WWII & Design

10 Jan, 2017 - Jyotsna Sharma

Design in the aftermath of World War II

The First World War was basically fought between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungry and the Ottoman Empire) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) and their allies. In addition to the massive economic damage it caused, the four-year war, 1914-1918, caused large-scale loss of life as well. The Allies won the First World War and the resulting Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to accept that they were responsible for the war. The other result of the peace treaty was that new boundaries were drawn up and the world was literally reconfigured. As a result Italy felt cheated out of the territories that were promised to it. Austria and Hungary faced economic problems owing to this reconfiguration as their population went down dramatically. The Turks and the Arabs were equally unhappy with it.


There would perhaps have been lesser political tension had the League of Nations been able to do its job in a justifiable manner. The United States was not a part of the League of Nations, as its senate did not endorse the Treaty of Versailles. The newly formed USSR was left out of it because it was communist and Germany, too, was not a part of it. Therefore, the largest nations were left out of the league; soon the league was nothing more than a symbol of the legacy of the Great War. If a country wanted to ignore it, they could do so without any major consequences. Japan did just that when it mobilised its troops and entered northeast China in 1931.


Coupled with all this political tension, were the effects of the Great Depression and the result was the start of the Second World War. This was a longer, more complicated and more intense war than the First World War. More economic activity was involved in carrying out the war and the damage caused was on a larger scale too. As a consequence of this war, the spending habits of people changed. For example in America, from1940-41 (before America was actively involved in the war) there was an increase in production of both wartime and civilian goods, with increased amounts of consumer durables being produced. This was possible because America had large amounts of idle resources, especially manpower, since in the 1940’s one sixth of the labour force was still unemployed. The period from 1941-1943 was a time of dislocation as the economy had changed from peacetime to wartime. People from well-to-do families were being asked to go to war and had to settle for army pay, women went to work, rationing was put into effect and prices rose. As with WWI, this war too caused unemployment and bankruptcy.


During this time of scarcity, a few American designers were experimenting with new materials to develop products that would be aesthetically pleasing and inexpensive. Among them these were the husband– wife duo, Charles and Ray Eames. Charles Eames trained as an architect and was an instructor at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan from 1938-41. He designed a moulded fiberglass chair in collaboration with Eero Saarinen. This design won first prize at the ‘Organic Design for the Home’ competition organised by the Museum of Modern Art in 1940. 


Charles Eames & Eero Saarinen, Organic Chair, 1940


During the war, he experimented with plywood moulding process and developed lightweight, flexible splints for injured soldiers in the United States Navy. After the war he used this same technique to make seating/furniture. Eames continued his experiments with moulded plywood and fiberglass in the 1940’s. His simple design for a dining chair mounted on a tubular metal frame in the 50’s also won an international competition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art. Later, with wife Ray, he continued his experiments in different materials and in 1956 they came up with a lounge chair made of leather and plywood. This lounge chair became a must have especially by top professionals of the time.

Lounge Chair 1956 

Topic: Art & Design