Following the devastation of the Second World War, Britain in the 1950s saw a period of rapid change and regeneration. It is known as the age of the consumer, when the old was replaced with the new. A sense of vitality and optimism was reflected in design, with new, stylish consumer goods becoming widely available for the first time. The Festival of Britain in 1951 celebrated the redevelopment of the country, and a shedding of ‘old fashioned’ design ideas. Colours became bolder, and designs became more abstract. Sofa beds, trolleys, and ironing boards were all invented in the fifties, designed to fit well with newer, smaller post-war houses. Things stacked, folded away, opened out. Living spaces became more open plan, and designs more abstract.
Creating a Fifties Feel
There are several key design elements to bear in mind when constructing a 50s setting. Fitted kitchens appeared for the first time. Primary colours were used. New, versatile materials were invented, such as PVC, melamine, fibreglass, vinyl, Formica and plastics. These new materials gave designers far more scope and, combined with the use of traditional materials such as rubber and chrome, made the 50s a golden age for adventurous design. Modernism was influencing every walk of life, from painting and literature to design and architecture.
Fifties Design Giants
Famous designers in the fifties are worth researching if you want to learn more about how to achieve a fifties look. Husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames were the most famous design team of the decade, producing leather, plywood and plastic furniture, with clean lines and a distinctive look. The ‘Eames Chair’ is a design classic. Look also at Robin Day and Arne Jacobsen’s furniture, and Lucienne Day’s fabric designs. The Design Museum has a great library of images of chairs from the fifties, which is useful for your. Other great resources are the design collection at Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (MoDA), which is affiliated to Middlesex University. Their collection of 1950s looks and designs is a superb resource.
Get the Look
When building a set, bear the following elements in mind:
This was common, in order to maximise available space in small post-war spaces. Rooms were ‘knocked through’ and mezzanine levels were in vogue.
Black and White chequerboard vinyl floors – these were the dominant trend in kitchens. Fitted kitchens with Formica tables and work surfaces. Kitchens took the American influenced large fridge to heart, so this is an iconic feature to include. Appliances feature heavily in a 50s kitchen, so chose large chrome blenders, mixers and toasters. Tupperware was also invented in the 50s, so make sure you have some on set.
These can be diner style, for a US twist, finished in chrome and vinyl. Eames chairs are a natural choice – and there are some good modern imitations of these available now. Plastic basket-weave chairs were popular too, often in bright primary colours.
Bright primary colours were an antidote to years of wartime auterity, so you can use these with confidence. Lime green was a newcomer to the designers’ pallets. The American Diner influence also saw softer colours in use – bubble-gum pink, soft blue and pistachio.
Abstract patterns, with ‘science-inspired imagery such as calyxes, starbursts, atoms’, showed the entry of new science into the public consciousness. Other design motifs were candy stripes and polka dots, in pink, blue, and yellow. Animal prints began to appear too, with leopard spots and zebra stripes popular on rugs, and cushions. Use these sparingly however.
These are just a few design ideas to get you started. Check out some of our links for more style ideas.
Lucienne Day’s fabrics at the V&A
Robin Day’s furniture at the V&A
Arne Jacobsen at the V&A
Charles and Ray Eames at the V&A
Visit Ed’s Easy Diner on the Kings Road for some fantastic authentic 50s diner design ideas.