Turning Mid-Century Modern, Again
by Maxine Carter-Lome
It’s the tail end of 2016 and the subject of mid-century modern design seems as much on trend today as it was when it first burst on the scene in the mid-1940s. Just this past September a New York Times article posed the provocative question, “Why Won’t Midcentury Design Die?” The “insiders” interviewed for the article point to the simplicity, functionality, and easy upkeep of furnishings from this era, making them ideal for small, urban apartments and for use as dynamic accent pieces.
“I cut my teeth 20 years ago on this stuff and here I still am shipping it to a show. It was American, it was easy to find. That’s why it won’t die with the dealers. It’s like camouflage: it’s been the new cool thing five times in the last 50 years,” says Patrick Parrish, owner of Patrick Parrish Gallery in New York City.
“America is urbanizing again. The purpose this furniture served a long time ago is still a purpose it serves today: it’s intuitive to smaller spaces. I don’t know if there’s another time period with such a prolific amount of beautifully functional designs,” says Jim Brett, president of West Elm, a home retailer “focused on the intersection of modern design, affordability and community.”
The uncomplicated, fresh aesthetic of mid-century modern burst onto the scene as a postwar America looked optimistically toward the future. Formally labeled a design movement or era in 1983 by Cara Greenberg in the title of her book, “Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s” (Random House), it is defined as a period of roughly two and a half decades in the middle of the 20th century, from the mid-1940s to 1970. Its emphasis – from architecture to home furnishings – is on clean lines, simple forms, contemporary patterns, and a seamless flow between indoors and out.
Perhaps no other period produced as many household-name artists and designers as this era, including Charles and Ray Eames. From their iconic and ever-pervasive molded plywood and fiberglass chairs to their sleek lounge chair and ottoman, Eames furniture has become a symbol of the mid-century modern movement. Together, Charles, an architect, and Ray, an artist and graphic designer, re-defined furniture designed for the masses – for their homes and for public spaces such as O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, where their Tandem Sling Seating has become synonymous with airport terminal seating. To learn more about Charles and Ray Eames and the impact they had on re-imagining furniture designed for a new era, read Annabel Keenan’s article on page 30.
While many pieces of mid-century modern furniture remain practical and relevant, Moss lamps – “the lamps that spin” – remain “truly a conversation piece.” Whimsical in look and functionality, Moss lamps were expensive for their time but their designs made them hugely popular in the anything-goes modern world of post-war design. Today, the bold design choices and whimsical charm of Moss lamps make them highly collectible, as you will learn in Donald-Brian Johnson’s article on page 28.
Many mid-century modern pieces, like Moss lamps, owe their unique look and form to Plexiglas(r), an acrylic product developed in 1934 by the Rohm & Haas Company. Plexi became a highly desired foundation for a new era in home furnishings because it was inexpensive, not a rationed material, and could be easily cut and molded in a way metal could not. This allowed furniture to be cost-effectively mass-produced. Plexiglas became a popular assembly material for everything from lamps to coffee tables, dining tables, buffets, and chairs, and an easily identifiable feature element of the mid-century modern design aesthetic.
If fads and fashion come full circle over time, then mid-century modern has enjoyed several reincarnations, the most recent due to the explosive popularity of the hit TV show, “Mad Men,” which glamorized the designs, fashions, and furnishings of the mid-century era. The unique pieces and designers that define the era are still very much in demand but the market is also flooded with well-made reproductions, and contemporary twists on the iconic originals. As Anne Gilbert notes in her article on page 26, serious collectors looking for authentic pieces need to do their homework. We hope this issue gives you a good place to start.
Turning Mid-Century Modern, Again