Festival fest

The 1950s are back with a vengeance, with retro decorative patterns and mid-century modern furniture becomingever more popular with collectors and the public alike. Dominic Lutyens considers the appeal of a style that sits somewhere between Modernist simplicity and decadent, over-blown chic

Mid-century modern furniture mania shows no signs of abating. Cassina recently reissued four 1950s pieces by Le Corbusier, while Lucy Ryder Richardson and Petra Curtis’ Mid-century Modern selling exhibitions in Dulwich, London and Bristol are as popular as ever.

But there is another steadily swelling tributary to this trend, in which designers are plundering mid-century textiles, graphics and illustrations and incorporating the germs of these design ideas in their own work.

Currently on sale in the Victoria & Albert Museum shop is the third Cherry on the Cake range, which includes pieces by artists Rob Ryan, Angie Lewin, Lisa Jones, Chisato Tambayashi and Ed Kluz, who channel mid-century graphics through their use of typography, traditional printmaking and techniques such as paper-cutting. Similarly, Lizzie Allen’s wallpapers teem with patriotic motifs such as Coldstream Guards, Buckingham Palace and double-decker buses. They are more than a little reminiscent of Miroslav Sasek’s charming drawings from his 1959 book, This is London.

Illustrator and product designer Michelle Mason creates homewares also bearing 1950s retro cityscape imagery, the idea for which was sparked by a range she created last year for London Transport Museum. ’Sasek, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious are my favourite 1950s designers and artists,’ she says.

Printmaker and illustrator Paul Catherall, who has designed posters for the same museum, is influenced by the economical aesthetic of mid-century artists McKnight Kauffer, Tom Eckersley and Edward Wadsworth. ’They knew what to leave out of a design,’ he says. Even Catherall’s technique is retro, as he works exclusively with hand-finished linocuts.

A love of traditional techniques is a key facet of this trend. ’Its appeal lies in both nostalgia and a move towards hand-crafting, DIY culture, traditional screen-printing, hand-drawn illustration and letterpress,’ says Claire Bradley, marketing manager of books distribution agency Publishers Group UK, which has published books on mid-century Swedish illustrator Olle Eksell and French poster artist HervŽ Moran. Says Mason, ’This trend is partly a revolt against an over-reliance on computers.’

Woop Studios creates prints celebrating the arcane world of collective nouns for animals. Among others, ’A blessing of unicorns’ and ’An exaltation of larks’ will be on show at design showroom EDC London until 24 December. Woop designer Miraphora Mina confirms that the group avoids total dependence on computers. ’We don’t want hard edges. For example, we created a streaky effect with an inking roller on the paper, which we then scanned in,’ says Mina, demonstrating the balance she has found between hand-crafting and computer technology.

The mid-century vogue looks set to snowball next year, which marks the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Festival of Britain. Even the high street is getting in on the act: John Lewis’ design department was set up in the same year, and it recently celebrated by launching a Revival fabrics collection inspired by textiles created for the store in the 1950s by Lucienne Day, Terence Conran and Jacqueline Groag.

Similarly, wallpaper company Sanderson is launching a new collection of 1950s prints and wallpapers in January, including a tweaked version of a Groag design called Festival (created for the Festival of Britain) and mid-century-influenced fabrics by contemporary designer Fiona Hayward.

Keith Stephenson and Mark Hampshire, of design group Mini Moderns and avid fans of David Whitehead textiles and artist Charley Harper, are launching a wallpaper design called Festival this week to coincide with the Festival of Britain anniversary. ’We’re obsessed with the Festival of Britain, and this wallpaper is a culmination of that.’

Ryan is a long-standing fan of mid-century modern printmaking. He says, ’I was born in 1962 and Bawden and [Edward] Ardizzone and [Eric] Fraser and Ravilious drew the pictures in the books I looked at as a child – images that never leave you. I rediscovered them at art school in the 1980s when [artists] Julian Schnabel and George Baselitz were throwing their weight around. I didn’t get them. Instead, I was interested in Bawden and company because they took on every commercial job, believing that good design should be a part of everybody’s life. I think they’re popular today because, while we have no limitations with print, they were able to use less to make more.’

Designers today usually say that mid-century graphics appeal for their ’optimism’ and ’innocence’. But perhaps the most insightful explanation comes from Stephenson and Hampshire: ’They represent a backlash against the boudoir chic trend of recent years – fussy chandeliers and Louis Quelque Chose furniture – and a compromise between this and hardcore minimalism. Its appeal is unisex and looks Modernist, yet retains warmth through pattern.’ But, they caution, ’It’s easy to pastiche. To make it contemporary, it should only be used to inspire design with the same optimistic spirit.’

Herein lies the danger with the style: its decorativeness can tip it over into twee. ’In the 1950s, Modernist textiles were an easy entry point into Modernism,’ says Simon Andrews, director of 20th-century decorative arts and design at auction house Christie’s. ’Some of today’s mid-century spirit feels conservative, like the self-consciously quaint 1950s style of Cath Kidston. Yet Modernism was about boldness, looking forward.’

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