Interior Design of the Sixties
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Interior Design of the Sixties

The 1960s was the age of free love, flower power and psychedelia. This was a decade of tremendous social upheaval – sexual liberation, drug use and radical experimentation in art and design. The rebellious young generation began reacting against the values of their parents. In terms of youth culture, this was the most creative decade in history.

The 1960s was the age of free love, flower power and psychedelia. This was a decade of tremendous social upheaval – sexual liberation, drug use and radical experimentation in art and design. The rebellious young generation began reacting against the values of their parents. In terms of youth culture, this was the most creative decade in history. They say that if you can remember the 60s, you weren't there, but we can at least explore it.

We often think of the Sixties as one continuous period, but it can actually be viewed as separate phases. The first phase was centered on the Swinging London scene, which was characterised by the Beatles, Op Art and Carnaby Street fashions. However, 1967 was known as the ‘Summer of Love’ and represented a shift towards hippie culture, psychedelia and acid rock.

Swinging Sixties

After the Second World War, people became newly optimistic about the future. They started having children and this was known as the 'Baby Boom'. By the 1960s, this new generation of children had become teenagers and this meant that there were an unprecedented number of young people in the 60s. With rising levels of affluence, this generation had ‘disposable income’ – money to spend on music and fashion.

This has been called a ‘youthquake’. For the first time young people were leading fashion, style and culture. They looked for fun and colourful alternatives to the dreary styles of the past. The new spirit of consumerism led to specialist shops that expressed their values through design.

Boutiques opened up all over London, and Carnaby Street became the centre of this new scene. Some of the buildings were painted in psychedelic colours. Mary Quant opened her first boutique in the Kings Road, Chelsea in 1955. It was called Bazaar. The boutique was a way of selling haute couture to the general public. Quant described it as 'a kind of permanently running cocktail party '. Shopping for clothes had become fun.

Mary Quant is generally considered the inventor of the mini-skirt, which started appearing in 1965. Mini-skirts were an outrageous fashion item that caused a sensation. Designers of the earlier generation were shocked. Coco Chanel described the mini skirt as 'the most absurd weapon woman has ever employed to seduce men'. Until then, girls had dressed like their mothers, but the 60s represented a youthful rebellion. Mary Quant also created the ingenue 'A-line' smock dress. These mini dresses and the fashions provided the perfect canvass for Op art and psychedelic patterns.

New fashion trends needed new models to wear them. The big names in fashion modelling were Jean Shrimpton and Lesley Hornby, who was known as Twiggy. They were called ‘The Face’ and ‘The Image’ respectively. Twiggy was the ideal Sixties girl. She was only 15; she weighed 6 ½ stone and she was a size 6. This gave her a boyish figure that contrasted with the hour-glass figure of middle-aged women: the look was youthful. Twiggy’s hair was styled by Leonard of Mayfair.

Biba

One of the most significant stores was Biba, which began as a small boutique in Abingdon Road, Kensington. It was founded in 1964 by Barbara Hulanicki at the height of the Swinging London scene. The shop interiors were famous. They used dark wood screens, low lighting and pop music to create the atmosphere of a discotheque. Customers were encouraged to go inside and try on whatever they liked. The interiors drew on Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Victoriana and the golden age of Hollywood. This aesthetic was described as retrophilia, the love of past forms.

Modernism of the pre-war period had rejected historical influences, colour and decoration. In a spirit of rebellion, the 60s plundered the styles of the past for inspiration. This wasn’t a revival – these styles were simply quoted in a playful way and everything was given an irreverent twist.

This is the exotics counter, which was designed by Whitmore Thomas, along with most of the interiors. There’s a strong influence from Art Deco in the geometric shapes on the carpet. They’re reminiscent of Cubism, which was a key influence on Art Deco. The counter is abstract and angular, with a mirrored surface.

This is a perfume and cosmetics counter that evokes Art Deco and the era of classic Hollywood. The geometricised sunburst is pure Art Deco. The counter has sharp angles, as well as metallic and glazed surfaces with an overall crystalline structure.

Here you have the listening booths, which were sophisticated for their time. The seats have the same Cubist patterns on them. The strip-lighting is reminiscent of a 1950s American diner. The fact that booths were provided indicates that you were encouraged to spend time in the store listening to music and socialising.

