During the 20th century, the look of furniture has changed along with changing fashions.
The Arts and Crafts Movement (1880s-c.1940) was a philosophical art movement that developed in Britain. It was an attempt to create designs that were practical yet simple, and that used raw materials with respect. Nature was the main source of inspiration for patterns and designs. Pieces of furniture generally had high craftsmanship, although they varied from highly decorative to the very plain.
The Regent Street firm Liberty & Co. was one of the most prominent retailers for Arts and Crafts furniture. The company often commissioned independent designers, and Liberty’s had its own furniture workshops. Another London store that sold Arts and Crafts furniture was Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road.
One of the biggest influences during the 20th century has been the notion of Modernism, whch began as a move away from Arts and Crafts. Modernists believed in functionalism, industrial design, technology and machinery to create a better world. Modernism continues to play a significant role in furniture design today.
Modernist style uses clean lines and utilitarian design, and turns raw materials into an art form. It is a minimalist look that comes from the design style known as the “International Style”. Modernists reduced designs to geometric shapes and used industrial materials such as glass, steel and chromium to create functional objects. In many suburban homes in the 1930s, kitchenware and other everyday objects were often plain and angular in shape.
It was not until the 1930s that the modernist style became truly accepted in the United Kingdom. At this time, a group of significant designers promoted a sleek and stylish Modernism in the UK. This included the Russian-born Serge Chermayeff, who designed many of the interior fittings of the BBC headquarters Broadcasting House, at Portland Place, which opened in 1933.
British home furnishings in the 1930s often consisted of large-scale furniture in high-polished woods, for example dining tables, heavy sideboards and the ubiquitous cocktail cabinet.
Like many other essential goods, furniture was quickly made a rationed item after the outbreak of the Second World War. It was made available only to newlyweds and those who had been bombed out of their houses. The Government introduced the Utility Scheme for Furniture in 1943. The aim was to ensure a supply of good quality furniture at controlled prices. There were only 20 standard designs, which were simple, functional, lacking in decoration but solidly constructed.
However, the Utility furniture proved unpopular with the public. For those used to patterned surfaces and reproduction furniture, the utility style was difficult to accept. A black market in illegally carved and decorated Utility furniture was reputed to develop as a result in the scheme. In 1948 the design restrictions were relaxed and eventually the scheme was halted on 1 January 1953.