What exactly is vintage and what is retro? Recently, I was invited to contribute to an article in the Zeitung des Schweizerischen Hauseigentümerverband (newspaper of the Swiss home owners association) and asked to elaborate on this question. Since there is no exact definition of these terms, I was fully aware that my opinion may differ from that of other experts. In this post I will share my definition, but above all, much like in my post about early 20th century design, I will take you on a journey into the past, back to the 1950’s and 60’s to be exact.

Interior design 50's and 60's

Interior Design in the 50’s and 60’s (image on the bottom left: Eames house, California)

Vintage or retro?

To me vintage seeks its inspiration in the 1940’s and 1950’s, a time of war and post-war. The most prominent material used during that time was wood.  Aside from some floral  wallpaper and curtains, the colours were rather subdued and earthy colours were the most common. Real vintage furniture dating back to that time is very much en vogue and at the same time continues to inspire contemporary furniture designers in their creations. One typical feature of vintage furniture are the tapered (angled) wood legs on cabinets, chairs and tables.

Retro on the other hand, I believe refers to the 1960’s up until the 1980’s. The early part of this era was defined by the material plastic, bold colours and wild patterns. Add bulky shapes to the mix and you are all set for the look of the 1980’s. There are some original pieces on the market, but there is certainly also lots of new furniture imitating the style.

Life in the 50's and 60's

Clockwise from top left: Neil Armstrong, Winston Churchill, Charles and Ray Eames, Elvis Presley

It’s always fascinating to dig a bit deeper and explore a style from a historic point of view. Architecture, interior design and furniture design have always been strongly influenced by the socio-economic environment of the particular times. The 1950’s were strongly impacted by the aftermath of World War II. It marked an entirely new era, in particular with regards to political powers. The war had destroyed much of the industrial infrastructure, caused the European economies to collapse and left many people homeless. As a consequence there was a shortage for furniture as for everything else and interior design had somewhat come to a halt. People made with what they had.

However, as the economy started to recover and people were becoming more optimistic about the future, design also started to change. In addition the 1950’s and 1960’s saw massive technological advances with the first video recorders, the first man in space and Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon.

Architecture 50's and 60's

Schools in the UK in the brutalist style and tower block buildings in London

Architecture

As modernist architecture was further developed, the so-called Brutalist style became increasingly popular, flourishing from the 1950’s until the mid 1970’s. The word derives from the French word ‘brut’ (literally: raw), referring to raw concrete (béton brut), the material of choice. Schools and other public buildings were often built in this style and tower blocks started to emerge. The characteristics of the style were rectilinear forms, plain surfaces without ornamentation, open interior spaces and the use of glass, steel and reinforced concrete.

50s-various

Clockwise from top left: The Wireless (1940’s onwards), vintage phone, 1950’s fridge/ freezer ad, 1950’s toaster ad, pin up art

Interior Design

The fast technological advances, the growing consumer market and the change in lifestyle greatly affected interior design. The TV became a focal point, modern household appliances and kitchen design rapidly changed and thus became more integrated into the living space. Central heating also had a major impact on domestic living, because people could now utilise larger areas of their homes at the same time. The general public became increasingly design conscious and keen on new and unusual objects. The style was most often rather eclectic, with a mix of furnitures of different types. Many of today’s well known furniture manufacturers, such as Knoll International, Fritz Hansen and Vitra emerged during that time and they still hold the licences to produce furniture dating back to that era.

furniture-1950s

Iconic design furniture from the 1950’s including the Standard Chair, the Egg Chair, the Wire Chair and the Eames Lounge Chair

Furniture

In late 1940 and 1950 the Scandinavian style, known for its simplicity, minimalism and functionality, started to surface and had a major impact on design throughout Europe for many years to come. The idea of creating beautiful and functional everyday items for everyone was a social movement made possible by low-cost materials and mass production. IKEA, today’s largest furniture retailer, was found by then 17-year old Ingvar Kamprad in  Sweden in 1943. With the opening of IKEA design became more mainstream and more accessible to the masses than ever before.

furniture-1960s-late

Iconic design furniture from the 1960’s, including the Ball Chair, the Cone Chair and the Panton Chair

Design and more

During the late 1950’s and 1960’s interiors became more bold and colourful and plastic was the preferred material for modern style furniture. The Danish designer Verner Panton was one of the most influential designers of the 20th century and he created the world’s first moulded plastic chair, which was named after him – the Panton chair.

It was not just interior design and furniture design that changed drastically during the middle of the last century, but also the world of the arts, music and fashion were revolutionised. Pin up art, Pop art, mini skirts and rock’n’roll all define that era just as much.

50s-and-60s-various

Clockwise from top left: Andy Warhol pop up art, 1960’s electric guitar, Andy Warhol pop up art, 1960’s fashion, vintage TV, washing machine advertising from 1950

I hope you enjoyed traveling back in time with me as much as I enjoyed researching for this article. Some of you may be reminiscing about the old days and others may feel inspired to head to the next flee market or vintage shop down the street to discover some real vintage and retro furniture and objects… Personally, I have gained a whole new appreciation for that period by writing about it and who knows, we may bump into each other at one of the shops on the hunt for that special piece… 😉

Warm regards,

Simone xx

P.S. If you are trying to get the look, go and check out OKAY ART in Basel (get 10% off your next purchase!) or Bogen33, Timetunnel and Viadukt3 in Zurich!

Posted by Simone Aïda Baur, a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-passionate award winning international interior designer and ex-hotelier, who’s discovered her love for blogging. Learn more about her here and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube.

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