27 Mar 18

A Modern Life: Tablewares 1930–1980s

This exhibition celebrates a generous gift of twentieth-century commercial tablewares from the Melbourne collector John Hinds. These works significantly enhance the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection and allow us to explore the history of twentieth-century industrial design in greater depth.

The Second World War was a watershed in the twentieth century that marked a fundamental turning point in peoples’ lifestyles in the West. The end of the war signalled the beginning of the modern lifestyle that we know and enjoy today. By the late 1940s the privations of the war were coming to an end and many people were beginning to experience increasing stability and prosperity in their lives. A greater sense of social democracy and egalitarianism emerged, class barriers were breaking down and societies were keen to leave the formal, prewar existence behind and embrace a more relaxed, modern approach to living.

Design in the home played a central role in the emergence of this modern lifestyle. As world economies recovered, domestic prosperity increased during the 1950s and 1960s, leading to growing consumer demand and a desire for objects that were well designed, aesthetically pleasing and affordable. Alongside this desire was a developing awareness that functional and aesthetically pleasing design could contribute to a more enjoyable and enriching life. Products that were fresh and appealing but also practical and hardwearing were in demand.

The rise of the designer

Ceramic and glass manufacturers were in the vanguard of promoting a modern lifestyle. Many upgraded their factories to mechanised mass-production methods and employed professional designers to produce wares whose forms and decoration reflected the modern consumer spirit. Russel Wright’s American Modern range represents an important example of this changing approach. The service was first launched in 1939 but reached the height of its popularity during the late 1940s and 1950s. For the first time, people were able to create their own dinner services by selecting the forms and colours of their choice. It was the beginning of the mix-and-match approach that opened up new possibilities for consumers to design and curate their home interior. The service sold in the millions and marked a critical turning point in design with its bold range of colours and streamlined forms. The series was mass-produced and mass-marketed, its success a result of a progressive product designer working in combination with an entrepreneurial manufacturer. Wright’s American Modern is one of the most democratic examples of mid-century design and was to prove extremely influential on many designers and manufacturers.

These innovations were not restricted to North America. Finnish designer Kaj Franck held similar ideals to Wright in wanting to make good design available to all. His 1952 Kilta tableware range, of which the Teema series was a later iteration, was produced in a range of mix-and-match colours and was hardwearing, stackable, attractive and affordable. Like Wright’s American Modern range, it offered a fresh alternative to historically inspired services with their complex forms and heavy decoration that were emblematic of the prewar era.

The success of ranges like American Modern also highlights the new importance of the individual designer in the conception and marketing of a modern consumer lifestyle. Each piece of American Modern was stamped with Wright’s trademarked signature, creating a lifestyle-related brand identity that was the forerunner for contemporary personality-driven empires such as those of Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren. The age of the commercial industrial designer had arrived.

Many traditional manufacturing enterprises turned to successful designers to create new products for the modern marketplace. Keith Murray’s tableware designs for Wedgwood represent some of the firm’s most progressive excursions into modernism. An architect by training, Murray joined Wedgwood in 1932 and began creating forward-looking ceramic designs that relied on elegant, clear forms, devoid of extraneous decoration – quite at odds with the majority of contemporaneous British ceramic production. Murray rapidly developed a reputation as one of the leading modern industrial designers in Europe, at the same time rehabilitating Wedgwood’s rather staid market reputation.

Women had always played an important, but frequently unrecognised, role in the ceramic industry, especially as poorly paid workers in decoration studios. In the postwar period, new roles for women as designers of both ceramic forms and decorations became more common, due to the increasing accessibility of design education, and women’s growing participation in it. This reflected the growing financial, political and social emancipation of women in postwar society. Scandinavian manufacturers were leaders in this regard: women including Marianne Westman at Rörstrand in Sweden and Ulla Procope at Arabia in Finland established international reputations as leading designers of domestic ceramics. Kathie Winkle at James Broadhurst & Sons in England, by contrast, began work at age fifteen as a ceramic decorator. An instinctive design sense and an understanding of the tastes of the baby-boom generation saw her designs achieve enormous market success. Hungarian-born Eva Zeisel, whose design career spanned eight decades in Europe and the United States, began as a ceramic designer but later achieved success as a designer of furniture, glass and textiles. She is considered by some to be the greatest ceramic designer of the twentieth century.

