Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Fifties Home

I read recently about a man who has converted his house so that every item, down to the smallest cup, is authentically 1950s. His three concessions to modernity - a flat screen television, fast-boiling kettle and a microwave - are discretely hidden away. The home has been described as a 'time capsule'.

But is it? Wouldn't the real 1950s home consist of an eclectic mix of furniture and styles - things that been handed down or patched-up? I don't know, but I do remember that my parents' 1960s home was a mixture of 1950s decor and grim, prewar furniture, all of which clashed horribly. Giving their house a 'contemporary makeover' wasn't an option.

But by the early 70s, my parents had become so sick of the 50s look, they covered their kitchen walls in a hideous, self-adhesive vinyl material called Fablon and painted the furniture orange. It was as good as it sounds.

As a result of my upbringing, I've always been quite hostile to 1950s design, associating it with poverty and austerity. But when I found a 1957 book called the 'Home Handyman' recently, I decided to try and be more open minded. I've added the original captions:

"A Brianco occasional table made from sheets of wood and screw-on legs."

I remember having a similar table, which my parents kept until the late 1980s. The screw-on legs ensured that the table was always structurally unsound and any attempts to have a 'posh tea' for visitors was undermined by wobbling cups that sloshed tea everywhere. Not a design classic.

"Against the plain walls and carpet this boldly striped sofa becomes the focal point of the room."

I was slightly distracted by the cheap-looking fence outside, but I agree that the sofa is a focal point. Just not in a good way.

"When using bold designs for curtains and cushions it is advisable to set them off against plain coverings on sofas and chairs."

I won't take issue with that, but I would question having a collection of dead butterflies displayed on the walls:

"Plastic tiles make ideal floor coverings for places where water is likely to be splashed about..."

Before I worried about the floor, I'd do something about the walls:

"A multi-coloured striped towel lends gaiety to the bathroom and fits in with any colour scheme."

"The dark piping on the cushions is all that is needed to make an effective contrast."

I quite like this room, but I don't think the "dark piping" was a deciding factor.

"Loose covers add charm to rooms of character. The materials should harmonize with the atmosphere of the room."

This room, with its mixture of traditional furnishings, is probably more authentically 1950s than many of the rooms shown above. The chintz look is very unpopular today but my parents loved it and bought some rather striking nylon seat covers with a bright, floral design. I think I gradually unravelled them while watching the Six Million Dollar Man.

In conclusion, this book didn't win me over and I'd baulk at the prospect of living in a 1950s home. But although I may not appreciate the interiors of the 50s, I think the graphic design of that decade is much more appealing:

Whatever happened to Murphy?


simplesuffolksmallholder said...

Ah, Fablon. Work tops, tabletops even stools covered with the stuff that split and scratched after a couple of weeks. Lovely!

Steerforth said...

Yes, it didn't last did it? And the adhesive side soon curled and went an unpleasant shade of brown. I wonder what contemporary ideas we'll wince at in the future? I'm not terribly keen on those big canvas statement frames that some people have above their beds.

Annabel said...

Real life isn't as glamorous as books is it. I have The Millers Guide to Collecting the 50s - and it is full of great objects and designs... including a Sputnik Cigarette Dispenser. Those were the days eh!

worm said...

the metal 'screw-on' table legs in the first pic are currently the very height of fashion - they are called 'hairpin legs'

Katharine A said...

Great post. However, I'm more 70s & 80s. Any chance you could review the Laura Ashley books of home decorating. I'm sure you'd love them. A chance to discuss patchwork home furnishings.

Chris Matarazzo said...

Apparently, there was a Spanish theme trend when I was boy in the 70s. We had a giant picture of a matador on one wall (I used to have nightmares that he was chasing me) and a massive painting of a Spanish village square in which the windows would light up, for real. My favorite part of this painting was that, at one point, my father had decided to place a "Mr. Spock" sticker on it, as if her were giving the Vulcan salute, ever so subtly, out of an upper window. (And my dad wasn't even a drinker.)

Lucille said...

My dad was a great DIYer. Barry Bucknell may have been his guide but he had plenty of ideas of his own. He was a great fan of polystyrene tiles for insulation. The square ones were jazzed up with pink and white paint like a giant Battenburg on the bathroom ceiling. Hardboard covered all the Victorian doors and he made tables with, yes, screw in legs. The hardboard warped very easily so the surface always undulated.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

That Murphy ad is by the great Abram Games. We had few 50s things in the 50s. Wallpaper from the 30s. Lino from the 20s. Kitchen from the 1900s. My parents added some old junk that nobody wanted cos it was Victorian. In the late 60s my dad started making serious money and they changed the layout and added a lot of modern stuff we were stuck with till we moved. A foldout table in wood-effect formica. Banquettes. A bead curtain. Actually it was rather cosy. ;-)

Grey Area said...

