American Style Through the Decades: The Forties

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The 1940s were a tumultuous time. It is impossible to understand those years outside of the context of WWII. The war not only defined the decade but from a design perspective, split it virtually in half. During the first half of the decade, new design was halted, as supply shortages and rationing demanded that all available resources — material and otherwise — be directed towards the war effort…

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Socially, the decade featured a similar split. From 1940-45, the world rearranged itself: many Europeans immigrated to America to avoid the atrocities being carried out in their home countries, and American women left the home to fill the employment void created by the men now serving in the armed forces. From 1940-1945, life and design were in a 1930s holding pattern, a breath-holding state that would not end until the war did.

The post-war forties can best be described as a period of recovery and ramping up. Factories that had once manufactured war necessities retooled for the industries of the future. Women returned to the home, and recent European immigrants began to make their mark in the worlds of art, architecture and culture.

A housing shortage and a baby boom were created, and single-family homes in the suburbs became the American ideal. Magazines such as House Beautiful, Sunset, and Better Homes and Gardens established themselves as bibles for modern domestic living.

In Los Angeles, The First Postwar House, was designed and built as an example of the perfect suburban home. Function and economy of scale were valued, and suburbanites embraced open-flow floor plans and indoor/outdoor living. New appliances such as refrigerators, freezers and dishwashers place renewed emphasis on kitchen layout and efficiency.

Architecturally, Cape Cod, Colonial, and Ranch style “kit homes” from manufactures such as Sears, Liberty, Aladdin and Gordon Van Tine saw a jump in popularity, as build-it-yourself homes became a viable and affordable option for middle-class families yearning to leave the cities and the farms in and on which they grew up. Design-wise, Art Deco and Jazz influences were tempered by traditionalism and an emerging taste for modernism.

According to Pam Kueber, of Retro Renovation, interiors during this period can be defined according to 8 general characteristics:

1. Innocent – Many interiors exhibit a real sweetness. Most of the country is not affluent and therefore shuns material excess.
2. Sentimental – After years of sacrifice during the war, Americans are thankful for what they do have. Family and loved ones are to be cherished.
3. Sunny – An optimistic and grateful nation places more value on non-material pursuits. Money is tight and interiors are simpler.
4. Sanitary – In an era in which polio is still a threat, white represents cleanliness and is often used in kitchens.
5. Patriotic – Red, white and blue becomes a popular color scheme as a newly -powerful nation pulls together to create a brighter future. Colors in general are richer, and more jewel-toned than they will be in the fifties.
6. Traditional – Wood furniture is heavily represented, especially European-influenced dark wood styles and the blond wood styles popularized by Heywood Wakefield.
7. Hollywood Glamour – The forties were a golden age for movies, and Americans sought to re-create the glamour of the silver screen in their own homes. Bedrooms and living rooms tended to be formal and very pulled-together.
8. Streamline-Deco-Jazz Age – Stylistic holdovers from the twenties and thirties, touches of these styles are most prevalent in the first half of the decade.

Key elements of Forties design:
• Linoleum!
• A strong, jewel-toned color palette
• Wall-to-wall carpet
• Tufted stools, chairs and sofas
• Abstract artwork
• Blond wood furniture
• Large scale floral, striped and plaid wallpapers
• Chintz draperies
• Colonial furniture
• Floral slipcovers
• Ruffled and scalloped edges
• Built-in furniture and banquettes
• Wood paneling
• Small print hooked rugs
• Knotty pine
• Bamboo furniture
• Pennsylvania Dutch/ folkloric details
• Space saving kitchen amenities
• High contrast bathroom tile
• Glass block
• Chenille bath rugs

Radio was American culture’s lifeblood in the 1940’s, and televisions would not become household fixtures until the end of the decade. Likewise, color photography would not become commonplace until the 1960’s. As a result, most of the records that we have of interiors from this period are either black and white photographs and films or color renderings and advertisements (as shown).

