Species of wood are generally segmented in two groups; hard wood and soft wood. Woods in the segment of hard wood are typically of deciduous trees. Woods in the segment of soft wood are typicaly conifer type trees. Europeans had vast access to hard wood through their tropical and subtropical colonies which inevitably led to prominent use of these wood species in mid-century furniture design. It was further much coveted because of colour, surface hardness and growth patterns.
The three main pillars that provided for the success of mid-century modern design:
- the designers
- developments in large scale manufacturing
- the use of the right durable material combinations
With the term durable we refer to the fact that furniture in many cases was crafted using the finest of hard woods. Allowing decades of use and wear to not or hardly affect function and aesthetics. Durable but not ecologically sound practise in many regions where the wood was retrieved. Many of the used tropical hard woods are because of their population decline protected species and no longer used in large scale furniture making.
Palissander is one of the classics among durable tropical hard wood species, often sourced from South America. Palissander are known for their irregular and striking almost black patterning. With light to dark base colour between the patterns. Palissander is a member to the botanic familie species of ‘Dalbergia’. Two well know and applied species are Rio palissander (for some time a protected species) and India palissander. Signature for almost all palissander species is the odour of the wood, it resembles the sweet scent of roses. It is for this reason that English speaking countries refer to palissander as rosewood. This does stir up and create some confusion. Rosewood is a palissander and not wood from a rose bush, sounds obvious but the terms are frequently used side by side. And seem to highlight a difference which is not there. Germanic and Nordic languages use the correct term palissander and we'll thus use it also but intermittently we'll push in rosewood here and there. It’s all the same.
Palissander species are quite difficult to work by hand and are typically machined. Well dried palissander hardly shrinks which allows for tight dimensions in furniture making. Prolongued exposure to sunlight will lighten the palissander significantly.
Because palissander is currently a protected tree species, you'll have a hard time finding newly made furniture made with palissander. This does add to the exclusivity of mid century Danish furniture made from palissander. Masterpieces made from palissander can even be considered quite good long term investments. Have it!
Also teak is a hard wood. Originally a South East Asian species teak, or Tectona grandis, is nowadays planted in all tropical regions. Because of it excellent durability, low shrinkage, rigidity and yield and dimensional stability combined with good aesthetic appeal made it a heavily used wood in the mid century modern era.
The wood core is lightish brown to golden, in some cases dark brown and black vained. Exposure to sunlight will even out colouration paterns. Teak used by Danish designers in mid century furniture was mostly sourced in Birma at the time (present Myanmar) and Java (Indonesia) and is an even coloured type.
Royal wood :-) O yes, teak was also used for the golden carriage used by the Dutch Royal family.
OAK my god!
Throughout the early mid-century years but more so during the later mid-century years, oak grew to be the dominant wood type. Many furniture lines were manufactured in both teak, rosewood or oak catering to the taste of the individual customer. In many cases also combinations of tropical hard woods and oak were well established. Cabinets out of teak with oak legs for instance yield a nice aesthetic combination.
- Oak is a very durable wood type.
- Finished with a natural oil it really brings out the colour palette.
- It allows for both machining and carving by hand.
Thin slice of quality!
For a lasting sharp design. Cabinetry and seating in mid-century modern couldn’t be what they were without veneer. It was applied at truly tremendous scale in mid-century design, but what is it?
Wood veneer is a thin aesthetic layer of wood with special quality (and cost typically) laid on top of a wood composite substrate. Typically the wood composite is out of softer and cheaper local wood species or lower aesthetic quality hardwood. Generally veneers can be produced from a tree stem using rotary cutting, or peeled and sliced cutting from quarts or halves. Prior to cutting the veneer the wood is soaked in steaming hot water for as much as three days and then cut within a half day. Veneers are then subsequently uniformly dried quite quickly in a few minutes.
