Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Design, 1950–75

The years following World War II were characterized by enormous change on every level. The war ended, leaving a new worldwide generation of veterans with young families struggling to rebuild their lives. The pressing need for inexpensive housing and furnishings spurred a boom in design and production. A new optimism—filled with the promise of the future—prevailed. Commercial jet travel was introduced in 1957, and ease of travel in the jet age encouraged a growing fusion of cultural influences. In particular, a blurring of Eastern and Western aesthetics and technology represented an entirely new cultural fusion.

The elaborate households of the prewar years were gone, replaced by informality and adaptability. Gone, too, was the conventional approach to furnishings as expensive and permanent status objects. New materials and technologies, many of which had been developed during wartime, helped to free design from tradition, allowing for increasingly abstract and sculptural aesthetics as well as lower prices for mass-produced objects.

The most marked changes occurred in America, Italy, Scandinavia, and Japan. A growing number of American firms such as the Herman Miller Furniture Company and Knoll International began to build a reputation for manufacturing and marketing well-designed, high-quality, inexpensive furniture made from new materials like fiberglass and plastics for the consumer market in the postwar years. In an effort to revive their depressed postwar economy, Italian designers made a self-conscious effort to establish themselves as leaders in the lucrative international marketplace for domestic design. While initially they looked to traditional forms or materials for inspiration, they also soon embraced new materials and technologies to produce radically innovative designs that expressed the optimistic spirit of high-style modernism. Scandinavian designers preferred to combine the traditional beauty of natural materials with advanced technology, giving their designs a warm and domestic yet modern quality. Japanese designers, obviously aware of contemporaneous developments in Western architecture and design, strove to create a balance between traditional Asian and international modern aesthetics, while still evoking national values with their distinctly Asian sensibility.

At the same time, in reaction to the perceived impersonality of mass production, an alternative group of artist-designers who were interested in keeping alive the time-honored practices of handworking traditional materials emerged during the 1960s. Their one-of-a-kind objects, made with tour-de-force virtuosity, helped elevate design to the status of art.

By the mid-1970s, a radically transformed “modern design” expressed itself through a variety of idioms. There was a style for virtually every taste, from the bold forms and colors of Op Art–inspired supergraphics to the refinement of Studio Craft movement handcraftsmanship to the pared-down industrial aesthetics of High Tech.