1939: before and after

Today, The Dabbler takes a sidelong look at war starting with Barendina Smedley, who stumbles across a less reported view of a momentous year.

A few days ago, a battered copy of the Studio Year Book turned up here. The date on the much-sellotaped cover was 1939.

To move beyond that cover is to embark upon what feels like an act of low-cost, high-speed, deluxe time travel. Here, set out in elegantly austere spreads, mostly monochrome but punctuated here and there with assertive, rather oddly-faded and hence surreal colour, is much of the best and the worst of the late 1930s, viewed through the equivocal lense of domestic architecture, design and decoration.

On one hand, there is all the usual planning, illustrated ‘schemes’ complete with floorplans and diagrams, functionalism, aspirations towards social engineering, and progress apparently marketed as an end in itself. But then on the other hand, there is style, wit, eclecticism, variety and complexity, a desire to balance comfort with fun, utility continuously undermined by the assertion of individual taste.

Inside the front cover is an advertisement. Under the banner ‘Brighten your Home’ the reader is first tempted by the promise of abundant illustrations, then promised ‘In addition to the illustrations there will be news from the world’s art centres and a comprehensive review of the applied arts and handicrafts and new contributions to gracious living and cultivated taste.’ The price of an annual subscription is ’28s. Inland, 30s. Abroad’.

There is also the appearance of optimism — and not only in those ‘before and after’ sequences, where the architectural données and heirlooms of the past are assimilated into that frail and heartbreaking thing, the thoroughly cutting-edge style concept, either.

For where the act of time travel breaks down is precisely the point at which the present-day reader tries to reconstruct what those architects, designers, editors, copywriters, photographers, typographers and advertising men could possibly have been thinking. Even allowing for rather long lead-times, did the people who put the Studio Yearbook 1939 together really imagine that this brave new world of modernist bungalows, rational kitchen schemes, unvarnished oak, plate glass and aluminium detail was going to last out the next few months, let alone the next few years?

For the Studio Yearbook 1939 portrays — perhaps ‘invokes’ or ‘aspires towards’ might be a better way to put it — a peaceable kingdom of forward-looking visual and material culture. It isn’t as if national boundaries vanish here. On the contrary, locally-inflected style is feted as gaily as modernist internationalism. ‘Re-orientation in the German House’ does not look exactly like ‘Houses in California’, any more than ‘The Modern House in Italy’ is identical to ‘Modern Houses in Central Europe’ — although it must be said that the overall tone is less one of declamatory speech-making than friendly if somewhat competitive conversation.

No, the oddity here is the apparent thoroughness with which these carefully-concocted modernist spaces have been insulated against wars and rumours of wars. If, two thousand years hence, the Studio Yearbook were all historians had by way of source material for 1939, they would be justified in regarding that year as one of notable stability, material prosperity, international cooperation and geopolitical civility. ‘Gracious living and cultivated taste,’ as that advertisement puts it, really does seem to be the order of the day. Whereas the start of  a hugely destructive near-global conflict doesn’t seem likely at all.

And that, I suppose, is the real problem with time travel. Here in 2011, it’s surely impossible to turn the pages of the Studio Yearbook 1939 without wondering what happened to all those immaculate white carpets, plate-glass windows, dining tables elaborately set for leisure and indulgence, imaginative kitchen appliances, eggshell-thin porcelain stamped with whimsical motifs, cocktail counters, vitrious mosaic-murals — or indeed, as far as that goes, without speculating what happened to the men and women who designed, produced or documented them.

How, though, did it seem in 1939? Try though we might, look though we must, in the end we simply cannot quite make our way into those pictured rooms — those carefully-choreographed spaces — perpetually unpeopled, still, silent, balanced with something that might be either utter idiocy or perhaps a certain magnificence on what we, at least, now know to be the edge of the abyss.

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9 thoughts on “1939: before and after

  1. Gaw
    March 14, 2011 at 10:36

    I’ve occasionally wondered what happened to businesses that relied on consumer optimism and the availability of discretionary spending during the war (homewares businesses being a case in point). Did they go under? Were they moth-balled with landlords, etc. taking a tolerant view? Did they reinvent themselves? I believe Heals reinvented themselves but had the space to do so as they owned their freehold. Does anyone know of an entrepreneurial history of WW2 with the focus on consumer businesses?

