The combination of Americans returning from war, the rise of atomic energy and the race to be the first in space made an incredible impact on architecture and design in the post-war years that still see (and love) today.
Mid-Century Modern can be broken down into many smaller movements that collectively followed the same design principles as MCM, but with more specific influences. The Space Age, also known as the Atomic Age, is one of those sub-categories, although that does not mean it did not play a major role in the world of design for over a decade in the United States and Europe.
Why was the space aesthetic so popular?
To understand why there was such a huge swing in popularity toward all things futuristic, you have to take a step back and look at the socio-economic state of the world during this period. The end of WWII left much of the world in a deep financial slump further degraded by a drop in manufacturing and production. People had little money to spend and the materials previously used to build and furnish homes were scarce and expensive.
On a human level, the world was desperate for a new start – and a brighter future. The war effort around the world had immensely helped in developing new technology. Many had become fascinated by the prospect of nuclear power – an energy source with seemingly endless possibilities that would make their lives better. To add to the atomic fever, there was also a growing competition between two world powers, the US and the USSR, in reaching an entirely new frontier, space. Hope and excitement in new possibilities reigned as the country strived to look past the destruction of WWII.
Bringing Space Age Design Home
Along with the war effort came a lack of available materials domestically. To fill this void, new – and often cheaper – alternatives were created. When the war was over many of these innovative materials became more readily available – as did the possibilities of using them in a variety of new ways. New age materials like fiberglass, plastic, Plexiglass, molded plywood, Lucite, acrylics, and more opened up a world of exciting, new possibilities for furniture designers.
Furniture designers, just like the rest of the population, were fascinated with the Space Race. In 1957, the USSR surprised the world with the launch of Sputnik 1, Earth’s first artificial satellite. Sputnik 1’s minimalistic, futuristic look was nothing short of iconic and would be a strong influence throughout the entire Atomic Age craze.
Space Age-inspired Pieces
The Tulip Table & Chairs by Eero Saarinen
The Tulip Table with matching pedestal chairs was hugely popular during the Space Age era. The streamlined design made the set much easy to produce and the minimalistic look was visually-interesting yet quite functional. The Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen constructed the first few production runs of these tables and chairs from aluminum and fiberglass. However, later models became available in a wide range of materials with tabletops made from wood, marble, stone, and plastic. The Tulip table and chairs have remained popular well after the Space Age as their sleek look and simple design have complemented the aesthetics of many style and design movements that followed.
The Panton Chair by Verner Panton
The S-shaped Panton Chair was a staple of Space Age design as its ergonomic contours were an instant attention-grabber. When it was created by Verner Panton and Swiss furniture company Vitra in the early 1960s, it was a major breakthrough for furniture designers as it showcased an entirely new way to use molded plastics. These iconic chairs came in a huge array of vibrant colors, another major characteristic of Space Age design. While subdued earth tones and floral patterns were the top picks of the ’40s and ’50s, the Space Age movement made striking, bold colors popular – adding yet another layer of interest to minimalistic furniture pieces.
Propeller Coffee Table by Knut Hesterberg
With no more than a glance, it’s evident that the Propeller Coffee Table, designed by German sculptor and furniture designer Knut Hesterberg, was influenced by the aerodynamic look of airplanes and spaceships. The organic curves of its polished aluminum base and simple, round glass top made it look more sculpture-like than table – a perfect combination of graceful form while still being user-friendly.
Djinn Loveseat by Olivier Mourgue
Numerous styles of the famous Djinn chair were created during the years 1964 and 1965, including loveseat and ottoman versions. Olivier Mourgue, a French designer, created the Djinn line to highlight shape and informality. (In fact, “Djinn” is a reference to an Islamic spirit that is capable of changing its shape.) These organic, and flowing-shaped seats were at once both intriguing to look at and inviting to sit in.
Today, finding an original Djinn is no easy feat. Their simple construction from stretch jersey material and polyether foam made them reasonably easy to produce, but overly subject to rapid deterioration. In spite of their lack of durability, the ephemeral, playful nature of these pieces was a signature of the Space Age as post-war consumers were almost magnetically drawn to furnishings that were fun over pieces that were built to last.
Brass Sputnik Chandelier Inspired by Gino Sarfatti
The Sputnik Chandelier (and its many, many different versions) is, quite frankly, the poster child for the Atomic Age of Mid-Century Modern design. These chandeliers make striking additions to any room’s interior design, with arms of varying lengths jutting out from a small central orb at chaotic, yet methodical, angles. Today, there are likely hundreds of different styles of the Sputnik Chandelier made from a wide variety of materials – from steel and glass to brass and plastic.
The Italian engineer Gino Sarfatti is credited with creating this style of chandelier – although, when he designed it, the USSR’s Sputnik 1 was not his inspiration. In fact, Sarfatti’s first versions of the Sputnik Chandelier were manufactured almost 20 years before the USSR launched Earth’s first satellite!
Pia Glass and Silver Steel Coffee Table
Chrome was another crowd-favorite during this period. Not only did it easily translate as modern and space-inspired, it was also especially eye-catching and could easily be included in interior designs heavy with vibrant colors or even those that were dramatically monochromatic. The reflective chrome was popular for its clean lines and curving, organic shapes.
The KD 29 Desk Lamp by Joe Colombo for Kartell
The KD 29 Desk Lamp had an instantly recognizable futuristic look and was constructed from a vibrant colored base, in this case, fire engine red, and a milky white plastic orb for a shade. Beyond its obvious Space Age aesthetic, the lower base of the lamp doubled as extra storage with divided compartments to place pens and other office accessories. Space Age designers were heavily drawn to pieces that looked nothing like their predecessors, which accounts for why this lamp was so popular throughout the ‘60s and well into the ‘70s.