Eric Knowles Eric Knowles, Antiquarian

1950s Furniture

Last year a plywood chair was sold at auction in Scotland for £800. It was all the more remarkable for having been rescued from a builders skip. The chair had been shown to Bruce Addison Bonhams Post War Design expert who recognised it as being by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. To be a little more precise it was a Number 31. cantilevered laminated multi-ply armchair produced in the 1950s by the Finnish maker Finnmar.

Yet another bargain found its way onto the auction scene last summer having been found languishing at the back of a second hand shop. Once again it was a chair but this time with a green fibreglass moulded seat upon an elaborate steel rod support and for sale priced at £20. A little research paid off when it was discovered to date from the late 1950s and by the famous American designer Charles Eames. Auction price £200.

The 1950s gave us The Festival of Britain, a new monarch, Sputnik, Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley and just in time for the Coronation - Eric Knowles. Post-War Britain had endured the drab and make do of 'Utility' and by the mid decade was thirsting for 'Modern' furnishings. The shock of the new was welcomed and embraced by those in the know and with the means and it came from Italy, Scandinavia and the USA.

These new and adventurous designs often made use of technologies developed during the war years - fibreglass in aviation and nylon in parachutes. Colourful fibreglass and later plastic furniture appealed to the young homemakers of the decade by virtue of being both durable and easy to clean. Plastics were explored to their full potential by the Danish designer Verner Panton. An orange plastic 'S' shape stacking chair sells for about £150.

In the USA top makers such as Herman Miller and Knoll Associates were quick off the mark to seek out the services of recognised architects,designers and sculptors. Names that send collectors pulses racing include the previously mentioned Charles Eames, together with his wife Ray, Harry Bertoia,George Nelson and Eero Saarinen. It is vitally important to understand that the value of 1950s furniture is in almost every case determined by a definite attribution. Names matter big time.

Milan appears to have been the focal centre for much of the Italian contribution and by the end of the decade Italy had become the leading exporter. Names to lok out for are Marco Zanuso, Carlo Molino, Osvaldo Borsani, Gio Ponti, and Piero Fornasetti. Given the necessary £1,500 I could be tempted to buy a Borsani P40 Chaise Lounge simply on the strength of it adjusting to no less than 486 different positions.

When it comes to personal preference my money has to go on the clean lines and simple forms that came out of Scandinavia. Circular dining tables complete with original three legged chairs by Denmark's Hans Wegener combined natural beech with rosewood seats. Price £2,000 plus. Also making use of three legs was Arne Jacobsen's 'Ant' chair whose outline reflected that of the insect. Prices start at £150 and continues to be produced.

As for the British contribution keep an eye out for Robin Day who often worked alongside his graphic designer wife, Lucienne, and I am pleased to add continues to do so. His simple settee covered in a neutral check fabric that won a Design Centre award in 1957 did so on the strength of converting into a bed. Survivors sell at about £1,000. Designed for The Festival of Britain Ernest Race's 'Antelope' chair is still made. Using a pierced wood seat and white stove enamelled steel support it's a hardy little number. Price in the region of £150.



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