Rationing, increased enemy bombing and an alarming shortage of timber had created a desperate need for all sorts of basic furniture by 1941. It was required by the armed forces, by those whose homes had been destroyed by bombing and by those setting up home for the first time (about half a million marriages took place every year of the war).
The Board of Trade produced Utility specifications that outlined the amount and quality of materials for making everyday goods. Only the furniture industry, however, had to conform to specific statutory designs, an element of complete design control that made the scheme unique. The chance to impose 'good design' on the population as a whole was grasped with some enthusiasm by design reformers.
Designs were worked up by an Advisory Committee that included influential advocates of 'good design': John Gloag, Herman Lebus and Gordon Russell.
The result of their work was the Utility Furniture Catalogue of 1943. It was divided into five sections: living room, bedroom, kitchen, nursery furniture and miscellaneous (which included items like bookshelves and a bed-settee). Each piece used minimal materials and was made of strong and serviceable oak or mahogany, with mortised and pegged joints. Veneered hardboard was used for panelling, since plywood was unavailable, and most cabinet furniture characteristically stood on plinths rather than legs. Handles and knobs were of wood, because most metals and plastics were needed for the war effort, although, perhaps surprisingly, metal screws were specified in Utility construction, which added greatly to the strength of the finished furniture.
With the prospect of an end to the war, a Design Panel headed by Gordon Russell was set up in June 1943 to devise new ranges of Utility furniture in the hope of extending the scheme into the post-war world. Three new ranges appeared in 1946: ‘Chiltern’, ‘Cotswold’ and ‘Cockaigne’, but the last never reached full production.
By now the war had finished. The test for the Design Panel, under the aegis of Attlee’s socialist government, which had won a landslide victory in the first post-war election, was to continue over into peacetime the sound ethics of 'good design' that had been embodied in the Utility scheme.
The British public had other ideas. With the gradual winding down of rationing and the increasing availability of materials unobtainable during the war, especially aluminium, plywood, various timbers and fabrics of all kinds, the mood and spirit of the British people in victory demanded greater freedom of choice. ‘Utility’ had become indelibly tarnished with the frugality and drabness of war.
Feeling the pressure, an anxious Design Panel produced in 1948 yet another new Utility design: the ‘Diversified’ range, which had a Scandinavian feel in its clean lines. It never made it into production, and in the same year the ‘Cotswold’ was withdrawn and the ‘Chiltern’ range scaled down. In 1952 the Utility furniture scheme was officially brought to an end.
The experience of the Utility programme firmly established the philosophy of 'good design' in the rise of the ‘contemporary look’ for élite modern furniture and fittings in the 1950s and early 1960s. For the mass market, its influence can be seen in the same period's ‘repro-contemporary’ style of popular furniture, described by design historian Judy Attfield as 'gorgeous cocktail cabinets and amazing dressing tables'. These were fashionable imitations of good design with the addition of monstrous pieces of ostentation. Ironically, it was this ostentation that both captured the mass market and differentiated it from the élite taste for 'good design'.