Atomic/Space Age Design





The Atomic/Space age in design flourished from the late 1940’s t0 the 1960’s.  It was a reflection of popular culture’s obsession with the splitting of the atom and what that meant for the future.  In spite of the threat of nuclear war, there was also a sense of optimism and the belief that science was the key to prosperity. ” The splitting of the atom, simple biological forms, and even astronomical discoveries caught the imagination of artists in every field of endeavor.” (source)   This was seen in all aspects of design as the preceding photos demonstrate.  Some of the characteristics of the period are: free form or curved lines, such as the amoeba shaped table above, scientific and atomic motifs as in this classic bark cloth images bark cloth  or this wacky lamp.

Braxton Yancy

Braxton and Yancy

Legs were short,  tapered, often with brass tips and some were metal and hairpin-shaped as in this picture: vintage_mid___century_modern_tiki_lounge_barstools_bar_stools_with_hairpin_legs_1_thumb2_lgw

New materials such as plastic, melamine, formica and laminate were employed everywhere in a colour palette that was either pastel like pink, turquoise, pale yellow or bold colours such as orange, bright yellow and red.  The spare, functional design of the Scandinavian movement can also be seen in the lack of ornamentation, and lighter woods. This dresser/sideboard is the perfect example:

DSCF2185  It is teak and melamine, has a space age motif on the top, the colour is described as malachite ( a hot colour trend for 2013) and it has the ubiquitous stick legs, that in this case flare outward. Noguchi’s iconic glass coffee table, the Eames leather and plywood lounge chair, Sarrinen’s plastic tulip chair,  Adrian Pearsall’s gondola shaped sofas, all of these put an emphasis on the organic and functional. Presently, interest in all things retro from mid-century is very high.  A search on Craigslist or Kijiji will show that vintage teak furniture, especially if it is Danish made, is selling for a lot more than traditional style mahogany or walnut.  The retail furniture world is also reflecting this in that the furniture being marketed for young professionals is a re-interpretation of mid-century style.  What seemed dated and 60-ish a decade ago, is now hip.

5-29-12 atomic 014


Having grown up in this period, I have a nostalgia for a lot of this design and admit to watching Mad Men very closely for both the furniture and the clothing.  I am particularly fond of 1950’s dressers; there are quite a few of them around at garage sales or online and they can usually be bought quite cheaply if the owner is not a collector.  What is great about them is that they are very well made in blond mahogany or birch, have a streamlined, slightly different shape and usually have atomic style handles.  Mengel furniture had a line called “Permanized” and they weren’t kidding because most of these sets are in terrific shape 60 years later.  Above is an example of one of these dressers with chevron handles that evoke images of flight.   Or this one that has flying saucer knobs.  5483663004_21971cc615

I recently painted an end table that was all right in its original state as you can see in the picture but it did have  a large nick on one side.  These tables are quite common and some of them are all laminate.  This is walnut, made in Montreal and is certainly Atomic in its side design with the brass bars and curved lines.  I painted it in Barcelona orange; it is a departure from the original but the colour is in keeping with its era.


Thanks to Revival Vintage Studio and their excellent article on the Atomic era.

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Glitter, Glue and Paint

Campaign style furniture

campaign dresser                                                                                      There are some beautiful campaign style dressers popping up on the internet as makeovers.  Look at these lovely painted versions in very bold colours.  Campaign style furniture was designed to be portable or “knock down”so that officers could take it with them when they went to war.  The brass edges and classic brass handles that both these dresser have were actually for practical purposes. The edges were reinforcement and the handles were used for looping straps through.  The furniture reflected the officer’s stature and was often of very high quality sometimes even made by Sheraton or Chippendale. An officer expected to have many of the conveniences of home when he went to far off places.  It was also ingenious in its design; there were, for example, chairs and tables whose legs either folded up or were removable and packed neatly into something.  The furniture lost its connection to the military in the 20th century when modern warfare changed how officers travelled but it has never lost its place in popular design.  The dark wood, usually mahogany or teak, and the brass fittings suggest luxury and history.


The most popular piece of furniture historically was the Wellington chest.  It was a tall, narrow chest of drawers; the right hand side of the frame overlapped the drawers and locked. Apparently, the Victorians came up with all kinds of secret compartments for this type of dresser.    Here is an example :   plymouth_auction_525                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Another simple but beautiful small table is what the French call a “gueridon”.  This is often a small round table supported by columns or a tripod of legs.  Campaign style ones have hinges or look like they would fold.  This picture is a good example:


My mother-in-law had a very nice folding Butler’s table that she would set up occasionally for a party.  It served as a bar and had a carved mahogany tray on the top and folding legs, something like this example:


Campaign furniture has also contributed a lot of folding chairs that we still use.  The Roorkhee chair is the forerunner of the portable canvas chair that goes into its own bag that most people use when they go camping or to an outdoor event.  You can still buy a Roorkhee chair made in India by  J&R Guram that is rosewood, canvas and buffalo hide.  It looks like this:Roorkhee_Chair_4c469a08ef384

According to Wikipedia, another popular folding chair was the Paragon chair which has had many modern versions, such as what is known today as a Butterfly chair.

