Chris Schwarz's Blog

Furniture in Wartime

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When the British Empire expanded to almost every corner of the globe in the 19th century, the furniture of the mobile class evolved into simplified versions of high-style Georgian wares, according to scholars of the period.

Fancy chests of drawers lost their carvings and mouldings so they would be more robust. Large pieces of furniture were designed to split into several pieces (or to fold flat) to make them easy to move.

This became the era of British campaign furniture, which I have been researching for the last two years for a new book.

However, the Napoleonic wars were not the only wars to affect furniture styles.

When World War II engulfed Europe, it left indelible marks on both the landscape and the furniture styles of the next 60-plus years.

During the intense rebuilding period, both Europe and Great Britain adopted a clean design philosophy that embraced modern materials and eschewed ornament and embellishment.

In fact, during my travels in Europe and the U.K., the woodworkers I’ve met there are bemused by American obsessions with ornamental furniture styles. Why would anyone want to build a piece of furniture with a carved shell, marquetry or a cabriole leg?

During my studies of campaign furniture, one of the sidebars has been Britain’s “Utility Furniture Scheme” from the 1940s. During the intense shortages of raw materials, Great Britain’s Board of Trade established a line of simply made furniture that had been developed in conjunction with an advisory committee of furniture makers, trade unionists, a housewife and a vicar.

The furniture was made from oak and mahogany. Panels were hardboard that was veneered.

Media reaction to the furniture was mixed.

The Daily Mirror called it “serviceable.”

The Architects’ Journal called it “very ugly.”

And now you can decide. The following images are from the 1943 Utility Furniture Catalogue.

— Christopher Schwarz

For more information, read the book “Utility Furniture of the Second World War” by Jon Mills

19 thoughts on “Furniture in Wartime

  1. GunnyGene

    Furniture, and living spaces among other things, reflect the state of a society: Poor, wealthy, free, dictatorial, etc. What does this say about 21st century society?

  2. Axelmusic

    The ideas about a cleaner/plainer less ornamented furniture design in Europe has little to do with shortness of materials during WW2. Those design ideas were pioneered about twenty years earlier around the end of the first WW by the likes of Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier. The idea behind IKEA is only cheap and simple furniture. Design was never an important priority for them in the beginning. There is however a creepy connection between IKEA and WW2 but that’s another story.

    /Anders

  3. zephyrblevins

    I would characterize this stuff as the Ikea of its time. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean we have to warp our aesthetic sensibilities (artistically squinting while holding one’s nose) to try to impose beauty upon it. Ask me how I really feel…

  4. Dave Ring

    I really like those Stickley-on-a-diet chairs. On the whole, this style of furniture looks like the missing link between American A&C and ’50s Scandinavian Modern.

  5. farnarkleboy

    I love this furniture, we still have quite a bit of it still in Australia. It’s mostly very tough, ages/patina’s well, ruthlessly practical, easy to maintain and classically well proportioned . Sure it’s ugly out of aesthetic context , but most stuff is ( I’m not a fan of ‘ witty juxtaposition “) Here it’s mostly common timbers glued with casein or hide glue and finished with shellac and wax so it’s easy to fix and learn from. It’s certainly visually no worse than most of the stuff produced over the last 40 years , remember 70′ s chunky pine?

  6. KevM

    Personally (and speaking as a Brit) I appreciate the simplicity and honesty of the furniture, well about 50% of it. It actually conforms to the Shaker aesthetic, insomuch as if you can’t be beautiful, be serviceable. Contrasting it with the bulk of 21st century, 10 year to landfill you can’t even burn it when times are hard, dross I know which I’d choose.

    Sadly, the opiate of consumer goods for the 21st century corn-fed ‘home maker’ are a triumph of superficiality over function and driven by a drum beat of cynical in-built obsolescence. Tell me where you can buy furniture of this quality for working to middle class wages today, and provide first world pay and conditions for the maker? I was buying furniture like this in charity shops as a student in the 80s & 90s – I wish I’d kept some of it in preference to the recycled woodworm faeces that Ikea and others pass off as furniture.

    Just saying.

    1. Bill Lattanzio

      I could not agree more with what you said here. Remembering where, when, and why this furniture was made, there is a real thoughtfulness to these designs. In a time where at least a portion of this furniture was purchased by people whose homes had been destroyed, and they were displaced, and had lost everything; it wasn’t lost on the manufacturer that the ability to furnish your home with new, affordable, and well made furniture was a source of dignity and normalcy in a world that at the time had little of either.

  7. Robert Henderson

    While I love the simplicity of Shaker and Arts & Craft furniture, in this case I have to fall on the side of “very ugly”. Those beds look like something you’d find in a reform school.

  8. mccp

    We have used table B from the Living Room page as a dining table for the last 25 years or so. Made from oak, it now has the patina of ages but is still solid and serviceable.

    I’d count myself as one of Europeans bemused by ornamental furniture designs!

  9. St.J

    This furniture needn’t be ugly.
    Designed in the 1950s Gio Ponti’s Superleggera chair is the epitome of functional, minimalist, post-war design.
    In the wood, if not in photographs, it’s very beautiful. If you’re in the UK they’ve got one at the V&A. Or you can go to the Conran shop and see the modern version with its eye-watering price tag.
    It uses very little material (ash I believe) and weighs next to nothing.
    It has some interesting joinery and triangular section legs.
    Perhaps a pop wood article on building one? They’d make excellent occasional chairs for when the family descends for Christmas.
    Or I could write it myself?

  10. Bernard Naish

    I was born in 1943 so grew up in England with this furniture. Ikea made it then like everyone else. Remember the whole of Europe was completly devastated. Wood was in very short supply and hardwood regarded as an exotic material to be treasured and used very sparingly. The hardwood production and import infrastructure had been destroyed or put to other use. Even now it is not easy to buy good hard or soft wood in England. It is available but we have to search it out.

    I have never seen this furniture made from mohagany and doubt if any of this wood was available. Oak was available and some hardwood was imported from Africa and I think this was mostly limba (korina USA) and idigbo. It could be that this was stained to look like mahogany. The blooming of woodworking books and magazines in the fiftys and sixties was probably driven by the need for many people to make, repair or modify their own furniture.

    Their is still a lot of this furniture in use as it was very durable

  11. dg2000r

    Well between them I think the media got it just about right. Yes it’s ugly, but the fact that you’ll still find tons of this stuff in houses across the UK shows that it definitely did the job. I think this furniture helped pave the way for a lot of the utilitarian design work that followed through the 50s and 60s.

  12. abt

    Great post. I really enjoy comparative posts, and posts that provide the genesis of a style or technique.

    I was let down the title of the post though. The author is usually quite good about sneaking up on a subject (only way I can of to describe this) with some type of playful reminder or such. I expect a title like ‘Life During Wartime’.

    Maybe next (war)time.

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