1950s British Interior Design

The 50’s style, sometimes called “revived modernism” as it continued the modernist style that was starting just before the Second World War, is currently enjoying a revival. Whether it is our own ‘austerity’ that had led us back to this influence, or a nostalgic hankering for simpler times, this clean lined style is seen across all elements of the interior, from furniture, wallpaper and textiles to the shapes of appliances and ceramic and glassware design.

The war had a huge impact on 50’s design, with 1 in 3 homes in the UK suffering damage and half a million destroyed entirely, and a nation financially crippled by war debt. New builds were smaller and more minimal, out of necessity, with a focus on open plan design to keep costs low and maximise the feeling of space, as ceilings were lowered and windows made smaller.

Interior design in the 50’s was dominated by the need to mass produce affordable furniture of good quality. Influenced by the Scandinavian furniture of the era, which was already very simple and produced in lighter woods such as ash, birch and beech, the furniture of the 50’s had a different feel to English furniture which up until this time was predominantly darker stained oak.  Appealing to the English preference for darker woods, some designs were still made in oak, but left unstained or in more exotic woods such as teak or rosewood if a more luxurious look was desired.

Lucian Ercolani, through his furniture company Ercol, introduced basic yet iconic designs such as the Butterfly Chair which is still in production today. Another popular furniture maker was G-Plan, based in High Wycombe, who were making a name for themselves with simple, streamlined designs that still sell to this day under a ‘vintage’ collection label. The designs are common in their use of more organic, simple shapes with splayed legs or feet, wipe-able, easy to clean surfaces such as vinyl or leather and rounded, ergonometric shapes that hugged the body.

Ercol and G-Plan’s styles were very much utility influenced across their vast ranges – gone were the ornate styles of the pre-war era, and a more stripped back and minimal look was introduced, with clean, sweeping lines and a focus on quality and longevity. Sideboards, or credenza’s as they were called, often featured sliding doors to save space in a room, recessed handles or handle-less finger pull doors and drawers and lift up lids to access interior space or conceal a hi-fi or drinks cabinet.

Whilst the new style of furniture was clean and modern, textiles by designers such as Robin and Lucienne Day found inspiration in the emerging Pop Art scene with flat, graphic designs featuring organic shapes and stylised images of everyday objects. The colours featured in their work ranged from mustard yellows to chatreuse green with grey, pale blue and bright red remaining popular throughout the decade. Whilst these designs were often unaffordable to the masses, many homes chose to update their interiors with items influenced by their work. China patterns available from Woolworths, for instance, allowed the masses to embrace affordable pieces that reflected the design influences of the time.

By the late 50’s, interior design was heavily influenced by a fascination with the future,  space travel and American culture- particularly the birth of the ‘teenager’, rock and roll and Elvis Presley. From “Sputnik” influenced designs, emerging in the late 50’s and taking inspiration from the world’s first satellite with its spiky antennae, to the ‘American diner’ look with its chequerboard floors, bubblegum colours and kitsch touches. British design reflected an admiration for the culture and style of their neighbours across the pond, but Britain was about to reinvent itself in the decade to follow as a world leader in interior design.