Elements of 1940s Retro Decorating Style
Dominated by WWII, design in the early 1940s was quite creative. As European designers and artists fled to the US, bringing many new ideas, development of new designs remained at a standstill until shortly after the war ended. This was primarily due to material shortages. As production picked back up, people were ready to start new lives, which included redesigns of the home, especially rooms that would accompany guests.
Early American, or “Colonial”, was in vogue during the 1940s. Wooden furniture with floral fabrics and ruffles were all the rage. In the mid- to late-40s, interiors were both functional and fun as people were enjoying life again. The days of rationing and frugality were over and people had money to spend on home interiors and electronics.
The decade was on the cusp of two primary color palettes.
Art Deco (Art Moderne) encompassed the ’20s through the early ’40s and reflected a shift to lighter and more neutral shades with metallic undertones. Popular accent colors were exotic pastels.
The Mid Century Modern palette (1940s through 1960) re-introduced us to bold colors and deep tones. Earth tones were popular for exteriors of homes. Among the most popular interior colors were were navy blue, sunshine yellow, red and white, and light green.
Floral patterns were popular for bedrooms, living areas and wallpapered bathrooms. For the kitchen and dining room we had cherry or apple motifs, gingham (or checks), roosters and chickens.
While primarily associated with the 1950s, it was the 1940s that introduced chrome dinette sets with Formica tabletops, as well as glass drawer pulls, and chrome and vinyl stools, into the home. Bentwood furniture and decor – made by soaking or steaming wood and bending it into curved shapes and patterns – were coming into fashion.
Linoleum – especially in bold geometric patterns – was top choice for the kitchen. The material was strong and lasted many years, despite the fact it required lots of regular maintenance to keep clean and shiny.
Plenty of pre-existing homes had hardwood flooring throughout the house, save for kitchens and bathrooms, often made from local species of trees. After WWII, though, carpeting became less expensive and hardwood became “outdated”. Living rooms, dens and bedrooms were updated with wall-to-wall carpeting made from synthetic fibers.
For the kitchen, canisters in chrome or enamel were available in a wide range of colors, with top choices being red, white, cream or green. In larger kitchens, canisters sat on countertops rather than in pantries. Also popular was the metal breadbox, jadeite dishware and covered cake servers.
For living and entertaining areas, decor was flowery yet simple, and well put together. Grateful for the return of husbands, sons and brothers, family and closeness was key, and home design often conveyed this. Wood decor was still popular, as were clocks and sunny pictures.
The 1940s brought us wooden radios and phonograph consoles, as well as covered televisions. Families would often sit together to hear or see shows, and guests would be included for momentous events.
While the mid- to late-1940s introduced many new design concepts and materials, most households still kept it simple when it came to the overall look of a room. Primary focus was put on the family, so open space was key. Even in modest homes, updates were often made to “brighten” the look in the shift from wartime to peacetime. Clutter-free was key, even in family rooms and bathrooms, as everything had its place. As far as organized design, more homes than not followed the pattern set forth in many catalogs and ads.
Do you live (or grow up) in a 1940s home? Or one designed with the ’40s in mind? We’d love to hear your story and see pictures.