Heathfield & Co interviews Catriona Gray
Currently based at Town & Country and Harper’s Bazaar, Cat Gray has freelanced for a number of magazines and newspapers, and is the reviews editor at The Architectural Historian. Prior to this, she spent several years working at House & Garden magazine. While at House & Garden, Cat stumbled across the magazine’s extensive archives, and began to collate them into a series of books that trace the history of mid-century interior design.
The recently published ‘Fifties House‘ provides a fascinating insight into the decade’s developments in interior design and explores how interiors were influenced by social factors, new technology, architectural trends, as well as the major designers of the period. The book unveils how designers such as Le Corbusier, Giò Ponti, Terence Conran and Hans and Florence Knoll decorated their own homes, and provides a rich collection of authentic images.
In this interview, Cat discusses the most significant factors that shaped interior design in the 1950s, today’s resurgence in popularity of 1950s design, as well as her favourite pieces from the period.
The book mentions a number of key social factors that helped to create the huge increase in demand for new design. Which factors do you think played the most significant role in helping spark this new direction in interior design?
It seemed to be a combination of different things. Rationing applied to furniture as well as food: when that was lifted in the early 1950s, I think people were ready for something different, and seemed to be quite receptive to the new ideas that were appearing in design. The Festival of Britain was a real catalyst for change – it brought together the best of contemporary international design and showed it to the British public. Economic factors obviously helped things along a bit – people had more money, so were able to spend more on their homes. Added to that, there seemed to be an absolute mania for DIY – open up any design magazine from the period and it’s crammed with adverts depicting couples swooning over paint swatches.
In addition to these social factors, the book also highlights the significance that new technology and materials had in shaping interior design. What do you think were some of the most notable developments in this area?
Plastic was pretty important. In the 1950s, it spread like wildfire throughout the house. Patterned plastic curtains – preferably adorned with a cheeky motif of a lobster or a plate of spaghetti – appeared to be a popular decorative flourish for kitchens. There was also a real sense of excitement over what was possible in terms of household appliances: one of the new gadgets featured in House & Garden during that period was a dishwasher that doubled as a washing machine. It’s my life’s ambition to find out what became of it.
Interior design in the Fifties is often seen as having sewn the seeds for the interior styles of the Sixties – do you agree?
Absolutely. There’s a tendency to think of the 1950s as being rather dull, while the 1960s was very reactionary and vibrant. When you look through archival material from that period, you realise that the 1950s was a really exciting time in terms of both colour and design. Some of the colour schemes that were used then would be considered incredibly avant-garde today – I found one room scheme in House & Garden with a forest-green carpet, mustard and red walls, and purple upholstered furniture. It might sound very wrong in terms of today’s taste, but somehow, it worked. That 1950s quest for experimentation and bold use of colour laid the foundations for 1960s design. I’m currently working on Sixties House, the follow-up to Fifties House, and you can really see how the style evolved from one decade to the next.
How intrinsically linked do you think the interior design styles of the decade were to the new architectural trends and developments?
To some degree, a house’s interiors will always be informed by the structure of the building – the best interior designers invariably have a strong understanding of architecture. Modern architecture first took off in the 1920s, but in Britain, this style only really became popular in the 1950s. This was largely due to the huge amount of construction that needed to be carried out following the Second World War – public architecture and social housing, in particular, provided lots of scope for architects. As this style became widespread, it made sense that interior styles would develop in tandem, and it’s interesting to see that furniture designed in the 1920s and 1930s by architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe became popular in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s.
Which room of the house in particular do you think is most representative of the decade?
The kitchen underwent such a radical transformation during the 1950s – it’s fascinating to see all the gadgets that appeared during this time, from electric cookers to American-style fridges. Fitted kitchens became standard as people realised that they were a far more efficient use of space. There was also a fundamental shift in the way that the room was used – it began to be used for entertaining as well as cooking, so suddenly a lot more attention was paid to its appearance.
Image Credit: The Conde Nast Publications Ltd
Which countries and designers do you think were most instrumental in shaping the interior trends of the Fifties?
Scandinavian design had a big impact on the 1950s aesthetic, while the US was also leading the way in modernising the home from a technology perspective. Also, I think it’s important not to underestimate British designers. The Festival of Britain in 1952 showed just how exciting the country was in terms of home-grown talent – designers such as Robin and Lucienne Day were incredibly influential, as was Terence Conran.
Certain design pieces from key figures of the Fifties seem to be more popular now than ever. What do you think has sparked this revival of these seminal designs?
Everything is cyclic, I suppose. Mid-century furniture is certainly very popular at the moment, although it’s easy to see why some designs have such a lasting appeal – they’re extremely functional and hard-wearing, as well as being aesthetically pleasing. What’s so great about good 1950s design is how there’s no extraneous detail. I can’t help but think of Terence Conran’s ‘plain, simple, useful’ mantra – those three words seem to convey the essence of fantastic 1950s design.
What is your single favourite piece of iconic design from this period?
It’s so difficult to narrow it down to a single item, as I have so many favourites. If I had to choose, I’d pick Giò Ponti’s ‘Superleggera’ chair. It’s an absolute masterpiece of design – lightweight, streamlined and beautiful. Ponti designed it in 1957: there’s some amazing pictures of his Italian apartment from 1959 in Fifties House where you can see the chairs in context. His apartment was really stunning – Ponti was known for his collaborations with Piero Fornasetti (another of my favourite designers), so there are plenty of fantastic pieces to catch your eye.
Which Heathfield & Co designs do you think are most representative of this era?
Scandinavian art glass was widely exported during the 1950s and its bold colours and hand-blown shapes were very popular. For me, the ‘Mia’ and ‘Auria’ table lamps remind me a little of these designs, with their two-tone colours and slightly irregular, hand-blown forms. Anglepoise lamps – which first appeared in the 1930s – were also prevalent in the 1950s, and I think that the ‘Jato’ desk lamps reference that aesthetic.
Fifties House by Catriona Gray is out now