What Collectors Should Know About Mid-Century Modernisms’ Many Looks

What Collectors Should Know About Mid-Century Modernisms' Many Looks

By Anne Gilbert

Change was blowing in the wind after World War II. Everything was new thanks to scientists, designers and a generation yearning for something different. Today the results are known as Mid-Century Modernism.

Mid-Century Modernism took many forms. You may be surprised to know that your baby’s first toy, or your grandchild’s, that dangled over their heads was a mobile. First designed by the famed sculptor Alexander Calder in the 1950s as a moving sculpture, it was adapted to be attached to a baby’s crib. The simple shapes and colors with the gentle movement were intended to be relaxing and integrated.

Beginning in the 1940s, housing was suddenly available in a new way as affordable community housing developments sprung up around the country for returning GIs and their families. Furnishing those homes brought about more changes that were readily available and represented new beginnings and a look to the future.

Science paved the way with new materials, and designers used them in new forms. It was the dawn of mid-century modernism around the world and the era when mass-production gained respect. The Herman Miller Company of Zeeland, Michigan began the introduction of Modernism furnishings to the mass of Americans beginning to decorate homes and offices. They brought not only the designs of Charles and Ray Eames to this mass market but other new names that included George Nelson and Isamu Noguchi.

It was also the beginning of ‘do it yourself projects’ that were presented by such shelter magazines as “House Beautiful,” “Home Notes,” and “My Home.” These magazines and others brought the decorator look to Middle America and GI brides. If they couldn’t afford some of the expensive items they did their own version with ‘do it yourself.’ Mass produced unpainted bookcases and shelving were painted in the new color combinations of the day: chartreuse and blue: pink and orange.

Modern design isn’t just one look with many descriptive names. There is Biomorphic Modern that first took shape in Europe several decades before it became part of the Modern Design look. Furniture designers and architects used amoeboid shapes for cocktail tables and chairs. Later the form appeared as small decorative objects. It was also referred to as ‘boomerang,’ ‘freeform,’ and ‘organic.’

The ‘tulip’ shape is another example of the exaggerated forms used from furniture to glassware and ceramics.

Design subjects were often influenced by the new Atomic-Nuclear age. Suddenly there were flying saucers, molecules and satellites, decorating drapes, wallpaper as well as the new Formica countertops and the now-classic Sputnik chandeliers. Plastics began to take many forms that brought it from utilitarian kitchen items to the living room and playroom. Top industrial designers created chairs in new forms such as the famous rocking chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames for the Herman Miller furniture Company in 1950.

Furniture also developed funny names based on their shapes. Would you recognize a coconut chair or a pretzel chair? What about the ‘marshmallow’ sofa designed by George Nelson in 1956?

There were many important international furniture designers such as Hans Wegner of Denmark and Osvaldo Borsani of Italy.

Entertaining and dining was changed by the introduction of a new plastic material, known as Melamine. Designer Russel Wright first used it to design dinnerware. In 1953 he designed the first plastic dinnerware for consumer use. It was named ‘Residential.’

The TV tray table was a new necessity that went along with the first generation of TV watchers.

American and European potteries joined the Modern movement creating new shapes and colors. Among them Haeger, Redwing and Bauer.

Along with Russel Wright, one of the most influential designers of modern movement ceramics was Eva Zeisel. Her salt and pepper shakers in organic biomorphic shape still attract collectors.

Studio Art Pottery had a rebirth with the Modernism movement, taking on new glazes and shapes. The work of Mary and Edwin Scheir is considered the most important influence in this category. Earthenware became an important material, worked into often abstract designs.

California potters such as Sascha Brastoff and Hedi Schoop made figurative giftware a must-have accessory.

In Italy and Scandinavia colorful vases and vessels developed their own signature styles. Italian ceramics used colorful enamel and leather applications. Scandinavia
developed its own distinctive looks with decorative objects designed by Bjorn Winblad of Denmark took a whimsical tone. In Finland dinnerware by the Arabia Oy Company became popular in America.

Even conservative Brits took to the Modern designs of Lucy Rie and other studio potters.

Dramatic changes came to the look of once utilitarian glassware. The Italians and the Scandinavians set the example for Modern glass production. Bubble glass was created by the Scandinavians as was clear glass with engraved modernism motifs. The Italians used colorful geometric and diamond-shaped squares. Small glass clown figures designed by Paolo Venini were ‘hot’ tourist souvenirs. Reproductions are still being made.

In America the Steuben Company hired designers such as Sidney Waugh and Donald Pollard to create glass sculptures and modernize their utilitarian pieces. Their teardrop glassware was a breakthrough for them.

Jewelry took an exciting new turn with silver as the metal of choice but also combined with other unconventional materials. These included plain glass, minerals and semiprecious stones. The forms were undulating, biomorphic, organic, or surrealistic. Many related to sculpture or were mobile to appear like they were moving. America, Denmark and Italy silversmiths created their own styles.

Oh, by the way, it was goodbye to silver flatware! Who wanted to spend time polishing it? Stainless steel in modern designs was the popular replacement.

By now you have a pretty good idea of the many categories influenced by Mid-century Modernism. Others were sculpture, textiles and toys. However, there are a few descriptive terms that will help identify Mid-Century Modernism.

Textiles: Barkcloth two-ply cotton is woven to resemble the bark of a tree. Some refer to it as pebble cloth-textured fabric with a granite-like surface.

Rya rugs: long pile Scandinavian rugs with boldly colored abstract designs.

Ceramics: Crater is the name used by studio potters Gertrude and Otto Natzler to describe their bubbled, pitted glazes that resembled volcanic lava.

Furniture: Modular units were introduced – a variety of case pieces that could be used by themselves or various combinations. Modular storage units used steel frames with plywood and other materials.

Glass: Handkerchief vases with rims that looked like handkerchief folds. L.E. Smith modernized vases to look like water springing up from a base, aka swung vases. And art glass also brought a fluidity to glass bowls, ashtrays, pitchers, and more.

Fused-glass objects: Pioneered by Michael and Frances Higgins. Their technique fused layers of clear sheet glass with enamels into one-of-a-kind decorative accessories and jewelry.

If you are interested in beginning a collection of Mid-Century Modern, research is a must. While there are well-made reproductions, serious collectors looking for the authentic pieces need to do their homework. There are many books available on the subject (some of which are featured in our Bookshelf column on page 68). And make a day of seeing a variety of style and form when you check out museum exhibits and specialized auctions and shows specializing in this popular genre of collecting.

Nationally syndicated antiques columnist, Anne Gilbert, authored the first book on Mid-Century Modernism: “40’s, 50’s Designs & Memorabilia Identification and Price Guide” in 1994. It is still available at Amazon books.