  2. jameshamilton1968@gmail.com'
    March 14, 2011 at 10:57

    I can’t answer Gaw’s question, although I’d venture to suggest that an annual dated 1939 would have gone to press during the brief period of relief and euphoria that followed the September 1938 Munich Agreement.

    Chelsea Reference Library in the Kings Road might well have a second copy of this – and if so, it’ll carry an acquisition stamp and a date.

    Of course, just how an interiors magazine would in practice reflect war fears is interesting in itself. This might well be how – by presenting an alternative: an inventory of all that war might lose.

  3. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    March 14, 2011 at 12:05

    A fine post.

    The ads remind me of those photos of smiling young soldiers heading off to the front – unaware of impending doom. Always poignant to see optimistic people ignorant of their fate, when you know it, and makes you wonder if you’re in the same boat.

    You can get a small, trivial glimpse of this on the motorway. As you pass a big jam on the other side you drive along and eventually see the still-flowing traffic heading in blissful ignorance towards their long wait, and you think “Poor sods, they don’t know what they’re in for”. And then you think, “I hope they’re not saying the same thing about me….”

  4. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    March 14, 2011 at 12:30

    Gaw, it would depend upon the nature of the business, if simply service industry traders then many disappeared, if they were manufacturing and the capacity could be converted to war related production then they survived, the period of austerity after the war gave them the greatest problem..lack of materials. Baker Perkins, the largest manufacturer of food production machinery converted it’s Bedewell site to bomb making then back again to bakery equipment without a pause for breath.

  5. Worm
    March 14, 2011 at 15:50

    “Does anyone know of an entrepreneurial history of WW2 with the focus on consumer businesses?”

    would be worth asking that question of Joe Moran, seems like the sort of thing he’d know about

    top post by the way!

  6. b.smedley@dsl.pipex.com'
    March 14, 2011 at 16:22

    Thanks, all.

    Gaw, the one side of the prewar UK homewares industry about which I know anything is porcelain. Since ceramics have a surprising number of industrial and military applications, it was easy enough to turn production over to wartime needs – often keeping much of the management, staff etc in place. As Malty implies, though, lack of materials was a real problem once the war was over. For obvious if regrettable reasons, there was plenty of redecorating to be done at that point – probably for psychological reasons every bit as much as practical ones – but rarely the resources to do as much of it as everyone might have liked.

    Meanwhile I found James’s reflections particularly thought-provoking. What’s the best response to a war that no one particularly wants, but that everyone expects? It’s all rather grim, though. When the war ended, Wedgwood could limp back into production, John Fowler could develop theatrical ways of appearing to make more out of less, etc, etc – but I find it hard to believe that all those who appeared in the 1939 year book – the central Europeans are a particular concern – made it though to 1945 in good order. All of which makes that yearbook simultaneously a bit frothy but also rather elegiac.

  7. tobyash@hotmail.com'
    Toby Ash
    March 14, 2011 at 18:35

    What struck me about the book is the bedroom image. It doesn’t look like the 1930s, more like the late 1950s or early 1960s, especially the white bedside tables and pink walls. It’s very forward looking, much like Britain in the early 1960s. Maybe the bedroom scheme was a result of the post-Munich sense of optimism, a mood the country wouldn’t experience again for another 20 years. Perhaps we should always gauge the mood of the nation by looking at the cover of Homes & Garden!

  8. info@shopcurious.com'
    March 14, 2011 at 21:38

    An enjoyable post, Barendina – the remodelled dining area wouldn’t look out of place today.

  9. b.smedley@dsl.pipex.com'
    March 15, 2011 at 11:44

    Relevant both to Toby and Susan’s comments: it’s an oddity of this particular year book that many of the designs would, if seen out of context, be difficult to place – some, certainly, looking more like the 1950s than the 1930s – or indeed even like what was regarded as high style in less obvious parts of the UK or USA, circa 1970.

    Did war ‘set back’ design that far? I find it hard to come to any other conclusion – stopping on the way, though, of course, to note to all concerned that this is hardly the worst consequence of our mid-century troubles.

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