This is a display of canned food designed by Whitmore Thomas. It’s based on the theme of giant cans inspired by Andy Warhol’s work, particularly his Campbell’s soup cans, which are a classic of 60s pop art.

Biba stores became an important arena for the consumption of goods, and also for displaying them. The shop was frequented by celebrities like Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful and Julie Christie. But the store wasn’t exclusively for the rich and famous. Prices were kept low, and everyone was encouraged to circulate amid the glamour. This is known as the democratisation of luxury.

Biba was the ultimate example of consumption being used to construct and display identity. They didn’t just sell clothes, but also cosmetics, furnishings, food and even pet food: they catered to every aspect of life. Everything was presented in the distinctive Biba packaging. John McConnell created the Biba logo, which uses the whiplash curve of Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau became popular in the 60s because it was compatible with psychedelia.

Interior design became subject to the same fashions. The designer Terence Conran opened a store called Habitat in Fulham Road (1964). Conran sold innovative design at affordable prices, much of it imported from Europe. The store was an austere Modernist space with white walls and quarry tiled flooring. Fashion-conscious Londoners flocked to the store. John Lennon, George Harrison, Mary Quant and Julie Christie all bought furniture there. The staff uniforms were designed by Mary Quant.

Throw-away Society

Sixties society was adopting a 'throw-away' attitude. Disposable cutlery, nappies and cigarette lighters were commonplace. The next logical step was throw-away clothes and furniture. The Scott Paper Company released a psychedelic paper dress that cost $1.25. Even the Beatles got in on the act and wore paper jackets in public.

Disposable clothing reached its zenith around 1966-8, but it was really a gimmick, rather than a viable solution. Disposable clothes weren’t much cheaper than ordinary ones. However, the trend did illustrate the sixties obsession with modernity, with being up-to-date.

Peter Murdoch even created a disposable paper chair, which was covered in op art designs. This was only intended to last three to six months. Today, the idea of disposable clothes and furniture seems almost immoral. We live in age of green consciousness and increasingly design with sustainability in mind.

Space Age design

The 1960s was known as the ‘Space Age’. The Space Race was underway – American and Russia were competing for supremacy in space. The first moon landing occurred in 1969. The enthusiasm for all things futuristic gave rise to a Space Age style based on capsule and pod-shaped furniture. The plastic space age look can best be described ‘far out’.

Designers made airports look like spaceports. For example, the Finnish designer Eero Saarinen designed the TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport. This consisted of bold, sculptural curves to create a fluid space. Office and home interiors were reduced to clean, futuristic spaces with cool furniture made from moulded plastics.

This is the Ball Chair by Eero Aarnio. It was designed using one of the simplest geometric forms - the sphere. Aarnio described the Ball Chair as a room within a room; it forms a protective cocoon with a calm atmosphere, blocking out noises and giving a private space for relaxing. It’s like a planetary sphere that could turn on its own axis, allowing the user to vary the view of the ‘outer space’.

An extension of this idea was the Bubble Chair by Aarnio (1968). Aarnio said, ‘After I had made the Ball Chair I wanted to have the light inside it and so I had the idea of a transparent ball where light comes from all directions. The only suitable material is acrylic which is heated and blown into shape like a soap bubble.’

A new generation of designers were experimenting with new materials to create furniture in vivid colours and fluid shapes. The Danish designer Verner Panton and the Italian Joe Colombo raced to develop plastic stacking chairs. Colombo was obsessed with making a chair from a single piece of material. After two years of struggle, he created the Universale chair, made from injection moulded ABS plastic (1965-7). The chair was light, portable and easy to clean.

Colombo created radical propositions for 60s living. He created the Total Furnishing Unit, which had compartments for living, eating and sleeping.

The Danish designer Verner Panton created multi-purpose furniture in moulded plastic. He was inspired by the sight of plastic buckets stacked on top of each other. This is the Panton Chair (1968). The form is sleek and curvaceous. This was the first cantilevered chair to be made from a single piece of plastic.