New materials and techniques

Although developments in the design of domestic objects came to a standstill during the Second World War, wartime advances in materials and production technologies were quickly harnessed by designers and manufacturers in the postwar period for the creation of new consumer products. Plastics, moulded wood, and new metal alloys – including aluminium, enamelled steel and stainless steel – were key areas of innovation. Although first created in the nineteenth century, it was wartime innovations that allowed stainless steel, a low carbon, high chromium alloy, to find its place in the modern home where its low maintenance robustness and corrosion resistant, easy-to-clean appearance allowed it to supplant silver as the metal of preference for cutlery and food presentation. Plastics too revolutionised twentieth-century domestic design. Great developments had taken place in plastics during the war years, and the use of this material as a vital resource within the war effort helped to promote it. North American and European manufacturers began to employ leading designers to exploit the aesthetic possibilities of plastics in the design of affordable homewares for the postwar market. The 1960s saw plastics emerge as the ideal material with which to represent the key themes of Pop culture. They embodied a commitment to the future and technology, were flexible and expendable, and were highly suited to bright colours and the application of surface patterns.

Despite the antipathy to decoration, characteristic of the functionalist modernism of the 1930s, applied ornament remained an important part of postwar, twentieth-century domestic design, especially in the field of ceramics. In part this reflected a rejection of functionalist aesthetics which were associated with wartime austerity.

During the inter-war years in Britain it remained cheaper for ceramic manufacturers to employ large numbers of women to hand-paint their wares than to adopt mechanised transfer-printing techniques. Nevertheless, as demand increased for British ceramics abroad during the 1930s, hand-painted decoration became increasingly unviable. By the early 1950s significant advances had been made in printing machines, arising from technologies developed during the war. These advances fundamentally changed the ceramic industry and many manufacturers adapted their production lines to new machine capabilities – the forms of many domestic ceramics were also modified to make machine decoration easier.

Modelled surface decoration became particularly popular on postwar ceramic tablewares, although there were a range of sometimes contradictory reasons for its success. Modelled decoration could appeal to a modern functionalist sensibility that rejected as superfluous the idea of applied graphic decoration, whether painted or printed. It could also evoke an artisanal, handcrafted ideal that spoke clearly to the handcraft revivals of the 1970s, even though the plastic decoration on most commercial ceramic tablewares was achieved mechanically. From the perspective of the manufacturer, this type of decorative treatment was often more economical to achieve than applied graphic decoration.

The influence of Scandinavia

‘Scandinavian design’, as design from the Nordic countries was marketed to Europe and North America, emerged as a leading force on the world stage in the years following the Second World War. Despite the enormous diversity of aesthetic that arose from this region, the common principles and aesthetics that came to define Scandinavian design dominated the international marketplace for almost a quarter of a century and influenced postwar designers and manufacturers around the world.

Nevertheless, the phenomenal success of Scandinavian design, emanating particularly from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, is not attributable to one single factor but was enabled by a number of common threads. These included: long-standing, deeply held craft traditions; interrelated cultural histories; and the region’s, relatively speaking, late industrialisation which allowed the Nordic countries to transition into the modern world without severing their ties with the past. This transition allowed more meaningful dialogues to develop between art and design and between mechanised production and handwork which harnessed the best of both approaches.

Scandinavian design did not define a particular style but represented, rather, an aesthetic approach that placed the integrity of the object uppermost. It was an accessible modernism which situated design at the heart of everyday life and celebrated the beauty of natural materials, alongside craftsmanship, simplicity of form and attention to detail. These principles and aesthetics which have come to define mid-century Scandinavian design were enormously influential on designers around the world during the postwar decades and have continued to define a modern aesthetic that pervades our design world today.