Real Living: Back to basics with Forties utility chic

The look was minimalist without the pretension. Cayte Williams on a rare shrine to Forties style

Cayte Williams
Saturday 11 October 1997 23:02

Open any glossy interior design magazine and you'll find pages devoted to twentieth-century style. Each decade - be it Thirties, Fifties, Sixties or Seventies - gets a mention, except, that is, for the Forties For most people, the epitome of Forties interior design is the Dad's Army HQ. But the times they are a-changing. We're all getting a bit tired of urbane know-alls waxing lyrical about their Charles Eames chair, and the British Forties utility look might be a refreshing antidote to post-war revivalist bores. It's minimalism without the pretensions, practical and, most importantly, cheap.

"The main reason why the Forties haven't been a collector's decade is because of the war," says Nik Oakley of Kitchen Bygones, who sell Forties to Seventies kitchenware. "Many resources were directed away from consumer goods, and rations meant there were shortages in raw materials. Pyrex, for instance, introduced a brilliant range of brightly coloured glassware called Colour Lines in 1939, but it was discontinued because of war. In fact, most Forties kitchenware was made from enamel which came from recycled aircraft parts."

The Battery, artist Marilyn Phipps's home, was a shrine to the Forties utility look even before she moved in. "I think the kitchen was put in during the Forties, when the house was used as a holiday retreat for disadvantaged children," she explains, "and the stand-alone grill, oven, pots and pans, even the little church chairs in the kitchen were all here before me." She has added to her ready-made kitchen collection in suitable style. A friend bought her an old-fashioned tea-urn and she's built up a steady collection of Forties homeware from local junk shops and antique fairs. "There are some great antique shops on Harbour Street in Whitstable," she says, "and Temple Antiques in Tankerton has some great finds."

The Battery, a nineteenth-century naval building, is a huge, bright blue, wooden house that sits right on the Kent coast near Canterbury and faces onto a 120ft secluded sea-front. The kitchen alone is about 20ft by 30ft while the dining room is at least 50ft by 30ft. There's also a huge sitting room, five small bedrooms and a wash block "with three toilets, two showers, six basins and bath room, boiler room and a urinal," says Marilyn without pausing for breath. It has a no-nonsense atmosphere, a mixture of military precision, modern homeliness and a wonderful seafront light that sharpens every object. It's an ideal location for painting and Marilyn runs artists' workshops from her home.

There are no hidden-away dark corners to stash dusty ornaments. "The building has that utility feel about it. There's no way that you can put anything pretty in here," she explains. "Everything has to be bold, you can't have anything frilly."

She has carried on the Forties theme throughout the house. The two huge wooden doors between the dining room and kitchen were made in the Forties for Ramsgate post office. The kitchen walls are lined with teapots, sugar shakers, vinegar jars, and salt cellars. A huge kitchen clock was bought locally and the chunky table was already there. "This was always my favourite house," Marilyn explains. "It was empty for two years before we moved in and when we used to go for walks along the beach, I'd peer in through the window and look at all the pots and pans in the kitchen."

The biggest job she had to do when she moved in was to clean the tongue- and-groove wooden walls. "It took three of us three weeks to dismantle part of the wall and clean the wood. Luckily we numbered the planks so that we knew where to put them back. "

She has painted the kitchen walls the same colour as the exterior. "I have to use a specially blended paint on the outside of the house because sailors can see the building from miles away, and I'm sure this is because of its colour," she explains. "It's like a landmark - if you can't see anything else on the coast, The Battery is visible."

The huge wooden building can be hard to keep warm. Marilyn solved that problem by getting an enormous wood-burner for the dining room. She painted it midnight blue, making it more abstract sculpture than functional heater. "The wood-burner looks like a ship's boiler, but we got it from a greasy spoon," she continues. "It was about pounds 50 but we had to get a very expensive flue for it because of the fire risks. We call it The Beast." To complement the stark minimalism of the dining room, Marilyn bought simple black damask chairs from Davies in Soho while a padded floral armchair and a delicate white table create a cosy corner near The Beast.

The Battery has a fascinating history, and features in a new book Wooden Houses (Ryland Peters & Small, pounds 30). "It was built as two big wooden sheds at the end of the nineteenth century," she says. "The first housed two cannons, the second was a drill hall for sailors, and during WW1 it was a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. I still get people coming here who remember it from their childhood holidays in the Forties, saying they had the happiest time of their life here."

The Battery is for hire for special occasions, and sleeps 10 for a weekend break from pounds 600. Call 01227 277994 for details. Kitchen Bygones, Alfies Antique Market, Church Street, NW8, tel 0171 258 3405. The Furniture Cave, 533 Kings Road, London SW3, tel 0171 352 4229.

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