The Panton Chair was unveiled in the Danish design journal Mobilia in August 1967 and caused a sensation. Equally memorable was its appearance in a 1970 issue of the British fashion magazine, Nova, in a shoot entitled ‘How to undress in front of your husband’.

This is Panton’s Phantasy Landscape, designed for the Visiona II exhibition (1970). It was a space made from foam rubber in undulating organic shapes. Like the Ball Chair, this forms a uterine or womb-like space. Rooms are usually divided into floor, walls and ceiling. Panton was reacting against rigid Euclidean geometry, dissolving the floor, walls and ceiling into an amorphous, psychedelic space. It’s almost like a zero-gravity environment; you could imagine this on a space ship with astronauts bouncing around. Panton stated:

‘I can't bear to enter a room and see the sofa and coffee table and two chairs, immediately knowing that we are going to be stuck here for an entire evening. I made furnitur that could be raised and lowered in space so that one could have a different view of surroundings and a new angle on life.’

Panton designed a canteen for the Spiegel publishing house in Hamburg, Germany. The interior is a geometric, red cave with plastic stalactites hanging from the ceiling. He used mirror lighting on walls and ceilings.

Panton also designed a swimming pool for the employees. This interior is very dark, but full of coloured light which would have reflected on the moving surface of the water. Swimming here would have been a psychedelic experience, like swimming in light.

Science fiction films began to influence design in terms of colour, style and materials. The Space Age look was inspired by films like 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick (1967). This was based on a novel by Arthur C. Clarke and it concerns a philosophical search for meaning in the universe. The set design features white, modernist spaces with biomorphic furniture. The film features a pioneering sequence in which an astronaut travels through infinite time and space. The scene resembles a psychedelic light show.

Another influential film was Barbarella (1967), a science fiction sex comedy that starts with a striptease in zero gravity. This was based on a French comic book. The film was directed by Roger Vadim, who cast his wife Jane Fonda as a space age sex kitten. The costumes were designed by Paco Rabanne, a fashion designer who created futuristic designs using metal discs and day-glo colours. Knee-length vinyl boots became fashionable after Jane Fonda wore them so well in Barbarella.

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Comments (23)

Yep, you've stepped into my alley, now! Know it well--and often miss it!

Hi James, yes, I know you're an expert on this period. This is another sketch for a lecture. Thanks for reading.

Actually, it's somehow comforting--on a psychological level--that there are those like yourself who acknolwedge the validity and worth of this era. There are so many who'd rather discount and trivialize its virtues and cultural contributions. So, the acknowledgment is much appreciated.

I'm so embarrased: I had a Ball Chair. Thank heaven the 1970's came along and I threw it out! Vote and appreciated.

Thanks, Ileen. I wish you'd kept the chair: I would have had it if you didn't want it anymore.

Wow, Spiegel looked like quite a place to work! Your article was as entertaining as it was informative. Loved the pictures too!

excellent as always, the 60's also brought in anorexia with twiggy the model

This is era of the beautiful people and colorful flowery designs. Stretching back time, great one Michael.

Sold my daughter's original Biba coat to a collector in the U.K. She's also an artist and she has an enormous Biba collection. Perhaps you'll spot her on day, because she wears what she collects.

Thanks for reading, Ron. Thanks for the info N/A.

It's really a most amazing article I have read today. thanks for sharing.

Thanks, Blossom.

Delightful. So much innovation happened in this field in those days. Quite a lot of modern stuff often seems bland in comparison.

Thanks, Rana, it must have been an exciting time.

That's good reminiscence of the past.

Amazingly researched and written article! This period was way before I was born, but the article literally took me back for a time...

Thanks, Gregory. It was before I was born too, but a fascinating period. Thanks for reading.

Michael, this is brilliant work. I wouldn't expect anything less. Great job.

Thanks, man. This was a lecture for my first year class. I'm interested in so many areas of 60s culture that it was difficult to focus it down.

Sometimes I wish we could have another '60's era' just so that I can experience it for myself! lol

Out of votes, so promoted

Beautifully presented, If I had a choice the 1960s is where I would travel back to...voted

Thank you so very much; I've been trawling the web for days trying to find decent information about the 60's and you've got it all, context, concept, influences, examples..

I'm so glad that someone on the net is willing to spend time doing this, so the generation isn't lost

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