The beauty of '50s styling isn't the actual furniture - but what it represented. New colours, materials and engineered shapes that hadn't been possible before - consumer spending and the yearning for something new after a decade of war, rationing, make-do. The beauty of practicality - things that could wipe clean or fit edge to edge. People finally started thinking about the future rather than what they had lost in the past (hence the space age sputnik trend) and manufacturing processes and plastics created miracles for homeowners and tired housewives. Ceramic, enamel and Bakelite was dull, heavy and shattered but tupperwear was a revelation. In the UK manufacturing was fairly cheap and brash - so things didn't really last but in the US where people had more space, more money and bigger expectations - mid century modern style was built for the future and much of it still exists quite happily in peoples homes. You can't really blame the UK householder on a decent income in their modern new home with fresh, square rooms throwing themselves into the modern age with an orgy of mis-matched purchasing - but much of the good stuff still stands the test of time individually. A lot of the best furniture was made possible by the manufacturing process of the aviation industry from the war. I can't find it now but there was a very good 'Play For Today' in about 1959 that revolved around the family drama of a woman buying a 'contemporary' chair and the social and psycological fallout as her family tried to face the fact that the future was 'now' and they had to let go of the past. I love 50's design - but you have be be very, very sparing!

Grey Area said...

additionally (sorry - I can get boring about this) the fact that we could travel abroad quite cheaply resulted in the 'Spanish' theme - basket wrapped vino, Spanish dancer dolls etc- and the huge number of men who had done their national service abroad - such as in the Far East, is the main reason so many homes had a copy of Tretchikoff's Blue Lady / Miss Wong in their homes - it was the stat of the global age.

Elsa Louise said...

To carry on with the Spanish theme idea from Chris: More broadly in the United States, the trend often featured Mediterranean interpretations in much of middle-class home design, including architecture.

Hence, the matador wall art.

Also, from the sixties, I am recollecting a neighbor of ours who owned a painting featuring a bridge. It, too, had little lights that lit from behind.

As a kid, that bridge art just fascinated me!

I actually rather like many of the designs of the last midcentury. If done well, obviously, they can be classic.

Catherine said...

I think a lot of the American Fifties and Sixties stuff is a lot better than the UK stuff. I have fond memories of a lot of that furniture that my parents had.

I have recently become interested in some of the GPlan furniture and bought some great dining chairs with round upholstered seats. They are so comfortable.

I also had a couple of Ercol coffee tables which I found too small, so sold them and made a handsome profit.

When I bought my first flat, I discovered that some of the original Victorian doors were covered in asbestos hardboard!

Steerforth said...

Annabel - The 1950s looks great in the Millers' Guide. Sadly, I don't think any of my parents' possessions are in there.

Worm - Will they never learn?

Katharine - My selection of books is a complete lottery, but if a Laura Ashley title appears I'll pounce on it.

Chris - I wonder what prompted the Spanish craze? I'm trying to imagine the painting with the windows that light up - full marks to your dad for adding Mr Spock!

Lucille - Yes, warped hardboard was a big feature in my house, along with polystyrene tiles. When my parents covered my bedroom ceiling in polystyrene tiles, I thought I'd really entered the Space Age. I think they're illegal now, aren't they?

Lucy - I would have loved bead curtains! When we visited friends in Camberley, who lived in a 1950s house, I wished that we could also have a serving hatch and built-in garage.

Richard - I can understand why people embraced the design ethos of the 50s. My grandparents stubbornly refused to change their house after the 1920s and I remember dingy, dark brown colours and lumpen furniture. It was all very depressing. I think I hated my parents' 50s furniture because it looked so dated by the eraly 70s, but in hindsight it was far superior to the formica MFI rubbish that replaced it.

Elsa Louise - Was the Mediterranean look a conscious departure from the more uptight, Protestant, Northern European attitudes of the past, or am I over-analysing? Perhaps Richard's right and the driver was simply foreign travel. I'm now fascinated by these backlit paintings. I want to know more.

Catherine - I agree. The 1950s in the USA has very different associations - glamour and affluence, rather than austerity and utility. Of course, it wasn't all North By Northwest, but the postwar economic boom in America contrasts with the rationing over here.

Dale said...

In the 1950s our Victorian villa (in New Zealand) was furnished with family castoffs which were either Edwardian or 1930s. When my folks started earning serious money, they replaced the old stuff with a refained sort of repro Queen Anne with cabriole legs (or Gabrielle legs, as an acquaintance of mine fondly believes they are called).