My favourite pieces have to be the desks.  They usually have x-style legs and are simple but elegant designs like this version:


The Bombay Company which has made its name by making reproductions of fine English furniture has had many versions of campaign furniture.  The name of the company was chosen because it conjures up images of the British Raj and classic wood furniture.

I recently purchased 2 end tables off Kijji that I was going to paint in AS Old White because the tops are scratched.  However, I like them so much in their original wood that I probably won’t do anything to them.  They are a modern version of campaign style as they have Parsons legs but do have the brass edges. IMG_0480

Waterfall Dressers



These are two waterfall dressers that I have recently painted. The term Waterfall is given to a style of furniture produced from the 1920’s through the 40’s.  The shape of the pieces has a rounded horizontal edge usually with ridges that resemble a waterfall.  The wood has a rich warm look and the handles are Art Deco in design, often a combination of Bakelite and brass.  These are good examples:


You can see the rounded waterfall edge, the great handles and the book matched veneer on the drawers.  The veneer was usually stained mahogany and had a spray shellac finish that was glossy but vulnerable to water and perfume marks. There is a lovely waterfall used as a bathroom vanity from but it must have had a urethane coating put on it because of the water.  You can see it here.

A lot of people mistakenly believe that because of the style and the shiny, interesting wood pattern that waterfall dressers are fine furniture and valuable but except for some that were initially made as more expensive pieces, waterfalls were actually mass-produced with cheaper materials.  A closer look will show that the frame is plywood and that the drawers, though heavy and dovetailed are also plywood.  Plywood was a new material in the 1920’s and it allowed furniture makers to create curves in wood that beforehand were only the work of fine craftsmen. Waterfall funiture has all the hallmarks of the Art Deco movement which began in France in the early 20th century but really gained popularity in the 1920’s.  Its emphasis was on streamlined symmetrical shapes and geometric design; it was influenced by popular culture such as the discovery of King Tut’s tomb which created a craze for all things Egyptian and cubism in art.  The materials used were modern such as aluminum, stainless steel and Bakelite.  Many of the skyscrapers built in New York during this time period have Art Deco motifs such as the Chrysler building which has a pryamid shaped roof and a tomb-like lobby.  These pictures are good examples of Art Deco design:


You probably have seen one of these waterfall dressers in your grandmother’s or your parents’ house; we had a vanity that broke into two end tables in our basement when I was growing up.  According to, waterfalls were marketed to newlyweds during the depression because most young people ended up staying in their parents’ house so all they could afford was a bedroom suite.  These sold for $19.99-39.99 and contained multiple pieces.  The two dressers that I painted were manufactured in the 1930’s by Krug Bros. , a well-known furniture maker from Bruce county Ontario.  There was nothing special about the design of the wood but they do have wonderful solid brass and Bakelite handles.  Bakelite is an early form of plastic and is highly collectible today especially in jewelry.  I bought the dressers for the handles and should have checked the veneer more closely as some of it was very warped.  I foolishly thought that I could strip off the veneer that was bad on one of the drawers when what I should have done was glue it and weigh it down.  Stripping the veneer took as long as painting and waxing the whole piece.  There is no easy way to do it- you heat up the glue by pressing an iron ( one that you will throw out) against the wood then you start lifting it with a putty knife.  The problem is that it doesn’t come off in strips and you end up chipping away at it for a long time.  And I had to do it in front of an open window ( in the middle of winter ) because there were fumes from the shellac.

I painted the two dressers in very bold colours.  I had seen a few orange ones on the internet that I liked and I knew the colour would compliment the handles.  I mixed some Emperor’s silk into the Barcelona orange to get the burnt orange colour.  As for the peacock blue one, I was inspired by Martha Leone’s waterfall that you can see here.  In her post, she explains how she was influenced by Art Deco in her choice of design.  I decided to create a diagonal free form design because I have no drawing ability.  The peacock blue was a mixture of Napoleonic blue, Antibes and Florence.  I just like the colour and I think the finished product is very attractive and easily my favourite piece that I have painted so far.  Both dressers remind me of luggage from the 1950’s which had the rounded edges that were so popular in the design of that era.

Thank you for visiting this blog post.  It continues to bring in daily visitors and I hope that I have given you some background knowledge about waterfall furniture.

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