Q: We have just purchased a home built in the early 1950s in an architectural style characteristic of that time. One obvious option for the interior would be furnishings in the so-called '50s Retro style, but I have my doubts about those curvy lines and spindly pieces. I'm also concerned that this look may turn out to be just a fad. Do you have some alternate suggestions in the general category of modern design?
A: Lots of possibilities present themselves because, originally, the '50s home was actually furnished in all sorts of different styles. But if you do want to reproduce a distinctive look of that era, it won't be hard to find furniture that will outlive any passing fad. Modern design does have its own classic works, and it's these that you should be seeking.
It would help, of course, to define what's meant by a modern classic. What has been true throughout the history of the decorative arts applies as well to pieces produced in the past 50 years -- a classic work exemplifies the particular style of its period while also making creative use of the technology of that time. In addition, it has to be an original design and not an adaptation, although it must be adaptable to specific circumstances. A classic piece, in short, will have a timeless and universal appeal.
Some of the furnishings grouped under the heading '50s Retro do meet these criteria. I agree that this style is surrounded by a certain faddishness, but that's at least partly because of the attention showered on it by the press and by the more trendy dealers. The discerning designer will be able to distinguish the gems from the junk.
Included in the '50s Retro movement are such kitsch items as kidney-shaped sofas covered with "poodle cloth," a curly yarn resembling dog's hair. Area rugs that look like bad abstract paintings also qualify as '50s failures that should never have been resurrected.
dTC At the same time, a few of the decade's designers did turn out innovative American pieces that deftly integrated organic structure with contemporary technology. Besides comfortably fitting the human form, these furnishings fulfilled the promise of the age. They were modern in every sense and will always serve as appropriate additions to a tasteful interior.
Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Florence Knoll and Harry Bertoia were among the designers of the post-World War II period who are still much admired for the originality and beauty of their work. But modern design did not begin at that point. In fact, through their use of steel, leather and glass the stars of the '50s paid homage to earlier masters such as the Scandinavians Alvar Aalto and Hans Wegner.
And I'm sure you've heard of the great French architectural visionary Le Corbusier who in the 1930s designed the chaise longue shown in the photo. A piece like this -- which is now seen as a classic of the International Style -- would have graced many of the more stylish settings of the 1950s. You, too, can thus make use of such an accent piece, confident in the knowledge that it will work exceptionally well in a '50s-style interior even though it was designed two decades earlier.