The Material of the Mid-Century Modern

Decorative Arts & Design specialist Theo Burrell takes a closer look at the innovative materials used in mid-20th century furniture design, illustrating with highlights from the 20th century section of the forthcoming Decorative Arts: Design from 1860 auction, to be held in Edinburgh on 25 October.

The use of innovative and new materials was a notable feature of mid-century furniture, with resin, wire mesh and plywood often being used for post-war pieces. Design and its materials in Europe at this time were, of course, directly affected by the economic situation, which following two world wars created instability and austerity. With the affluence of the 60s and 70s came a focus on luxury, and design of this period regularly sought to make use of the best materials which could be sourced. Thus mid-century furniture comprises a vast array of contrasting and innovative pieces.

The two world wars at the beginning of 20th century created shortages in many materials and a lack of money had a direct impact on new designs in the late 1930s, 40s and 50s, forcing designers to be creative with what they were developing, and what they were producing furniture with. Whereas expensive walnut veneers and burr woods were regularly used for Art Deco pieces of the 1920s and early 30s, post-war manufacturers looked to more economical methods of manufacture using new materials. Plywood was one such material, and had its very origins in the war effort, having been used to make helicopter blades during the second world war. It’s versatility, durability and nod to the new attracted preeminent designers, such as Alvar Aalto and Charles and Ray Eames, who proved that being creative with raw materials led to innovative new design.


Alvar Aalto Trolley

Lot 553 | ALVAR AALTO (1898-1976) FOR ARTEK
SERVING TROLLEY, DESIGNED 1936-7 | solid and laminated birch with tile and cane | 91cm long, 59cm high, 65cm deep | £800-1,200 + fees



Included in the forthcoming Decorative Arts: Design from 1860 sale on 25th October, is a trolley (lot 553) designed by Aalto in the 1930s which demonstrates the use of laminated wood during this period. This process involved bonding together many layers of wood under electrical pressure with a synthetic resin, making it strong and malleable. Similarly, the ‘Allegro’ chair (lot 491) designed by Sir Basil Spence in the late 1940s, and the ‘Bambi’ stacking chair (lot 492) were also created using this technique. These pieces were both made by H. Morris of Glasgow, who triumphed in producing both affordable, utilitarian furniture, as well as design-led iconic pieces, employing new materials and methods.



Basil Spence Allegro
'ALLEGRO' ARMCHAIR, DESIGNED 1947-1948 | laminated wood, bears maker's label MORRIS MADE/ GUARANTEED TRADE MARK/ GLASGOW
52cm wide, 85cm high, 50cm deep | £2,500-3,500 + fees



In his book Shavings For Breakfast Neil Morris, who ran H. Morris of Glasgow, talks about the ‘Allegro’ chair, the process of its production and how it was received:

“This is the lacquer chair designed and developed by myself and Sir Basil Spence and Charlie Sim. It was a unique construction of laminated Hondura Mahogany and Batula with classical 18th century detail. The back and arms are rolled laminated in one piece – an extremely difficult lamination to get right. Designed in the late 1940s. This was awarded an international prize and is on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.”

The initial difficulty of production and high-design may illuminate why the ‘Allegro’ chair was such an expensive piece, costing £31 18s 3d, when the annual salary in Britain was £101. However, such technqiues, as they were refined, helped lead the way to cheaper ways of manufacturing furniture over time.



Gordon Russell Helix Sideboard
with twin doors, each with incised decoration, enclosing a fitted interior, bears maker's label | 122cm wide, 84cm high, 46cm deep | £500-800 + fees



Although the 1950s continued to feel the effects of the hangover created by the war, like Neil Morris, Gordon Russell used austerity to promote good design. The ‘Helix’ sideboard (lot 502) designed by Judith Ledeboer and David Booth for Russell, did just that, by using simple design and scant use of raw materials which were scarce to come by, to create a functional piece which was neither lavish in wood nor decoration, yet elegant, modern and stylish. Clever use of economical materials were also employed by designers in the 1950s such as the Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen, who’s ‘Tulip’ chairs for Knoll Studio (lot 578) and his infamous ‘Tulip’ coffee table (lot 563) used aluminium, which was strong, easy to machine and lightweight.



Eero Saarinen Tulip chairs

aluminium and fibreglass with upholstered cushions, each bears maker's label | 47cm wide, 80cm high, 45cm deep;
and an associated TULIP TABLE, with oval marble top on tapering base, | 200cm long, 73cm high, 122cm deep (6) | £2,500-3,500 + fees


As the 1960s dawned, the changes experienced within the energised affluent economy in Europe saw further modification in mid-century modern furniture, as an increase in demand encouraged not only new design but experimentation with new materials. Scandinavian designers, for example regularly selected teak and Brazilian rosewood to realise their products during this period. These materials were costly, difficult to come by and problematic to work with, so their use was a sign of high-quality. Similarly, a return to using more luxurious products like leather and wool to upholster chairs also became more common practice as the economy took a boost. Examples of all these items are featured in the upcoming Decorative Arts sale, including a set of chairs designed by Kai Christiansen (lot 543), a leather-upholstered armchair by Robin Day (lot 588) and a sideboard by Skovby Mobelfrabric (lot 554).



Robin Day chair

Lot 588 | ROBIN DAY (1915-2010) FOR HILLE, LONDON
tan leather upholstery on a teak underframe, with loose buttoned seat and back cushions | 80cm wide, 70cm high, 60cm deep | £1,000-1,500 + fees





Date for your Diary


Decorative Arts: Design since 1860
25 October 2017 | 10am in Edinburgh
Viewing from Sunday 22 October at 12noon


Recent Articles