Using veneer in dimensionally sensitive cabinetry has a huge advantage over using solid woods. Solid wood of substantial thickness tends to be dimensionally unstable and changes shape with time temperature and moisture content. For cabinetry this is not desired as one can imagine. This and not the cost aspect was the main reason for designers to apply it in mid-century design. Everywhere where flat surfaces were not needed or wanted, like the grips and legs in cabinetry and in chairs solid wood was used.
As always there is also a great deal of quality differentiation in wood veneer composites. Most differentiation lies in the substrate the wood fiber composite. Typically the heavier pressed the composite the better the mechanical quality and the heavier the composite. This is caused by a lower air content in a heavier pressed composite. Golden rule for us to assess the amount of quality that went into a particular cabinet is to just briefly lift it ;-)
Through and through wood
Seating is often made out of solid wood. Cabinetry sees grips and legs and in some cases aesthetic ribs made out of solid wood.
Much quality differentiation can be recognized by the trained eye. Cheaper cabinets ofter solely use veneer, the use of solid wooden ribs around drawers or cabinet adds quality and cost. It further provides for more robustness in practical use.
Layered material technology
Multiplex or plywood is a wood composite build from multiple layers of wood veneer. In most cases veneer from different wood types bonded contra grain with each other. Because of this multiplex is uniformly strong and comes with greater dimensional stability compared to solid wood.
Grete Jalk has put multiplex on the map of high end materials. Particularly by her chair made out of a single piece of flowing and curved multiplex. Prominent other early fifties pioneers were Charles and Ray Eames and Arne Jacobsen.
As one would expect also multiplex comes in many shades of quality. In many designs it is used in combination with solid hard woods and particularly prominent in seating furniture as back rest without further upholstry. Outside of seating multiplex is actually not that common as aesthetic part of cabinetry for instance. Mostly beach or ash multiplex can be found as back paneling of cabinets. High end cabinetry can be recognized as high end to have visually appealing multiplex back panels with the same finish as sides and top. Another golden rule for you, a hardwood multiplex aesthetic back panel is always high end.
For the interior!
Mostly used for the internals of sideboard and cabinets typically. Beach and ash are very frequently used for interiors of cabinetry like ribs, drawers and guiding.
The typical grain is not very outspoken hence its use on the internals rather than the exterior of furniture.
Swivel and office chair type seating was produced on a truly massive scale in the late 60s and 70s owing to its huge popularity at the time. For swivel chairs most manufacturers used 4 or the typical 5 arm chromed metal base for these chairs. The design of these bases was for the mid pricing level a one size fits all chromed steel base, with many manufacturers using the same base type. These bases would fit any upholstered foamed of stuffed seat. Higher end swivel chairs can have bases made out of brushed cast aluminum.
The other major use of chromed steel as rods or tubing was used for seating furniture such as chairs and sofa's. Some extremely well known designers like Eames and Jacobsen were profound supporters for using steel rods and tubing in their designs. Dutch furniture company Gispen has proliferated the use of steel tubing since it started in the 1930s to this very day.
Rigid plastics, polyurethane, ABS, polycarbonate and polyester or epoxy glasfibre composite
A very diverse category of materials and it has led to some of the most outspoken and futuristic designs. Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames and for instance also Verner Panton all indulged themselves with these materials and made true design masterpieces out of them impossible with any other material.
With this material category also colouring came to fruition and within reach of the designer. Good quality unrestored high end pieces that survived the test of time are not cheap as you can imagine. This is further spiked by the fact that so many fake or reproduced pieces are offered and because these materials are simply less likely to survive use and time. If you buy one, make sure it is original.
Fake that hyde
Naugahyde and/or Fake leather is the most common upholstery material for leather like seating from the mid century modern era. As always not without reason. Naming it first but not as sole reason, cost. Other more important reasons are complete freedom of size. Fake leather could be purchased by the meter and would fit any design in one piece.
Real leather was used in many different qualities, thicknesses and staining methods. For instance on a piece of mid-century furniture like the strips on a Safari chair. Real leather is almost always a sure sign of that piece being high-end but naugahyde is not necessarily, far from it actually, a sign of low quality.