So the 50s passed us by, except for the phase where grey carpets with deep wine accessories were the vogue. And the Safari Sunset and apple green walls of the games room, with its burnt orange divan.

My grandparents' house was built about 1910 and newly furnished in the 1930s, so Art Deco reigned fairly supreme thereabouts in the 40s, 50s and 60s. The Fauvist bedroom carpet however was a sight for (inducing) sore eyes.

What I recall most was that every room in those 50s houses had its own colour and style, and I still think the modern trend for one colour throughout the house is yawningly dull.

As for which modern fads will give rise to "what were they thinking" remarks in future years, I'll plump for the distressing approach to "shabby chic" which sands off perfectly agreeable paint finishes and leaves them raw and gritty and unpleasant to touch.They look like crap, too.

Oh yes, and the British insistence on not having built-in vanity units around their handbasins, but instead cramming every flat surface with cleaning products and bathroom lotions and potions. Or having chests of drawers in the bathroom to hold said products. That's a bit unfathomable to us furriners.

Brett said...

Maybe you're right, that the Spanish look was explicitly non-WASP. A look for swingers. Think, "The Sun Also Rises".

I associate the heavy, studded furniture, the matador pictures, with the houses of my Jewish friends in 1960's suburban Central Florida. Larry Bresnick, who was in the school band with me, loved to play "Bolero" on his trumpet.

Steerforth said...

Dale - The bathroom clutter is a big bugbear of mine. I'd say that 95% of the various bottles and cans that cover every surface belong to my wife. I've tried tidying them away, but without success.

I agree about the shabby chic, but I think the worst interior design can be found in the homes of some of the people who appear in 'Hello' magazine - the vulgar opulence of the nouveau riche (it's just sour grapes because I'm one of the distressed gentlefolk).

Brett - It's all making sense now - unbutton your stiff, New England corsetts and join the hepcats, with Miles Davis's 'Sketches of Spain' playing in the background.

Rog said...

If you put "mid Century" into eBay search it appears there is upwards of 65,000 items for sale, many of which could easily grace Harry Enfield's "I Say You Coming" emporium.
I've always avoided the stuff like the plague but now find our sitting room has Sanderson Dandelion curtains and John Lewis mid-Century inspired sofa. I'm going to draw the line at larva lamps....

Dale said...

Buy yourselves a vanity for an anniversary present. You'll never regret it.
But as for the denizens of Hello, I'm a great believer in the saying "Better nouveau than no riche at all". Gold leaf is timeless as well as tasteless.Ask the Windsors.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Whatever happened to Murphy? Well, after saying "Whatever can go wrong, will," he took down his philosopher's shingle and married my daughter. xoxoxo

Emma said...

I feel like I should apologise - my grandfather was an electrical engineer and one of his 'claims to fame' was that he developed the machine that slit the huge carpet-sized rolls of fablon into the handy-dandy small rolls that were sold to thousands of trend-conscious homeowners. Consequently, I've always felt slightly ashamed whenever someone mentions the horrible stuff. I will say though that one of the 'perks' of grandad's work was that we had loads and loads of free samples, and as such I grew up with a fridge and freezer that were covered in wood-grain effect fablon. Mum also didn't see anything wrong in covering my school books in it either. So I definitely paid for the sins of my forefather.

Steerforth said...

Rog - I can see the appeal of some 'retro' items - a family friend has a gorgeous beach hut that is completely 1950s inside. It wasn't done self-consciously; she just hasn't decorated it since 1958. But for every design classic, there are hundreds of hideous, mass-produced items that I never want to see again.

Dale - A vanity unit wouldn't solve the problem. There'd just be more room for my wife to order extra potions to preserve her youthful looks.

Carol - I hope I'm not detecting mixed feelings on your part.

Emma - So it's his fault! In fairness, Fablon seemed like a great idea, if you could get ride of the air bubbles when laying it. My mother had the wood-grain effect Fablon in her kitchen and loved the fact that it was wipe-clean. We didn't know that it wouldn't last.

I also covered my exercise books with the stuff and thought I was the bees knees for doing it.

Thanks for sharing this fact. I think you can be proud of his role in the cultural history of postwar Britain.

GSGreatEscaper said...

A friend of mine who married in 1969 is now moving. The man who did her estimate said that her danish modern type furniture was of higher value than any of her silver, 19th c. furniture, oriental rugs, etc.

BTW to see a great house that was (one sort of) echt-style in 1965 and has not changed an iota since: