Mid-Century Modern: The Retro Look

by WOHe

It may be an exaggeration to say “everything old is new again,” but certainly the return of design elements from eras past remains a perpetually hot trend. However, today’s “something old” is most frequently amped up with a stylish, contemporary, ultra-hip interpretation, making the “retro look” a lively and charming hybrid of the best of yesterday and today.

Mid-century Modern design relies on bright, cheerful colors, fun and funky materials and a host of accessories, from the charmingly old fashioned to the totally “kitschy.”

To capture this look, 21st century Contemporary design often includes actual furniture and accessory pieces or at least a design imbued with the personality of rooms from mid-century Modernists. This is what has come to be known as “the retro look.”
However, “retro” slang for retrospective doesn’t solely relate to styles from the 1950s (see Chart, Page 90). Rather, a “retro” look is merely one relating to or revisiting styles and fashions from the past, with these designs usually being considered nostalgic and old-fashioned.

For North Americans, rooms from the 1950s are most often identified as “retro.” These designs are known to be bursting with exuberance and self-confidence exhibited in bold colors and patterns which result in a definite “hipness” about them. With its colorful energy and strong sense of fun, is it any wonder that this look is finding a resurgence with today’s consumers? Both new materials and technology and furniture and accessories from the past can be used to contribute to this look, which can evoke a warm sense of days-gone-by something today’s consumers seem increasingly interested in as the world grows more and more high-tech.

But, to truly create an authentic feeling retro kitchen, it’s critical to first understand the mood of the country during the time period you’re seeking to recreate.

Design doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and every era impacts and even defines the popular design styles of the times. That’s particularly true in the case of 1950s-style design, where the joie de vivre is a reflection of an era borne out of the Allies celebrating the end of World War II. This coincided with the design world’s experimentation with new war-time resin-based plastic materials.

Combine this happy period in time with new materials and the scramble to accommodate newly formed families and the result is the appearance of a very free-spirited, avant-garde design style a style whose resurgence continues to energize kitchen design even half a century after the fact.

Two Versions
While we often think only of mid-century Modernism with “kitschy” oddities, there really were two versions of this style. One style the lesser known one was directly linked to the furniture designs coming out of Scandinavia something we see echoes of today in the designs showcased at the popular furniture retailer, IKEA.

In Northern Europe, Scandinavian firms won acclaim for designs that adapted and softened the International style with traditional Scandinavian values. Teak-styled wood furniture was coveted in Denmark and Finland because people longed for the warmth and security of these strong, blocky pieces of furniture with their textural upholstery.

Perhaps our continued desire for the sense of security at home is what continues to prompt interest in this style, which is evident even today, as represented by such custom furniture stores as Copenhagen and the well-known furniture mass merchandiser, IKEA.

With the focus on natural woods like teak and plywood, these settings worked with vibrant maple red, faded
chartreuse green, chestnut orange and willow yellow. Expanses of glass (with little molding) were seen against
soft wood and terrazzo stone floors in this look.

The other, more well-known face of mid-century Modernism grew out of the new chemistry world. This style totally rejected naturalistic colors, and introducing in their place a host of brightly colored, cheerful plastics in candy pinks, blues and turquoises.
Laminates led the way in the 1950s as the new material to be used on countertops, and even on cabinets.

Ralph Wilson, Sr., the founder of Wilsonart Plastics, built a hybrid house combining ranch and modern styled architecture in the 1950s, and experimented with many uses of decorative plastic laminates in innovative applications inside. His firm also launched a dramatic color palette which helped to define and give life to the popular styles of the time.

While a host of new materials work well with today’s retro look, the color palette for this look remains cheerful, funky and fun.

Decorative Arts
Whether the look is candy color bright or warm and natural, decorative art is an important defining element in these 1950s-style interiors, with accessories frequently being used to make the look.

Many of these pieces were originally by-products of war-time research and development. For instance, the aircraft industry had devised new ways of molding plastics and aluminum, while the automotive industry had developed spot-welding techniques for joining wood to metal, rubber and plastic. There was also a growing array of new lightweight materials, such as fiberglass, cast aluminum, acrylic and resin, which added a new element of interest to this style.

