Sunday, 5 October 2014

House & Garden: The Fifties House

"If the Sixties was the time Britain threw off the shackles of grim, post-war austerity then the Fifties was the decade we began picking the lock," writes Terence Conran in the foreword to the latest tome that makes use of Conde Nast's remarkable archives:  The Fifties House.  Identifying the decade as a turning point in the design world, his tells us how at the start of it "all you could buy in furniture was shiny reproduction Georgian pieces or huge cocktail cabinets that looked like glossy, veneered, bucolic charladies", and explains that the changes wrought were due to the influence of "a remarkable collection of architects and designers on the West Coast of the US, including George Nelson, Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard, and particularly Charles and Ray Eames."

The changes were, naturally, documented by House & Garden Magazine - and here, in a book curated and written by Catriona Gray (House & Garden's Books Editor) they are presented in a manner that manages to be both enlightening and exciting - for anyone with an interest in the history of design, there's as much to learn as there is to admire.

The book is split into unequal thirds, the first being given over to the treatment of individual rooms, starting with the kitchen.  It was the Fifties that saw the widespread installation of the fitted kitchen (and the kitchen island), that introduced the concept of the kitchen as being a place to entertain guests as well as prepare food (which meant that people started caring what their appliances looked like) and "Because the homeowners were spending far more time in the kitchen than in previous generations, it made sense that, for the first time, this room became a hub for design trends."

Terence Conran's open-plan dining area and kitchen.  A Nigerian blanket is used as rug on the birch-plywood floor, the dining chairs are by Gio Ponti and the large spherical hanging lamp is by Noguchi.  The wall behind the white kitchen units is faced with ceramic tiles in House & Garden's 'Deep Night', from the magazine's colour range.  (This is actually from the middle third of the book, rather than the first third, but it is still a kitchen.)

Next up is the sitting room, which in the Fifties became "a multipurpose living space that was used to relax, entertain, play, eat and work."  We learn about the changes in heating (including an unsuccessful alternative to underfloor heating:  ceiling heating - "It was supposed to mimic the warming effects of sunlight, but in practice people's heads became overheated") and the introduction of the television changing the layout of the room.  Plus, fitted carpets became a popular choice, "often in an eye-catching pattern or bright colour", walls were painted or covered in patterned wallpaper (and feature walls were most definitely 'in'),  patterns often stemmed from science which Gray links to DNA being discovered in 1953, animal prints became widespread due to the French interior designer Madeleine Castaing . . . 

This exotic sitting room was designed by House & Garden photographer Anthony Denney, who was decoration editor of Vogue when this was shot in 1959.  White walls allow his collection of curiosities to be shown off to the full.  This sitting room is ahead of its time: as air travel became more popular in the Sixties, interiors increasingly displayed their owners' collections of curios from other cultures and exotic locations.

Further chapters are given over to the dining room, the bedsit & studio room (House & Garden actually ran a feature on interior design in university rooms - 'How to Read for an Honours Degree in Comfortable Self-Containment' - how amazing?!), the bedroom, and finally the bathroom, which is possibly my favourite chapter in this section.  "The days of the nondescript bathroom are over," wrote House & Garden in 1953, and my goodness they meant it.  There are several which I'd be quite thrilled to have in my house today.  Just look at this one:

While the dressing alcove is prettily pink, the bathroom itself takes classical Rome as its influence.  a mural on the wall makes the decorative reference crystal clear and is supplemented by the sunken, tiled bath, day bed and elegantly draped fabric - classical decadence reinterpreted for the United States of the 1950s.

It's perhaps not surprising that I find myself falling in love with these bathrooms for "In general, bathrooms haven't changed much since the Fifties.  Then, as now, the typical bathroom consisted of a matching three-piece suite of lavatory, basin and bath.  The difference is that there was far more deliberation about the design of these during the Fifties than there is today."  The other major change was that, with the bathroom moving inside the house, bathing had become an enjoyable experience and "Magazine articles suggested ways of injecting character into what was traditionally a cold and faceless room."  There are moments, it's true, when some of the bathrooms look a little dated - but they look rather comfortingly so, to me, reminding me of the bathrooms at my grandparents' houses:

A large floral-patterend wallpaper covers both walls and ceiling of this 1959 bathroom.  There is even a matching shower curtain.  A simple colour palette creates a smart effect, with matching blue storage containers, stool and table lamp, and wood painted in black gloss paint.  Opulence is created by the deep-pile white carpet.

The middle third of the book is simply entitled 'Houses' and contains several complete stories - among others the basement flat of designer Roger Nicholson and his wife Jane, the advertising artist Ashley Havinden's Queen Anne house in Hertfordshire which he filled with modern furniture, Le Corbusier's flat in Paris, the four-storey Cheyne Walk house belonging to the Fifties designers Robin and Lucienne Day, Hans and Florence Knoll's (of Knoll Associates) Paris apartment, photographs by Charles Eames of Alexander Girard's house at Santa Fe, and Terence and Shirley Conran's first home from which the first photograph in this post is taken.  (As an aside, their latest home is featured in the November issue of Living Etc.)  The book is an essential buy for this section alone, showing as it does the very best of the period, the houses and apartments of its most important and influential designers.  

Le Corbusier's studio on the eighth floor runs the whole width of the flat.  The exterior wall is made of glass, with an opaque panel in the centre to break up the light.  The painting is by Le Corbusier.

In the open-plan living area of this Paris apartment (belonging to Hans and Florence Knoll) much of the furniture is of a forward-looking, modern design.  The small armchair by the table was designed by Eero Saarinen.  Plants and flowers are used to soften the severely simple lines of the furniture.

The final third of the book is 'Decoration', and catalogues the new furniture (there's a delightful image of a Danish teak-veneered bookcase and desk from Heal's, accompanied by the words 'How useful for David to have a desk and me to have a storage cabinet and a bookcase and a bureau - and really outstanding, upstanding flower stand.  I do hope David won't mind.') patterns, colours and textiles.  There are patterns for Heal's and Liberty, wallpapers for Sanderson and Cole & Son, and of course House & Garden's range of colours, for, throughout the Fifties, the magazine created it's own paint which it updated annually and marketed through a number of stockists.  

Indeed, House & Garden was as much a style-setter as it was a chronicler of the age, for it was in large part due to the magazine that the trend for using brightly coloured paint on walls and furniture took off.  "As the Fifties drew to a close, the foundations had been laid for a new wave of brighter, modern interiors.  More was to come.  Roll on the Sixites."  

Roll on the next book, too; I'm longing for the next instalment. 

Fifties House by Catriona Gray is published by Conran Octopus, you can order a copy here.