Love the 50s?

The creations of the 1950s divide opinion, but are very fashionable with those who weren’t there. Auctioneer Jeremy Thornton overviews the antiques of the post-war period

Every homes magazine I pick up has the word ‘Vintage’ in it. There are many pages of guidance on how to recreate a colourful post war interior. When I am lucky enough to find the genuine article, relatives often comment how “horrible” the eclectic mix of G plan and Ercol furniture, brightly coloured curtains, larey wallpaper and crazy lampshades appears. Obviously they haven’t been reading the latest style magazines.

This ‘look’ was first heralded at the Festival of Britain in London in 1951. Young designers used new materials, colours and forms to provide an alternative to the dull and dreary utility furniture of the 1930’s/ 40’s. Slouchy plastic chairs, upholstered furniture in organic shapes, funky lampshades, as well as multi-coloured fabrics were all lapped up by the younger generation.


Developments in plastics and injection moulding techniques, afforded greater scope to produce new forms and shapes in a multitude of colours. Well-known examples of the period are by Robin Day who designed brightly coloured stacking chairs for easy storage. You can still pick them up at auctions today for around £250 for six.

Wartime technological developments gave Charles and Ray Eames, iconic designers of the mid-20th Century, inspiration to use plywood, developed from making splints during the war. Although used before, their innovative technique meant furniture could be made out of one single piece.

Danish designer Arne Jacobsen used it to create his now infamous ‘Ant’ chair, formed from a single piece of plywood. A set of these can achieve a staggering £2000 at auction. Yet it was his ‘Series 7’ chair, manufactured by Fritz Hansen, which became the most popular chair ever designed, selling over 6 million by the end of the 20th Century.  Around £500 will get you a set of six, an excellent investment for the future.


Lightweight aluminium used in the interiors of military transport vehicles transformed wire rod furniture creations by designers, such as Harry Bertoia and Warren Platner, whose work was retailed by Heal’s furniture store. Even acrylic leftovers from fighter plane windscreens became a fashionable material used in costume jewellery production.

Today, G-plan dining suites, light elm Ercol settees and room dividers are all rising in popularity at auction. Coloured Swedish and Maltese glass, are both affordable and colourful collectables of the future.

Most noticeable as a growing market of the era is 1950’s fabric. Textiles with patterns inspired by Alexander Calder mobiles, Paul Klee drawings and Matisse cut outs gave designers such as Britain’s Lucienne Day the edge. Indeed, a large piece of Day’s ‘Calyx’ pattern material, designed for Heal’s and used at the Festival of Britain, can sell for several hundred pounds. So if you’re clearing out granny’s old cupboards, don’t throw out the linen. Recently, an old table cloth by Lucienne Day fetched £70 at auction, not too shabby for a chic 50’s interior.

Jeremy Thornton is an auctioneer at Biddle & Webb, which has been established in Birmingham for over 50 years.