A DECADE ON PARADE
The Fifties was a key period in design. Madeleine Marsh sings the praises of the kitsch and the modern
Sunday 18 May 1997
Technologies developed during the Second World War revolutionised the home: fibre glass from the aircraft industry was transformed into colourful, wipe-clean chairs. Nylon, used for parachutes, made new forms in upholstery possible. Designers plundered the arts and sciences for inspiration: coffee tables were shaped like artists palettes; splayed metal legs on plastic bobble feet, were inspired by atomic imagery. Ads encouraged housewives to "Go Gay with Fablon" and fill their kitchens with bright surfaces and labour-saving appliances, while in the living-room the fireplace was replaced by the television set as the focal point.
Escalating prices and a shortage of good, available antiques from the more distant past has helped stimulate the interest in post-war decorative arts, and the Fifties is now recognised as one of the most influential design decades of this century. The finest pieces from the period are already being granted antique status by the major auction houses and Fifties plastic chairs are now sold alongside hand-crafted masterpieces from the 18th and 19th centuries. Furniture by Charles Eames and Arne Jacobsen, Venini Glass, fabrics by Lucienne Day, clothes by Dior and Balenciaga, and works by other designers of the period are sought after by collectors worldwide, and are attracting a new, younger clientele into the salerooms. In many instances prices have doubled in the past five years.
At the other end of the collecting scale, many Fifties favourites, from Homemaker plates to wire magazine racks, can still be picked up from flea markets and car boot sales. It is only comparatively recently that items such as Murano glass fish and Tretchikoff "green lady" pictures have become "amusing". In researching Miller's Collecting the 1950s, I encountered objects (and people) of every type. At the house of one enthusiast, I sat on a leopard skin bed, cuddled up to a hot water bottle in the shape of Jayne Mansfield, while its owner showed me her collection of Fifties fashion ranging from circle skirts covered with poodles, to a "bottom enhancer", a pair of foam padded knickers, designed to help 1950s ladies achieve the curves of Hollywood starlet. In the home of a very different aficionado, I sat on an austere, elegant convertible settee designed by furniture-maker Robin Day, in front of a table inset with tiles by Eduardo Paolozzi, drinking espresso from a cup decorated by the young Terence Conran. These interiors summoned up the two extremes of the Fifties - cheerful kitsch, and serious, modern design, both of which inspire equal passion among collectors.
My first encounter with the Fifties was a dressing-up box filled with my mother's cast-offs: billowing dresses decorated with red peppers and Parisian cafe scenes, net petticoats, boned bustiers and wickedly, vertiginous stilettos. These fashions encapsulate the appeal of period design: bold shapes, bright colours, brave patterns and above all, a desire for a new look and a sense of fun.
In Britain, the 1950s saw a dramatic move from austerity to affluence and a world, where as Harold Macmillan famously boasted: "You've never had it so good." For the ever growing band of those collecting the period, including myself, his words still ring joyfully true.
Alfies Antiques Market (13-25 Church Street, London NW8) is hosting a 1950s selling exhibition to coincide with the publication of Miller's `Collecting the 1950s' by Madeleine Marsh (pounds 15.99). The exhibition runs to 24 May; for further information call Alfies on 0171 723 6066. Other sources of 1950s items include: Atomic, 34b Heathcote Street, Nottingham (0115 941 5330); Flying Duck, 320-322 Creek Road, Greenwich SE10 (0181 858 1964); Ginnel Gallery, 18-22 Lloyd Street, Manchester (0161 833 9037); 20th Century Design, 274 Upper Street, London N1 (0171 288 1996).
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