Furniture in Wartime
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