Fifties furniture was built for speed. Its streamlined, curved clean lines combined the materials made popular by World War II with plain design sense. It sold itself to Americans in record numbers.
Before the war, middle-class Americans tended to take their interior inspiration from old Europe. They bought fake Victorian, fake Queen Anne. Then came the 1939 New York World's Fair that featured modern European furniture -- among the pieces were Alvar Aalto's immensely popular bent plywood armchairs, including the first made from one piece of wood. American designers took off, and postwar buyers, with bigger incomes and smaller houses, were inspired by a new patriotism and the desire to be modern -- as opposed to '20s moderne.
Erwine and Estelle Laverne's black, white and tan "Flower Settee" (pictured here) was made in 1955. The American-born designers were well known for their "Marbalia" series of murals before they turned their talents to furniture. The settee has a fiberglass frame and an upholstered back and seat. In true '50s form, it was made to fit the body, made for the upright citizen. It is extremely comfortable, not a couch for slouches. The couch embodies the "good design" '50s ethic, the idea that an object's form must clearly reflect its function.
The '50s are remembered, unfortunately, largely for their hideosities: garish yellow pole lamps, red plastic stacking chairs, amoeba-shaped coffee tables. These were the excesses of the era, the cheap imitations that followed fast on the works of the top designers.
After the U.S. arrival of the Bauhaus designers came the impact of two American architects, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, who won awards at the 1940 competition held by the Museum of Modern Art. Eames' plastic shell chairs and cast-aluminum-based Formica tables are still being reproduced. Saarinen's chairs -- first the upholstered "Womb" chair in 1946, then the plastic shell "Tulip" chair of 1956 -- are among the most comfortable, well-designed pieces of seating ever built.
Fifties designs, which were made to be mass-produced, are now so much a part of American design that it is difficult to find a room, whether at home or at the office, that does not pay homage to the era. Keep looking: at stackable wire mesh chairs and stark fiberglass or plastic cafeteria chairs, at metal-frame chairs with leather backs and seats. Strip down, with an X-ray eye, the sleek new padded chairs from Italy's Boccaccio, and couches in today's department stores, and you will see the basic lines of the times of the '50s.