All of these materials were absorbed into the decorative realm, and often combined with more traditional materials to create novel accessories. Clocks looked like a circle of atoms. Amoebae, boomerang and kidney-bean shapes are seen in fabric patterns, furniture shapes and lamp designs that mark this time period.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was an explosion in the production of glass largely because of great advances in glass technology. Lighting became abstract and figural, and far bolder than it had ever been before. For example, slender and highly useful pivotal pole lamps were widely popular and these can still be found in antique stores today.

Recreating the past
Interestingly enough, the mid-century modern home was the first time spaces rambled together. Living rooms and dining rooms flowed into one another without any walls to define their boundaries. The contained foyer was a thing of the past: Instead, most of the main living areas were visible from the front door.

Kitchens ambled around corners and assimilated breakfast nooks a trend that continues to be evident in kitchen design, even today.

But, taking these design elements back to the future, how does 1950s-style design translate to creating kitchens for the new millennium?

The key thing to remember about retro design is that you need to create a vibrant and authentic setting, and the furniture and accessories are really what create the retro setting. Major surfaces and material remain Transitional and Contemporary, with the details giving this design style its unique look and voice.

When creating a retro kitchen, keep in mind the following:

  • Cabinets: Sleek cherry, mahogany, maple veneers work well. Accents of stainless steel, vibrant laminate or acrylic finishes in segments of the room are appropriate.

  • Counters: All current countertop materials work well. Solid colors or very small patterns are suggested. You can use decorative tile to spice-up the room and don’t be shy about the color palette.

  • Floors: Wood is ideal. Geometric patterned vinyls are also workable. A cork floor would be another great choice.

  • Furniture: Add mid-century furniture in a table or counter area if at all possible.

  • Accessories: Bright colors are key to creating this look and don’t forget the use of plastics to create a sense of fun. Why not throw in a little neon? Think about the colors in Fiestaware and Russell Wright dinnerware. Michael Graves kitchen accessories from Target certainly are very appropriate for a retro look.

While some people have always loved the retro look, others wonder why there’s suddenly such a growing interest in the past.
Azure, a very contemporary magazine, explains it well in its September/October, 2002 issue in one article’s closing comment:

“Classics, re-additions, retro-inspired or high-tech modern miracles … the beauty of design in 2002 is that everything is happening, it’s all happening at once … new designs as well as bringing back old things. Most people don’t want to live with strictly

Contemporary design. Despite, or even because of the cult of technology that surrounds us, many feel comfortable buying objects from another period. Recovering lost designs doesn’t signal a maladapted current state of design, it just indicates that we are doing what we always have: looking to the past to figure out the present.”

To learn more about retro design, consider the following reference books, which dissect the retro style:

  • Design in the Fifties: When Everyone Went Modern, by George H. Marcus.

  • Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, by Cara Greenberg.

  • Modernism Reborn: Mid-Century American Houses, by Michael Webb and Roger Strauss, II (Photographer).

  • Retro Home, by Suzanne Trocme.

  • Retro Modern (Architecture & Design Library), by Lisa Skolnik.

    Likewise a host of Web sites can provide additional information about retro design and the “kitschy” accessories that help make this look. To learn more, visit the following sites:

  • www.theretrolook.com: Star burst clocks, pull-down metal saucer lamps, rugs, phones, clocks and glassware.

  • www.historichouseparts.-com: Table and chair sets, as well as smaller accessories.

  • www.bauerware.com: Vintage hardware.

  • www.retro-redheads.com: Vintage housewares.

  • www.redandwhitekitchen.-com: Towels, placements, table clothes.

Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist whose design and business leadership have helped to shape the kitchen industry over the past
three decades.

A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two textbooks in the area of design education: Beyond the Basics: Advanced Kitchen Design and The Basics of Bathroom Design and Beyond. Cheever manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies. She is a volunteer on NKBA’s Ad Hoc International Affiliations Committee and Ad Hoc Planning Guidelines Committee.

Cheever’s article is part of a special, ongoing series, “Kitchens of the New Millennium,” appearing exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Over the course of 2003, Cheever will be leading the Kitchen & Bath Design News-sponsored “Designing for Profit” series of seminars, which will explore new ways for designers to use their creativity to design kitchens and baths that are not
just beautiful, but also highly profitable.

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