Back to the future - how 60s changes in design still influences furniture today

Changes in design thinking 70 years ago are continuing to influence how our domestic products are made. In fact, the influence of this movement has never been so ubiquitous, says Carol O’Callaghan.

Back to the future - how 60s changes in design still influences furniture today

WAY back in 1962 it was German furniture designer Dieter Rams who coined the expression ‘less but better’.

It’s as relevant today as it was then as furniture designers continue to work to that maxim, except perhaps for a blip in the 1980s which, thanks to power suits and shoulder pads among other things, will not be remembered kindly in the design annals.

Prior to that, the Modernist art movement redefined furniture design by taking away the crusty, heavy look so beloved by the Victorians, making way for something streamlined where form and function, and beauty and utility were equal partners.

Among the results was the Noguchi Coffee Table designed in 1947, which has no concealed parts and is made of just three components, all of which are revealed in their entirety.

The sweeping lines of the table hint at designer Isamu Noguchi’s background as a sculptor, prompting the renowned Herman Miller furniture catalogue to describe the coffee table as “sculpture for use”.

To this day the design is still licensed to be made by that company with the finished product being as popular now as it was 70 years ago.

The period’s influence has never gone away, and much of what was designed and made up to the 1970s is today regarded as works of art, albeit functional art, which has made its way into the collections of institutions like New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Others, though, were consigned to the retail doldrums, only existing later in the psyche of design buffs and students or in retrospective design exhibitions.

But time travel forward now to 2017 and never has the influence of this movement been so ubiquitous, thanks to a revival of interest in what we call Mid-Century Modern — furniture from 1950s, ’60s and ’70s which comes straight out of Modernist influences and includes classic designs such as the Austen Powers-like Egg chair by Arne Jacobsen, which is highly collectible and still in production, and the Hans Wegner Wing chair.

But its influence also has something to do with us being better exposed to design through travel, and through more readily available information thanks to the internet and television programmes which have honed our design eyes.

Even economic recession has had value, making us think twice about how we spend and making us now more inclined to buy something that has a timeless look and quality that will last.

But at the soul of Modernism was the development of techniques that created brilliantly simple, comfortable furniture and which introduced new materials like tubular steel and techniques like wood-bending to create curve-back dining chairs without a join, offering light, fuss-free and functional furniture that could be mass-produced affordably across the globe.

It gave rise to the ’70s classic G-Plan furniture and its more upmarket and rarer counterpart McIntosh, which were Britain’s response to Danish design of the period, made of solid teak and rosewood, materials that are hard to come by these days.

The workmanship was precise, and for anyone without the budget to buy from well known designers, brands like these can satisfy the longing for something well designed with quality craftsmanship.

Today we also have the likes of London’s Heals and global outfits like Ikea who keep that spirit of designing and making things simply and beautifully and fit for use.

But here at home we have up and coming young designers who offer another option, and include Jenny Walsh with her eclectic but practical furniture pieces.

Another is Victoria Breathnach who was trained by Neil and Annabel McCarthy of Nest and shows the influence of their eye for detail and beautiful lines, while brothers Tim and Sean Dunleavy make pieces with highly technical and exquisite finishes that embody form and function and are now picked up by collectors abroad and Irish embassies.

In some cases these pieces can cost hundreds of euro rather than thousands, and are available in limited editions of as few as 10 or 20.

This makes them more attractive for some as not only are there fewer of them around, but their prices are still competitive, unlike mid-century Modern classics which are produced under licence, and carry the same price tags as vintage collectible versions made 60 and 70 years ago.

Sell off

A selection of rugs made to the designs of Irish Modernist artist Mainie Jellett (1897-1944), now produced under licence by Wexford based Ceadogán Rugs, will be sold off in a special sale in March.

Each one is made from Jellett’s drawings in gouache - an opaque watercolour technique — and are representative of her contribution to the Modernist and Art Deco movements and their revolution in design, colour and composition.

Each has been used in exhibitions of her work, one of which, and the largest, measures 15’x10’ and is currently on display at Wexford Opera House. Made from 100% New Zealand wool in the hand-tufted method, the rugs will have up to 50% off their original prices. for more information.

Tropical heat_

Looks for summer 2017 are filling the shops already, including Cuban Zen and its flamingos, palms and toucans to brighten up your home.

The Palm Fan cushion offers a fresh summery look to a sofa or easy chair (€8 from Pennys).

Toucans and parrots hide among the palms in the Home Sense summer-look cushion (€16.99).

TK Maxx offers single and double oven gloves in a flamingo pattern (€4.99).

The Pink Flamingo mug is perfect for beach picnics (€1 at Tiger Stores).

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