A brave new world on mid-century design

Carol O’Callaghan reviews a new volume on mid-century design.

ACCORDING to American designer Charles Eames, whose furniture is amongst the most notable of the period we call Mid-Century Modern, the important questions of design are: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How is it going to look in 10 years?

He, and his contemporaries, in addressing these questions produced a body of work across the genres of furniture, ceramics, glass, architecture, graphic and industrial design that continues to influence design today. This is now examined in Dominic Bradbury’s book Mid-Century Modern Complete (Thames & Hudson).

Setting out the development of these design genres in various locations, Bradbury cites the most ground-breaking and visionary — though not necessarily the most famous — of each genre’s exponents, and at the same time testifies to the geographical stretch of Mid-Century Modern beyond Scandinavia and America, taking in places like Japan, Brazil and Australia.

A brave new world on mid-century design

Countering today’s perception of design from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s being highly collectable but with price tags to match, he reminds us they were made in response to a very specific need, post-World War II, when materials were scare and economy in design and production was paramount.

Although Mid-Century Modern Complete is a book for the enthusiast and most definitely for the serious design collector, (an essay on the mechanics of collecting by design gallerist and auctioneer Richard Wright focuses on the higher end of this activity), it’s a read for design lovers too who know their Jacobsen from their Saarinen.

But it also informs a developing interest; ideas for interior design projects, or if you’ve fallen in love with the sets on television programmes like Mad Men and Borgen and want to know more.

A brave new world on mid-century design

At its most thorough it revives names of some of the most influential designers whose identities were lost to the companies manufacturing their designs, like Louis Poulsen’s Artichoke light which honours the Poulsen factory, not Poul Henningsen who designed it.

These acknowledgements point to a book well researched, as does reference to lesser known genres of the period like ceramics, offering fresh options to collectors who have exhausted all possibilities of finding previously unidentified works by Clarice Cliff at bargain prices.

Nevertheless, it comes as a surprise that such a detailed and comprehensive book at over 500 pages should omit a reference, beyond a section in the glossary, to manufacturers like Italy’s Alessi. This stalwart of European design sought to make Mid-Century Modern available in small, affordable products with an output that included celebrated collaborations. One such was with architects Luigi Massoni and Carlo Mazzeri whose cocktail shaker from 1957 is now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The omission glares.

Yet the book is a reminder that Mid-Century Modern design was all about concepts that sought to improve living and quality of life, taking what was natural and keeping interference to a minimum. In particular, quality of light was emphasised, not the light fitting; house design worked and harmonised with the environment, instead of sitting on top of the land.

It is this rather than design snobbery that makes purists object to cheap imitations, mass-produced with inferior materials and lacking longevity. Yet, ironically, it’s in these imitations we see just how influential this period still is in design.

* Mid-Century Modern Complete by Dominic Bradbury is published by Thames & Hudson at £60.

* Next week it’s Christmas gifts for the home.


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