Sensory overload caused by clutter and the brightly coloured and strongly patterned wallpapers beloved by the previous generation was sometimes given as the main reason for the preference for straight lines and quiet pale colours in the 1930s.
This preference was coupled with the new methods of building using concrete which meant that walls were no longer load-bearing and wider metal-framed and French windows could be fitted. There was a tendency as well to build rooms as far from the street as possible, opening onto the garden if the circumstances allowed. The recognition of the health-giving properties of sunlight brought about a real ‘return to nature’ and the ‘New Architecture’ with its large windows and the wide glass door once more brought the outside in. I say ‘once more’ because just over a hundred years before there was a similar celebration of the new when Humphry Repton contrasted the “modern living room” with “the ancient cedar parlour” in his Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening of 1816.
He contrasts the “modern living room” with “the ancient cedar parlour”1
One of the consequences of all this was the need for restraint in the choice of colour and ornament. With more of the outside world now visible there was a greater tendency for discordant effects with the indoors competing with the outdoors. This did not necessarily mean white walls and ceilings with plain-coloured upholstery and neither pictures or sculptures. It did however mean that colours should be soft and works of art should be subordinate to the room rather than dominate it.
The clean lines created by the new building methods had an effect on existing houses as many underwent cosmetic surgery. New windows were installed; rooms were made to appear taller by the removal of picture and chair rails and clutter was reduced to produce a more streamlined look. Panelled doors and staircase balustrades were smoothed-out by being covered with three-ply board and modern lighting was introduced.
Paint too played a major part in the modernisation of the interior with durable enamel paints becoming more readily available.2 Light-reflective finishes in pale tints were introduced and paints with a high degree of gloss were used in a way not seen before.
Generally it was felt that North rooms needed warm tones – colours containing red, orange or yellow. Rooms with a southern aspect were believed to get the most out of the sunlight outside, if they were coloured in light neutral tints such as light grey, cream or ivory. Blue however absorbs light and made the room cold; whereas green in its lighter tones and yellow most of all were thought to stimulate the mind and make it cheerful.3 At the same time it was understood that the warmer colours stood out more, thus making the room appear smaller, whereas walls painted in colder tones had a tendency to recede, which increased the size of the room.
Further Information on 1930s Colours and Paints
For more information on paints during the 1930s see a series of essays that begin here
For a room-by-room account of the use of paint and colour at this time – see here.
Papers and Paints have recently produced a range of 1930s paint colours.
1 For more on this see The Hierarchy of Colour in Eighteenth Century Decoration
2 This was made possible by the greater use of zinc oxide as the main white pigment in paint. See more about enamel paints here.
3 This seems to be a hangover from Goethe, who said of Green:
“If yellow and blue, which we consider as the most fundamental and simple colours, are united as they first appear, in the first state of their action, the colour which we call green is the result.
The eye experiences a distinctly grateful impression from this colour. If the two elementary colours are mixed in perfect equality so that neither predominates, the eye and the mind repose on the result of this junction as upon a simple colour. The beholder has neither the wish nor the power to imagine a state beyond it. Hence for rooms to live in constantly, the green colour is most generally selected”. (Goethe’s Theory of Colours. Translated by Charles Lock Eastlake. 1840. 316.)
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