Posted on November 16 2018
It seems so many things have been written and said about the Mid-century modern craze that it appears in some ways, a dead horse is now being flogged. Sometimes though, just because you're late to a party doesn't mean you don't want a quick drink. This article will try to dissect some of my personal experiences over the last 10 years as a dealer and enthusiast of Mid-century modern.
What is Mid-Century Modern and why is it so popular?
By now the phrase 'Mid-century' is so ingrained into our culture it has become a by-word applied to all manner of things and conjures up different thoughts for everyone. Fundamentally the 'Mid-century modern' movement is mentioned in reference to a host of design mediums including interior, product, graphic and architecture spanning around 30 years, peaking between the 50s and 60s. This means a diverse group of people with a with a large variety of interests being influenced both directly or indirectly. If you have an interest in what your house looks like, how the interior is decorated or what furniture you have inside, then chances are there is a mid century influence somewhere.
For some the era brings to mind classic furniture pieces and names such as Eames, Herman Miller or Arne Jacobsen (above), while to others it means iconic architecture by the likes of Oscar Neimeyer or Frank Lloyd Wright (below). In the US items are labelled Mid-century that range from kitsch 'Americana' products like ceramics, glassware; and lighters to high end Danish and European design imports. In the UK, where my interest began, the phrase is used in design circles but when it comes to everyday use 'vintage' is used as an interchangeable prefix with 'Mid-century' when combined with '50s/60s/70s'. The close proximity to Europe meant that British furniture manufacturers had a strong influence from Denmark and in some cases employed Danish designers to create entire ranges. This is where my interest really began.
Take the British company G Plan for example. Already a main player after the rationing of furniture during the second world war they responded to the competition from Danish furniture imports by employing Kofod Larsen to Design their 'Danish Modern' Range, while their 'Fresco' Range designed by VB Wilkins had a strong Scandiavian influence. It was G Plan, along with other British manufacturers which started me off on my own journey with Mid-century furniture and my first full-fledged business. I loved the designs and like most, favored the Danish imports which where harder to come by. My customer base varied widely. There were millenials and young professionals decorating their first flat, forty somethings who wanted better quality and style at the cost of new high street productions and the baby boomers, who wanted a style they remembered from the first time around, often to create a 'retro room' in their home.
What does its popularity say about todays culture?
The popularity and wide demographic of my customers said something to me that is inherent about where we are as a culture. Capitalism combined with innovation went hand in had at one point, creating a sweet spot that was reflected in the Mid-century era, but this came at a price. The mass produced products had a quality and affordability, the disposable nature that followed caused by a thirst for profits fed a buying trend that increased in the following decades. This resulted in a throwaway attitude to furniture, interior design and indeed products in general.
A silent backlash has resulted in the last decade or so where people's yearning for quality products and items with longevity has increased. Having something with a bit of history is also an added bonus for many. I don't hate Ikea (hate is a strong word!) and some of the stuff produced by companies such as West Elm is decent. When it comes to price point you can get a Mid-century piece for the same price as West Elm and lots of people prefer the real deal. Others like Design Within Reach are making official productions of iconic furniture which are in the same ballpark price as some pieces produced back in the day. The great thing about MCM is that you can get unusual or obscure pieces that have the classic look and quality of the era, without a household name attached. Thats the beauty of the era, there seems to be something for everyone.
The Vinyl Revival Parallel...
This attitude against a quick turn around in the lifespan of products made me notice another interesting parallel to the rise of Mid-century during my time as a dealer; the re-emergence of vinyl records and record players. When I started collecting vinyl twenty years ago the customer base was generally middle aged men sifting through boxes at garage sales for original presses of the Beatles or Frank Zappa or small stores on their last legs because CD's had just about killed them all off. Now pretty young clothes horses are blogging about them. Downloads and smartphones have reduced the value of the physical album and the sense of occasion you get when putting an album on had diminished, as had the importance of a sleeve cover. The revival however gives credence to the idea that people are looking backwards for a less throw away attitude when it comes to things. The response to this is vinyl sales growing year on year. Restoring vintage players was my main source of income until Urban outfitters jumped on the bandwagon, they are now mass produced once again. The point is people wanted to own the album, look at the artwork and keep going back to it, not download it in to the labyrinth of thirty five thousand singles on their iphone. Record collecting is 'cool' again.
So, why does the popularity of this era of design seem to be so enduring and seemingly showing no signs of slowing down?
So where are we today with Mid-century? Well, as with most things in life there is both good and bad and there seems to be a slight saturation at times. A major problem the re-application of the phrase that drives lots of people (mostly purists) mad. If you look on ebay, craigslist or Amazon you will see rafts of cheap, re-production items labelled mid-century modern constantly. Sometimes items are just old or second hand but slap mid-century on it and its worth an extra couple of hundred dollars!
Large companies are particularly annoying with their 'Mid-century inspired' ranges. Part of me understands why they do this but I'm pretty sure notable designers of the period would be spinning in their graves at some of the monstrosities that are being given the same label as their work. They tend to frustrate me and other mid century dealers because we are generally independent businesses who love the real deal and there is a finite amount of stock that these companies cannot mass produce. So they hijack the keywords instead. With the phrases 'Vintage' or 'Mid-century' the clue is in the words, but they have been manipulated in to design umbrella terms, terms that cover too many products now. Some of which have no business being sheltered there at all.
Among interior designers it seems there is a mixed consensus. When it comes to The Mad Men pastiche (above), I think designers are well and truly over that but the era's biggest strength seems tied to its greatest weakness, in the world of interior design at least. Classics won't die. People will always covet Eames lounge chairs and Noguchi coffee tables and there in lies the beauty and the problem. Overkill. Add that to the mainstream thirst for all things mid century and a number of interior designers are conflicted. I read an article a few years ago in the New York times titled 'Why Won't Mid Century Design Die?' in which a number of well respected creative 'insiders' were interviewed on the subject. Their seeming collective eye roll which followed when asked the question if they where 'over' Mid Century Modern was also re-inforced with an admittance that most still used pieces from the period, albeit more sparingly, because in a nutshell they just work so well. Nothing better has yet knocked certain design icons off their perch.
Trends do come and go and Mid-century may slip out of the mainstream back to its cult puddle where it belongs in the near future. As for items with age, humans will always be fascinated by objects with a history, a reverence for meaning may even intensify for some now that we move closer towards the virtual world on the horizon.
So, what's the next era prime for pastiche and grand imitation for design, specifically regarding furniture and home decor for the masses to saturate? There are a number of schools of thought on this, Deco? 80s? Gothic? Colonial? Who knows, if you did you could make a lot of money being ahead of the trend. As a dealer myself I have to be passionate about what I am selling, I have to love what I am doing to do it well. Some people sell the trend, not the style. Hopefully there will always be a place for Mid-century furniture in some capacity or maybe I will grow tired of it? I'm not so sure.
I remember speaking to friend of mine that has been dealing in furniture for 30 years and seen it all come and go; Edwardian, Georgian, farmhouse, traditional you name it, and now Mid-century is his chosen era to trade in. He has no emotional attachment to what he sells and counts himself as a glorified 'junk dealer'. He told me in the 90s he was dumping six foot teak credenzas because nobody wanted them "I could cry now thinking about that" he said. I asked him one day "Derek, what do you think will be the next trend? After this one?" hoping to get some wisdom. "I'm not sure lad' he replied "but its that ikea type crap that was everywhere after this and nobody wants that. I'll tell you one thing, if those hipsters wanted old crappy vacuum cleaners to turn into tables for their fancy pads I'd drive around all day and sell that to those assholes"