Retro furniture - introduction
This is our guide to understanding and appreciating retro furniture.
Retro can mean anything from the past, but usually refers to the period from the 50s to the 70s when people developed a taste for modern design and rejected more traditional styles.
Retro furniture is modern furniture made in the 50s, 60s or 70s, or new furniture made in the style popular in those decades.
Modern furniture was appreciated in Britain by a small exclusive group in the 20s and 30s, but became popular mainstream taste in the 50s. People got their first real taste of modern with Utility furniture produced in the Second World War, but this was not to many people's taste. They had seen the glamour of the Art Deco era in cinema interiors and wanted something a bit more stylish in their homes.
Today this style of furniture is being appreciated again by a new generation who value the simplicity of the original design.
The origins of the modern British style
The Festival of Britain in 1951 was a chance for manufacturers to popularise modern design and it set the scene for the 50s. Robin Day displayed his famous Hillestak Chair at the Exhibition, and there were works by Gordon Russell and Ernest Race too. Whilst Russell was instrumental in Utility furniture during the War, his post-war work was at the very top end of the market.
Another popular manufacturer at the Festival and the Britain Can Make It Exhibition of 1948 was Ercol. Lucian Ercoloni's new take on the classic Windsor Chair became an example of restrained modern taste.
Although manufacturers at the Festival were hand picked to show off only the very best designs, those at the more popular end realised that tastes were changing. They started to produce modern designs for a wider audience. The company that did most to promote modern design for the mass market was E Gomme, the manufacturer of G-Plan.
Other manufacturers followed Gomme's lead and made their own versions. Stag employed the husband and wife team, John and Sylvia Reid, as design consultants. Their first work for Stag was the ultra modern Stag C-Range. They later designed Minstrel, one of the best selling furniture ranges of all time.
By the end of the 50s, modern or contemporary furniture took over half of all UK furniture sales and most young couples starting out in married life looked for G-Plan or something similar for their first furniture.
Influence from Scandinavia
British designers had taken the lead in furniture design for the UK market in the 50s. By the end of the 50s Scandinavian design was starting to gain a strong following. Teak became the most fashionable wood and the long low look favoured by Danish designers became the most popular look for people's homes in the 60s.
G-Plan responded with their own Danish designs by Ib Kofod-Larsen and many other manufacturers made Scandinavian style furniture finished in teak or rosewood.
The Danish style sideboard, finished in teak, is one of the most popular retro pieces today.
The end of the modern style
In the 70s the Scandinavian look continued to be popular with many. However, manufacturers at the top end of the market were looking elsewhere. Italian design influenced Gomme in the late 60s, and in the early 70s high end manufacturers such as Younger were looking to traditional Spanish furniture for influence.
Fashionable tastes went in two directions in the 70s. There was ultra modern tubular style furniture and remakes of design classics. Man-eating housewife Beverly proudly showed off a version of Marcel Breuer's Cantilever Chair on Mike Leigh's satire take on 70s' middle class life, Abigail's Party (1977). The other end of the scale was country cottage pine. The Welsh dresser in pine became one of the most desirable pieces of living room furniture in the 70s.
Buying retro today
We are now rediscovering this furniture. Many of the original pieces were well made and very capable of giving many more years' service. You can buy original pieces on eBay or from a specialist retro furniture dealer.
There are also some very good new designs. So you can mix and match vintage and modern furniture.
Article by Steven Braggs, June 2012
Vintage, retro & social history