The 1950s haven’t been this popular since, well, the 1950s. London is gearing up for a celebration of the decade’s design with the re-opening in June of the Royal Festival Hall, one of Britain’s most iconic post-war buildings. It originally opened on 3 May 1951, and was built for the Festival of Britain, a showcase for the country’s cultural and scientific achievements designed to lift the post-war gloom.
The RFH refurbishment, by Allies & Morrison, includes the restoration of its 1950s furniture, textiles (Peter Moro designed the hall’s grey-green carpet), lighting and colour scheme. The practice is working with members of the original design team, including Robin Day, who designed the 1951 furniture, and Terence Conran, a trainee architect at the time, who is designing the new restaurant.
To celebrate the refurbishment, London’s South Bank Centre, of which the RFH is part, opened a shop last December selling 1950s-related items/ original Ercol tables and Festival of Britain chairs by Ernest Race; vintage furnishings; and contemporary work referencing the decade by designer-makers.
Elsewhere, London retailer TwentyTwentyOne has reissued 1950s-designed products by Robin and Lucienne Day, ‘because there’s a huge market for their work right now’. It has adapted Robin Day’s Tricorne tray from 1955 ‘to suit more contemporary needs’, and has also reprinted Lucienne Day’s tea towel designs from 1954.
Swedish retailer Design House Stockholm, which opens its first standalone store in London in April, launched a range of products last month featuring the iconic 1950s textiles of Stig Lindberg – Sweden’s answer to Lucienne Day. ‘We’ve reproduced his work because he’s highly collectable,’ says a Design House Stockholm spokeswoman. ‘There’s no-one else like him around, even now.’ His work is also launching in Scandinavian retailer Skandium later this year. Design House Stockholm will also sell cushions, fabrics, bags and placements featuring the work of other famous Swedish designers of the period.
Fabrics and products from the 1950s may be enjoying a renaissance, but it’s only the more discerning design buyers – ‘proper design nuts’ – who collect 1950s furniture, according to Petra Curtis, co-founder of furniture company Our Show Home. ‘There’s a less recognisable style to 1950s pieces than, say, 1960s and 1970s – and British 1950s furniture is quite muted compared with later decades,’ she points out.
The 1950s may have been overshadowed by the louder, brighter decades that followed, but a growing number of contemporary designers are turning to it for inspiration.
Michelle Mason was spotted at last year’s Pulse show by Royal Festival Hall shop head buyer Jennifer Robinson, who was looking for a designer whose work was ‘a little bit Lucienne Day’. Mason reworked her Ivy Pod cushion into two-leaf shopping bags featuring a graphic, 1950s-style print for Robinson. Is Day an influence? ‘I love the muted colours of her work, the fact that she was working in the post-war period when strong colours and inks weren’t available. And I love the way she was inspired by shapes in nature, turning them into graphic representations, such as a fig,’ says Mason. Her Rowan Leaf lamp shades were designed this way. ‘I started with a photograph and pared it down – it’s a typographical approach,’ she says. Mason is currently producing a Flow lamp, ‘1950s-style in shape’, after showing a prototype at 100% Design last year. ‘It’s inspired by a 1950s Portuguese vase my mother had,’ she says.
St Jude’s/ Angie Lewin
Angie Lewin is an established printmaker who, together with her partner Simon Lewin, has in the past few years branched out into fabric design – hence the formation of St Jude’s. She is particularly influenced by Lucienne Day and lesser-known designer Robert Stewart – a contemporary of Day’s and apparently one of the few designers Day admired. Stewart designed many iconic textiles for Liberty and Pringle in the 1950s. ‘I enjoy the way Day and Stewart use positive and negative shapes, and limited colour palettes. Textiles of the 1950s often referenced molecular structures and other scientific subjects, and I try to bring some of that ‘new world’, positive feeling to my work.’ Lewin’s prints and textiles feature plant forms such as seed heads and dead stems. ‘Botanical designs can be twee, but Day drew plant forms in a bold, stylised, individual way. I like to think mine aren’t delicate either.’ One of St Jude’s first textile prints was Dandelion, more than a touch influenced by Day’s yellowy-green Dandelion Clocks. Lewin is currently working on new designs and preparing for her biggest solo show to date, in May.
The naive, childlike ceramics of Camila Prada are subconsciously influenced by the 1950s. This shows up ‘in the way the colours and shapes are abstract and quite spaced out – sort of ordered disorder’, says Prada. ‘The first thing most people tell me is how 1950s my work looks. It’s quite sweet-looking and doesn’t take itself too seriously.’ Thorsten van Elten stocks three of her ceramic figures – the Big G money box, the salt and pepper Booty Shakers and the Sweet Talker sugar shaker. And Prada has just designed a 16-piece tableware collection for German ceramics company Rosenthal, called Pepe and Friends, under the name of her nascent company, Vinila. ‘Each piece has a different character – they’re all bulbous, friendly, fat with bright colours,’ she explains. And very 1950s: the egg-cup character, Sir Randolf, for example, has a TG Green-esque hat with 1950s graphic plant forms. The collection launched last month and Prada is showing the new range in Milan in April.
Finnish fabric house Marimekko long ago discovered a market for its retro prints, but until now it has favoured the 1960s onward. But for its spring/summer 2007 collection, it has commissioned two contemporary designers to create textiles with more than a nod to the 1950s. Industrial designer Björn Dahlström has created a graphic 1950s leaf pattern, Stilla, with the same design program he uses for his 3D work. And designer Harri Koskinen has created Elementti – inspired, according to Marimekko, by ‘1950s stylograph drawings’. ‘With Elementti, I’ve played with perspectives, contrasting convex with concave shapes,’ says Koskinen.