Kings of Chelsea

Noguchi chess table

Design Trends ; The Joy of MCM

For those unfamiliar with the phraseology, MCM is an acronym for “mid-century modernism” –  a catch-all for most design between c1950-1970, and a favourite of Interior Designers, Antique Dealers and astute collectors. The height of this period is most certainly the 1950’s, a reaction to the austerity of the post-war period and a visual symbol of progress, optimism and confidence.

The 1940s had taken a huge toll on Europe, Russia and to a certain extent the United States, but there was a rise in the new design aesthetic everywhere, from Brazil to Japan. Although the local circumstances created by politics, the economy, societal values etc were different in every country, there are certain tropes that seem to come through across all design from this period. Inventive uses of both new and traditional materials, freeform shapes and profiles, a non-judgmental acceptance of factory and multiple production, and an interest in science and progress. MCM was defiantly modern, often (but not always) a conscious rejection of all that had come before. This was not a historically reverential style, it was looking forward, and asking questions about how we were going to live, not how we had lived previously. The aftermath of the war, if it had delivered anything at all positive, was an opportunity to re-evaluate the environment around us, from the macroscale such as town planning and architecture, to the microscale such as our tableware and domestic furniture.

Legends were created in this period – even at the time, the Eames design partnership in the USA, the UK equivalent of Robin and Lucienne Day, Tapio Wirkkala in Finland, Arne Jacobsen in Denmark, Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil – were already highly regarded. History has reclaimed some less well-known designers from this period as its popularity has expanded, but there’s no doubt, that there was a wealth of talent springing up in many different places. A new attitude to the importance of design also helped, it is clear, as it became both fashionable and also relevant. The regard in which product designers and even Interior Designers were perceived was at the highest it had perhaps ever been, and the democratization and globalization of “design” as a discipline was established.

The availability of fine and progressive design was still not necessarily available to everyone, and the photographs of the amazing interiors of the period, now seen in glossy magazines and art books were still the territory of the upper middle classes and the wealthy. One possible exception was in the Scandinavian countries, where culturally, good design (and to a certain extent this was dictated by practicality) was something that was both taken for granted, but also encouraged. As today, the social mobility of the Scandinavian population meant that there wasn’t as huge a gap between the “classes” as there was in, for instance, Anglo-Saxon civilizations.

Good design, even progressive design, was rolled out by many large multinational companies, with a greater opportunity for global distribution. Dansk Design, Iitala, Knoll, Hermann Miller, David Mellor – a cross-section of large scale producers whose goods were ending up distributed and appreciated across the world.

As ever, the bar was moved higher by some truly progressive individuals who moved design into a grey area where it was also art and sculpture. At the very top, where the air is thin indeed, were iconic names including Noguchi, Perriand, Prouve, Ponti, Kagan and Mollino. These designers are now represented in museum and private collections, where rare examples of their works sell for millions of dollars. As with most art movements, it is the pioneers and game-changers who are most desirable to the cognoscenti. A Mollino dining table of 1950 recently sold for in excess of 6 million dollars – a unique piece, but within it can clearly be seen the genesis of much of the furniture of the decade to follow. There is now a wealth of information and research into this area, and it seems well-established as a go-to area for designers all over the world, with little sign of any downturn in popularity.