High Street Heroes: Mid Century Design for the Mainstream

High Street Heroes: Mid Century Design for the Mainstream

Today with heightened interest in vintage and mid century design, British high street retailers are increasingly taking inspiration from the period. Marks & Spencer has teamed up with Habitat founder Terence Conran to create a range of homeware inspired by mid century design; and as well as championing the mid century design of Kartell, whose plastic furniture made its name in the 1960s and 1970s, John Lewis recently added to its exclusive Chiltern range by Ercol. Here we take a look at some British high street brands who have their heritage in mid century design.

Mainstream Mid Century Design: Habitat

Inspired by trips to the continent, Terence Conran founded Habitat in 1964 and stocked his pioneering stores with the best in European mid century designs from the likes of Eero Saarinen, Yrjo Kukkapuro and Vico Magestretti. New materials and methods of production saw futuristic plastic Arkana dining sets, tulip chairs and Anna Castelli tables become focal points in the homes of a generation who had more disposable income than any before them.

British potteries T. G. Green and Midwinter both produced mid century homewares for Habitat during the 1970s, and now Conran’s own Maclamp and the Crayonne collection made from ABS Plastics, are among Habitat’s most popular pieces of mid century design.

Mainstream Mid Century Design: Heal’s

The high street championed the work of exciting new designers who were to become the driving forces behind iconic mid century design. Lucienne Day, whose famous ‘Calyx’ design was featured at the Festival of Britain, was commissioned to produce textile prints for Heal’s Fabrics during the 1950s and 1960s.

It’s reported that Heal’s was initially sceptical about the avant-garde style of ‘Calyx’, but on the back of its commercial and critical success – ‘Calyx’ received an International Design Award – bought and produced more than seventy of Lucienne Day’s designs over a 20-year period. Heal’s other fabrics by designers like Howard Carter, Peter Hall, Philip Turney and Anne Fehlow are also much sought after pieces of mid century design today.

Mainstream Mid Century Design: Marks & Spencer

Marks & Spencer was another high street giant to commission textiles by a female designer prominent on London’s avant-garde art scene in the post-war period. The company archive holds an array of mid century design by painter and illustrator Kathleen Guthrie. Like Lucienne Day, Guthrie created stylised natural motifs in the form of floral and leaf outlines. However, it is likely that these were used more for fashion than homewares.

During the 1960s and 1970s, much of the textiles, kitchen and dining ware sold by M&S was decorated with bold and bright floral ‘pop art’ prints, making the forms of contemporary art accessible to all.


Mainstream Mid Century Design: Woolworths

A cheaper alternative to the department stores of the day, retail brand Woolworths was perhaps the unsung hero of affordable mid century design. Much of the 1950s atomic wire metal work, such as coat hooks, fruit bowls and magazine racks, could be bought from the store, and designs by Clarice Cliff were retailed through Woolworths from the 1930s up until the ’50s. But it is the Woolworths ceramics of the mid-1950s and ’60s that remain of most interest to collectors of mid century design today.

Tom Arnold and Enid Seeney’s monochrome ‘Homemaker’ dining sets allowed customers on tighter budgets to buy into the aesthetic of designer homemaking without paying designer prices. The Ridgeway ceramics boasted stylised images of some of the most iconic furniture of the time, including Robin Day’s reclining armchair and the ‘boomerang’, or ‘kidney’, table and is high collectable to fans of mid century design today.

Although Woolworths has closed its doors and Habitat is no longer a force on the high street, the mid century design they championed in the vibrant post-war decades live on through the high street chains that now look to the past for inspiration.