Do you yearn for the cafés of Provence, want to cultivate an air of Brooklyn cool or hanker after a sunken Danish love pit? Here's what the classics of 20th-century design reveal about their owners...
1. Hang It All hook
Although their marriage was childless, Charles and Ray Eames took a great interest in toys. ‘We have to take pleasure seriously,’ they said. The 1953 Hang It All has become so ubiquitous it is difficult to remember that it was a product of careful thought: the balls have a ludic quality, turning a banal item into a pleasantly decorative one. Although designed as utilitarian, Hang It All has the presence of sculpture. Expensive as a hook, it is cheap as art.
£225, John Lewis & Partners (johnlewis.com)
2. Barcelona chair
One of the most imitated designs of all time, conferring on its owners a precious sense of refined, 20th-century good taste. It’s also an advertisement of their very deep pockets – this example of machine-age style is, in fact, largely handmade and satisfyingly expensive. Another paradox: far from being mass-produced for the proletariat, the chair was designed to accommodate the rump of the King of Spain as he toured the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition.
£6,060, Chaplins (chaplins.co.uk)
3. Juicy Salif citrus squeezer
At some point in the late 20th century, ‘design’ ceased to be a description of an activity and became a commodity you could possess. Nothing better exemplifies this than Philippe Starck’s completely useless, but sculpturally arresting, lemon squeezer. A well-rehearsed story has Starck doodling the design on a paper napkin during lunch on the Amalfi coast. Countering criticism that it did not actually work, Starck said, ‘It is not meant to squeeze lemons, it is meant to start conversations.’
£49.95, Alessi (alessi.com)
4. Cherner chair Norman
Cherner was an architect from Brooklyn before cruddy 1950s Brooklyn became today’s hipster Brooklyn. His passion was ‘organic’ design at a time when ‘organic’ meant intelligent and economical, not a ludicrous blob by Zaha Hadid. The presence of his moulded-plywood classic of 1958 – most likely in a ‘loft’ – says the householder is both a democrat and an aesthete.
£1,104, The Conran Shop (conranshop.co.uk)
5. Alvar Aalto vase
The Finnish modernists called themselves Funkis, a reference to their taste for functionalism, but this 1937 vase was a whim, not a sterile concept: the shape was inspired by the serpentine curves of the folkloric leather trousers of the Sami people. Its curvaceous form is almost the designer’s signature, as aalto is Finnish for ‘wave’. Available in a wide range of colours, Aalto vases look best arranged in interlocking multiples and filled with flowers, showing that modern design can be decorative and delightful.
From £89, Skandium (skandium.com)
6. Eames lounge chair and ottoman
If Los Angeles were a chair, this would be it. Populist and televisual, Charles and Ray Eames created the chair (670) and ottoman (671) as a birthday present for film-maker Billy Wilder. Although they were fascinated with industrial materials and processes, the black leather and cherry wood deliberately evoke the murk of a traditional English gentlemen’s club. But no other piece of furniture more emphatically states of its owner: ‘I appreciate architecture and design.’
£7,150, Heal’s (heals.com)
7. Arco light
Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni were the two magi of Milan’s design culture of the 1960s. The 1962 Arco combines a classical lump of very heavy marble with a thrillingly light aluminium bow. Preposterously impractical, it became a potent symbol of everything exotic ‘Italian Design’ stood for. You can see Arco lights in Diamonds are Forever and The Italian Job. Roger Sterling had one in his Mad Men office. David and Samantha Cameron had one too… but it was a fake.
£1,603, The Conran Shop (conranshop.co.uk)
8. Artichoke light
Here is history’s most intellectual light fitting: designer Poul Henningsen, author of the 1933 polemic What About Culture?, was a left-leaning giant of Danish civilisation. Just as artichokes are demanding to eat, the light is difficult to manufacture: 72 overlapping leaves produce a glare-free ambience, which turns a mere pendant light into an object of mystical speculation. Artichokes are found in the same homes as B&O black boxes and Gudrun & Gudrun sweaters.
£6,470, Skandium (skandium.com)
9. Ercol 206 chair
In the mid-1950s the idea of ‘contemporary’ was entering the language. No longer meaning merely ‘of the present moment’, it suggested excitingly progressive taste. And there is no better example than Lucian Ercolani’s polite bentwood chair. A perfect Anglo-Italian reconciliation of the artisanal with the modern, the Ercol 206 was coeval with the first coffee bars. Today it is a desirable domestic complement to a statement espresso machine.
10. Anglepoise lamp
George Carwardine’s 1934 ‘task’ light is an authentic masterpiece of industrial design. The presence of an Anglepoise turns any home environment into an atelier or a workshop. This timeless design, both unfrivolous and dignifying, evokes an idea of wholesome creative tasks taking place nocturnally. You could put one in your garage and make it look like an artist’s studio.
£250, Heal’s (heals.com)
11. Tolix stool
Xavier Pauchard’s 1934 stool is a classic of vernacular French chic. The original was supplied to cafés and brasseries by drinks manufacturers anxious to secure customer loyalty. Perforations in the seat were to let the rain drain away when used outside. Philosophically, Tolix is what you bring home from a Provençal holiday: a zinc-coated reminder of rosé and ratatouille. Ideally used in conjunction with a well-filled Duralex glass. Other than wearing bleu de travail and sporting a beret, there is no better way to express your Francophilia.
£177.56, Tolix (tolix.co.uk)
12. Panton Classic
Before Scandi noir, there was Scandi colour. Verner Panton was the designer who, in the ‘age of pop’, moved the Danish furniture industry from blonde wood towards polychrome plastics. Cantilevered and stackable, the glass-fibre original of 1960 was among the first chairs made from a single piece of material. And it had no legs, something of a holy grail for designers of the day. If you have a sunken love pit at home, you will need Panton Classics to surround it.
£1,050, Skandium (skandium.com)
13. Noguchi coffee table
Often people want to present industrial design as a form of sculpture. But Isamu Noguchi was actually a sculptor who turned to industrial design. His 1944 coffee table is highly contrived: two identical sinuous wooden elements – at a precise angle of 52 degrees – are fixed by a pivot and support a heavy glass top. Owners of a Noguchi table know that they do not possess an object for supporting coffee cups, but an authentic work of art.
From £1,490, Heal’s (heals.com)
14. Vitsoe shelves
Dieter Rams was the true inheritor of the Bauhaus ethic. He represents an absolutely coherent philosophy: quiet is better than loud; reticence is the ultimate virtue. The 606 shelving system of 1960, still very much in production, was called Universal, hinting at the ambition involved. Rather than being austere and rigid, 606 offers scope for endless variety in arrangement. In use and rammed with handsome volumes, it signifies a homage to the book.
From £326 for four shelves, Vitsoe