Plastic, Plywood, and Lucite, Oh My!

You probably don’t give much thought to the furniture in your home. Maybe you have a favorite chair or sofa, but chances are, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where it came from or why it looks the way it does. But every piece of furniture in your home is a real and tangible product of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history. Like everything else, furniture has followed trends and fashions with roots in social attitudes and major historical events.

People nowadays tend to furnish their homes based on aesthetic over functionality. I know I spend a lot more time thinking about how my home will look, rather than the practicality of what is in it. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Having the luxury to choose form over function is a very recent thing in the long run[1].

Not so long ago—that is, before the twentieth century—most furniture was handmade. For most people, it wasn’t something you would really buy on a whim—it took hours of painstaking craftsmanship and intense labor to produce. A well-made rocking chair would set you back a few hundred dollars in today’s money. If you were buying something that expensive, it needed to be high quality and functional. This is not to say that no one before the twentieth century cared about the aesthetics of their home—far from it—but for the average person, functionality generally came before looks.

However, in the post-WW2 world, luxury came a little easier. Mass-production was everywhere, and so were new, cheap materials like plastic, plywood, and lucite. It was easier than ever to create furniture of all shapes and colors, and at a much lower cost[2]! With the postwar revival of international trade, imported housewares were cheaper and more exciting than American goods. While there was a greater diversity of products on the market, they tended to follow the same trends and conventions. 

After the rationing and upheaval of the war, luxuries and conformity were welcome guests in American homes. In the strictly assimilated culture of the 1950s, mass-produced homes and furniture were a relief, and a reflection of the “American Dream”. Deviation and individuality were seen as threats to the fragile order that middle-class America had worked so hard to create. In an age of simple, clear ideas and a return to basics, interior design followed the same rules of conformity[3].

Popular furniture featured clean, simple lines and cohesive color schemes. Scandinavian color schemes of muted nature tones could be seen in every suburb and cul-de-sac[4]. These ideas and styles permeated throughout the country, all the way out to rural farms and towns—where our story picks up.

Andalusia was a monument to the past, even in the 1950s. It was a symbol of the opposition to conformity. Not everyone wanted to or could afford to fit in. Flannery was never one to sit back and follow the crowd, and her home reflected that. Not everyone could afford to purchase all-new furniture, either, and with a chronic illness and an unsteady flow of money, the O’Connor household held tight to things of the past. 

While homes in bigger cities were eschewing nineteenth-century decor for chrome and steel, the little Greek Revival farmhouse clung tightly to its Edwardian furniture. Eventually, as modern furniture began to pervade the outskirts of the country, the interior design of Andalusia took on an anachronistic blend of old and new. 

Andalusia Collection: 2018.1.666

Take this intricate pre-war rocking chair, for instance. Its dark wood is meticulously carved, resulting in a beautiful if complex design. The wood is thick and securely connected, meant to last a long time. It is a symbol of luxury without knowing hardship, meant for relaxing.

Andalusia Collection: 2018.1.719

This post-war chair, however, is much different. It has simpler lines and a cleaner design, meant to be displayed with others of its kind. Its color is bright and vibrant, and its seat is made of artificial materials. It could easily be mass-produced. It is a little less comfort-oriented than the older chair. Clearly meant for sitting, but with slightly less cushioning and comfort—the reduced luxury of the postwar era.  

This juxtaposition of eras can be seen throughout Andalusia. Whether a natural result of differing design senses or a defiant anomaly in an age of conformity, the furniture in the farmhouse is nothing short of interesting.     


[1]Alan Taylor, “World War II: After the War,” The Atlantic, October 30, 2011, accessed September 10, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2011/10/world-war-ii-after-the-war/100180/.

[2]Susan Freinkel, “A Brief History of Plastic’s Conquest of the World,” Scientific American, May 29, 2011, accessed September 10, 2019, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-brief-history-of-plastic-world-conquest/.

[3]Taylor, “World War II: After the War.”

[4]“The Postwar Economy: 1945-1960,” 2012, accessed September 10, 2019, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/outlines/history-1994/postwar-america/the-postwar-economy-1945-1960.php.

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