Book Review – House & Garden’s ‘Fifties House’

“Mid-century modern. Give me a break. It’s soooo last year”
A largely incorrect phrase I hear disturbingly often. So you wouldn’t think yet another book should be published on the subject. Well, think again. Mid-century modern maven Catriona Gray has teamed up with Octopus Books to produce a unique compilation of original period photographs plundered from the influential House & Garden magazine. Add to that a foreword by the legendary Sir Terence Conran, and you have a book that is sure to delight everyone from interior designers to hardcore design collectors.
FiftiesHouseRather than present the furniture, furnishings and decorative objects of the day floating against a white background and allied with explanatory text about designers and styles, the colourful photographs in this book allow you to see how these pieces were grouped together in domestic interiors. This is important for a number of reasons. Firstly it allows us to see how the designers and stylists of the day intended pieces to work together. How many vases to display on a shelf? Where were they placed or grouped? What about rugs and pictures? Which lampshade? How is furniture distributed inside a room? How does the room function? How do colour, pattern and furniture work together? Through these photographs, not only do we learn about the style of the day, but we also learn about how people perceived rooms to work and about the aspirations of fashionable society. The devil is in the details.
Looking closer into the visual feast again, there’s something for collectors to learn too. Although we know the names of the style leaders of the 1950s, such as Eames, Saarinen and Robin Day, there are many whose names have been forgotten. They designed or produced the vast quantities of furniture that pop up at auctions and fairs across the country that shout and scream the Fab Fifties, but are inexpensive because you can’t hang a designer’s name on them. Gray and Conran have been clever to include such information from the original captions in the magazine – it’s rare to find a book on interior design where the captions aren’t just ‘obvious’ fluff.
You also get a good feel for how styles progressed across the decade. Although style didn’t move and develop as fast as it does today, a decade is a long time and there is a difference between early and late designs. The book is divided up into three main chapters – ‘Rooms’, which examines each room of a house, ‘Houses’ which is comprised of case studies of selected houses, and Decoration which looks at furniture, colours and textiles, etc. The design of the book is stylish and open, letting the images speak for themselves. My only criticism is the choice of font, I’d have preferred something more modern, perhaps a sans serif or even a font designed at the time.
But it’s only a tiny gripe – this is a superb and valuable book that should not only find a place on any mid-century modern fan’s bookshelf, but also end up being well-thumbed as well as well-read. The postwar boom of the 1950s was a pivotal period in design and the fruits of that decade will remain important, transcending momentary changes in fashion.

‘Fifties House’ is published by Conran Octopus and is priced at £30 from all good bookshops, or click here to order your copy now. This is the first in a series of books that will focus on the style of each decade up to the 1970s. I can’t wait for the others!

To read a review of the book on House & Garden’s website – please click here.
To see photographs of the book launch event – please click here.

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