First row:
1.(A) Elizabeth Taylor at her color-coordinated dressing table of satin, ruffles and roses; (B) A blue bedroom featured in House Beautiful magazine’s “Bride’s House – 1940”; (C) A glamorous Hollywood-style bedroom with tailored bedspread and floating dressing table; (D) A 1948 Armstrong ad showcases an ultra-functional kitchen and home office layout.
2. 1945 Armstrong ad features an amazingly organized “working pantry” that hides away when not in use.
3. This Dorothy Draper design was featured in House Beautiful in 1942 and highlights a floral slipcovered living room set with wall-to-wall carpet.
4. A modern color scheme of peachy yellow, rust, steel blue and gray. Note the sliding glass doors that stack at the end of the tub, and the scale that folds up into the wall.
5. A classic combination: eggplant, gray and yellow with inlaid linoleum floors.

Second Row:
1. The cover of the October 1949 issue of Better Homes and Gardens features a living space with a pass-thru window of plywood paneling designed to create contrast and save on plaster costs.
2. An American Gas Association ad showcases a built-in breakfast booth and convenient fold-down countertop.
3. From Armstrong, an exuberantly decadent bathroom of gold tile and black linoleum. Note how the built-in dressing table is used as a screen for the tub.
4. This restrained palette was inspired by the reproduction Cezanne above the sofa.
5. Another Dorothy Draper design. This one features gray walls (how timely!) and kelly green seating.

Third Row:
1. Sweet wallpaper and a scalloped valance set the stage for this purple and green bedroom with twin beds (!)
2. A more traditional, comfortable look featuring antique furniture, Dutch flowers and folkloric birds.
3. The epitome of 1940’s bathroom design, this bathroom has it all: pink, swans, scallops and black linoleum.
4. A classic combination of red, yellow and green, featuring linoleum floors and countertops. Note the desk tucked away in the corner.
5. Scallops anyone? A key element of 1940’s design gets the patriotic treatment in this fanciful red, white and blue kitchen.

Fourth Row:
1. An over-the-top confection of pink and green. Patio chairs make an indoor appearance and the entire room is abloom.
2. The March 1942 issue of Better Homes and Gardens features a look popular in the early forties: wood paneling, antique furniture and a hooked rug.
3. A good representation of the forties color palette (from Church’s Toilet Seat Company!).
4. A handy color guide from Kroehler furniture company pairs living room suite colors with wall colors, rug colors and drapery patterns for coordinated perfection (complete with wrinkled cellophane wrapper).
5. A snapshot of forties design. Highlights include a three-legged, award-winning dressing chair by Oscar Stonorov and Willo von Moltke, a Paul Frankl sofa and pair of lounge chairs, a dining table by Tommi Parzinger, a surrealist lamp by Heifetz Co., a Deco drop-front desk with side cabinets, a Grosfeld House slipper chair, a flip-top console table by Johan Tapp featured in Volume XI, Number 4 of Architectural Digest, and saffron lounge chair from Heywood Wakefield.

Images: 1. A. House Beautiful B. House Beautiful C. Retro Renovation D. American Home Magazine via Mid Century Home Style 2. Armstrong via Mid Century Home Style 3. House Beautiful 4. Briggs Plumbing via Mid Century Home Style 5. American Home Magazine via Mid Century Home Style 6. Better Homes and Gardens via Galimauphry 7. American Gas Association via Mid Century Style Home 8. Armstrong via Mid Century Home Style 9. How to build Color Schemes via Galimauphry 10. House Beautiful 11. American Home Magazine via Retro Renovation 12. Armstrong via Mid Century Style Home 13. Armstrong via Mid Century Home Style 14. Ladies Home Journal via Mid Century Home Style 15. Armstrong via Mid Century Home Style 16. Armstrong via Mid Century Home Style 17. Better Homes and Gardens via Galimauphry 18.Church Plumbing via Retro Renovation 19. Kroehler via Retro Renovation and Cul-De-Sac Shack 20. 1st Dibs