Everything is a reaction against the past: we against our parents, Beatniks against conformists, Expressionists against Impressionists, youth against age. This is true, too, in design. By the 1930s, Modernism had firmly taken hold of the world, and we as a society were quite finished with the starchy, buttoned-up, heavily brocaded Victorian era, and all that would imply.
Poured concrete in construction eliminated load-bearing walls, allowing big interior spaces and big windows through which to view them. Plastics were born, and mass-production increased. The Bauhaus swept away ornament and embraced the beauty of functionality. Color could be determined by theory, not dictated by history, status, seemliness, wealth, or rarity of materials.
Stylistically, there were several design influences at play in the 1930s, depending on your reference points: Frank Lloyd Wright (Fallingwater; the Johnson Wax Headquarters, a prairie color palette), Corbusier (anti-bourgeoisie, color as theory), Art Deco (furniture in the 20s, architecture in the 30s), Hollywood films (from Grand Hotel to Oz), and MoMA. But this was also the time of the Great Depression and the run-up to World War II, so perhaps color for interiors were somewhat muted in keeping with the times.
Modernism’s simplicity and open spaces called for a much more subdued palette of pale tints then the heavy pattern-on-pattern schemes and rich colors of previous generations. This was the machine age, after all, streamlined and pre-fabricated — dark was out, light was in. As these illustrations suggest (shown with "before" inserts), here are some of the dominant colors of the 30s: jade, celadon and seafoam green, pale gold and grassy tans, pale silvered almond and walnut. I don’t see a lot of red or warm tones in this decade, nor saturation or drama. And if we want to let the avant-garde into the dialogue, I think we’d add a zip of Corbusier cobalt into the mix, and well as a glam Art Deco plum or lavender.
As we move back through time in this series of articles, it becomes increasingly difficult to find good photographs or visuals with which to illustrate a general point. So I was delighted to come across Patrick Baty from U.K. based Paints and Papers to nudge me along. The company offers a new 1930s paint palette, and their website is a good resource for further research.