machines.