Mid-century marvels

Designer chairs from the ‘50s reflected the decade’s boundless optimism


Modernity has been around for a very long time. While radical experimentation in design can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century, when new materials and manufacturing processes created endless possibility for experimentation, you could say that the world we live in today was in many ways, definitively born in the ‘30s. So radical was that decade’s break with all that came before – politically, socially, culturally and aesthetically – that some interiors of the time, such as those of cult designers Eileen Grey and Jean Michel Frank, still look contemporary today.


Contemporary in those days came with a hefty price tag. While those with the money and the inclination happily engaged with the shock of the new, it wasn’t until the post-war economic boom of the ‘50s met the new techniques of mass-production that the kind of modern furniture your average homeowner could afford began to appear.


Ironically, given that it was mass-produced, some of the period’s best-known pieces can command astronomical prices these days. In good condition, a 1956 rosewood Eames Lounge Chair can go for as much as $7,000, a figure that would surely have amazed its designers Charles and Ray Eames had they lived to see it happen.


Often rather boxy and generally more horizontal than vertical, sometimes upholstered in bold patterns or in a single vibrant swatch of color and always perched on impossibly slender legs, the clean lines and subtle curves of the ‘50s were not the futuristic visions furniture would become a decade later, but they did look utterly unlike anything that had come before.


At the time, the market for modern furniture was principally American, largely because most of ‘50s Europe was still suffering from post-war austerity measures, but with a few notable exceptions like the American Eames team and the collective output of manufacturers like Knoll (United States) and Vitra (Germany), the most popular designers all came from Scandinavia.


So popular was the style that by the turn of the ‘60s, there was barely a contemporary home on the planet that didn’t have at least one item designed by the likes of its brightest lights. Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner became bywords of modernity and, in the process, household names to boot.


Though Wegner’s Peacock Chair (1947) and his Ming Dynasty-inspired Wishbone Chair (1949) are considered classics, he is chiefly remembered today for a later creation, the three-legged Shell Chair (1963), which looks either like a giant smile or a geometric butterfly about to take flight, depending on how you see it.


Jacobsen, the bigger name of the two, is known not only for his buildings and some of the most distinctive stainless steel cutlery and tableware – the elongated Flatware and totemic Cylinda lines – but also for creating three of the most distinctive and easily recognizable chairs ever made: the Egg, the Swan and the Series 7.


Both the Egg and the Swan were designed in 1958 for the lobby of what was then Copenhagen’s most contemporary hotel, the SAS Royal. Radically different from their Cubist contemporaries, the curves of the Swan and the Egg made sitting a sensual experience that almost verged on the obscene. Instant hits, they were soon put into production.


Even more popular was the Series 7. A simple pressure-molded veneer chair in a variety of different models, it was designed to take up little room and stack easily. Quickly copied, the 7 and its cheaper knock-offs became a global hit, especially popular with institutions, as something that anyone who went to school in Europe in the ‘70s or ‘80s can tell you.


Perhaps more than at any time since, the furniture of the ‘50s is indelibly associated with the period because, for the first time in history, the same style of furnishings could be found gracing houses all around the world. As they clustered around their bubble-screens at night, TV viewers of the ‘50s watched the world of modern, Scandinavian design, where every line was clean, every curve sensual, every color combined and where regardless of the dramas they contained, interiors were models of modernity, efficiency, effortlessness and optimism.


By Warren Singh-Bartlett