Mid-century Furniture: When the Problem is Also the Solution

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I don’t often write about current events – Wait! Wait – this isn’t about the election. I swear on a stack of Roubos that I will never write about that. This blog is a safe place.

What I’m writing about is a recent story in The New York Times about furniture styles headlined: “Why Won’t Midcentury Design Die?” Here’s a link to original story (no guarantee that they will let you read it, I’m afraid).

The story begins:

In 1998, The New York Times noted a new design trend. Cool creative types were tossing aside their thrift store décor in favor of midcentury modern. Out went the funky votive candles and wrought-iron beds, and in came the clean-lined furniture of Arne Jacobsen, Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Florence Knoll. The look’s adherents were labeled “Generation Wallpaper,” after the magazine.

For some reason, time stopped.

Nearly two decades later, midcentury modern remains the rage. If anything, it’s even more popular. Flip through a shelter magazine, scroll on 1stdibs.com or shop at a mass retailer like CB2 or West Elm, and it’s all variations on a spiky-legged-chair-and-Tulip-table theme.

Art Nouveau, 1920s Spanish and shabby chic were all looks that the cognoscenti embraced at one time or another, but never for this long. It’s as if the mechanism that refreshes cultural trends every few years has developed a glitch.

The writer then interviews editors of shelter magazines, sellers of furniture, gallery owners and interior designers about why this has happened and what they think of it. Two typical comments:

DAVID ALHADEFF, owner, the Future Perfect: “I’m completely over it. I roll my eyes. Placing another Womb chair in the corner of the bedroom is easy and a real cop-out, frankly. Designers and architects should know better at this point. Oh, my gosh. Enough!”

MICHAEL BOODRO: “Your eye does get bored. Twenty years ago, when midcentury was first being discovered, you could do a straight interior, and that was exciting. People want to go beyond the expected. You don’t have to show the Florence Knoll sofa in nubby beige like she did.”

I read the whole piece, of course. And I was both nauseated and thrilled. Not by the photos of midcentury pieces or the comments of the interior designers. I was instead deeply affected by the word that rarely gets discussed when talking about interior design. And that’s “waste.”

Interior designers thrive on change because it gives them work. Someone wealthy wants to redo their brownstone. They call an interior designer, who then gets to go shopping (and, perhaps, employ some makers), guts the rooms and installs the new stuff. And the scene repeats itself every so often.

This cycle of destruction and redecorating used to be reserved only for the rich. But with IKEA and other contemporary manufacturers, we can all act this way, throw our old stuff to the curb and redecorate with new stuff, which will last five or six years at most. (Rinse and repeat.)

But what happens where a particular style, such as midcentury, gets stuck in the public consciousness? What if people don’t want to throw out their Eames fiberglass chairs or their tulip tables? What if they become illogically attached to their Hans Wegner chairs. Or Mid Century Mobler?

If you have read “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” then you know what I hope will happen. Furniture will become like craft beer, cave-aged cheese or artisanal no-kill lederhosen. And there will be one more giant purge of our termite-barf furniture.

I’m too jaded to think this could really happen. But you have to have hope.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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14 Responses to Mid-century Furniture: When the Problem is Also the Solution

  1. Deniseg says:

    Yes, yes, and one more yes. Here’s hoping right along with you.

  2. nordichomey says:

    Craft beer, good cheese, hand made furniture…. Talk about heaven

  3. Patrick Harrington says:

    The other day I was listening to some program on BBC radio where the radio presenter had a group of experts talking about debt. One idea that seemed to be common among most of the experts was that personal debt was such a wonderful, emancipating, force for good in the world, because with its advent, lower to middle income people could now spend as though they were upper income people, buying more stuff, thus decreasing poverty and increasing happiness, etc. The only dissenting voice was the expert who seemed to think that most everything should be provided for free and everyone should be given money by the government because having to work for it was somehow dehumanizing and demoralizing.

    Anyway, it got me to thinking about consumerism and how such an overwhelmingly huge percentage of the population will assume debt so they can throw away “old stuff” and buy new stuff. A seemingly insatiable hunger for something, anything, new or different. Now I have also noticed an incredible fascination in pop culture with zombies and the zombie apocalypse. Books, comics, movies, etc., zombies seem to be a dominant archetype currently. Which, finally, leads me to my point in this reply.

    I think the current fascination with all things zombie is an expression of the collective subconscious decrying the unbridled consumerism rampant in the world today. It is as though, not individually and not consciously, but collectively and subconsciously, people are aware and afraid of where this age of consumerism might be leading. We are consumerist zombies and the apocalypse beckons.

    Guess I’d better back off on the Guinness and Knob Creek before I get maudlin or something, but your post reminded me of this train of thought. Maybe not spot on topic, but definitely related.

    Patrick

    • Jeff Curran says:

      You should check out Evan Calder Williams’ wonderful book “a combined and uneven apocalypse” where he talks about this very thing, and argues that the horror of the zombie is that it is a body whose use value is completely removed from its exchange value, just total surplus.

  4. yrmh1 says:

    I hate waste as well. Absolutely abhor it. I cannot deny however some of the benefits that I enjoy in our society as a result of rampant consumerism. It’s not easy biting the hand that feeds, eh Chris?

  5. nathand496 says:

    The interior designers can pry my early Eames Lounge and Ottoman from under my child, dead corpse. It’s survived 50 years so far, I figure it will outlive me.

    The whole idea expressed in the article is repugnant. Good design is forever; that’s part of what makes it good design. Whether it’s a Windsor chair, a Thonet No. 14, or an Eames. Despire waxing and waning trends, they’re always good looking and popular.

  6. Good design may be forever…I don’t think anyone could debate the essence of that in the larger picture. However we then have to move onto what…”Good Design”…may actually be. Just because something is (or was) trending, even for a long time, does not make it good design, and most here would agree the means, methods and materials of the “Jetson Furniture” trend simply…sucked…or at least my sense of Good Design thinks so…

    I am another huge YES!!!! for bringing back bespoke everything and better design implementation with a solid understanding of means, methods and materials in regard to sustainability and durability. Mid Century furniture was the death of actual good design in my view. It was a major boon for mass produced industrial everything. It further reminds me of the idiocy of Andy Warhol’s creations…not of Art…but of mass consumerism and product promotion and marketing…Of that he was a genius!

    I have never heard the expression…”Termite Barf Furniture.” I am sorry…that is simply priceless!!

    • tsstahl says:

      “I have never heard the expression…”Termite Barf Furniture.””
      Hang around here some more and you will definitely hear the expression in some form.

      I’m with you. I’m generally _not_ a fan of mid-century modern (MCM), though that can’t be a blanket statement as there are a number of examples that I do like. Plywood, Formica, and chromed steel have their institutional place, but not in my life where I can help it.

      As Chris often points out, those pieces with timeless attributes (where the MCM examples I like are) can always find a home. They are the trees and shrubs in the bucolic painting that frame the bright red barn. Everyone looks at the barn, ignoring the ‘noise’ in the background that actually give it context and meaning. The thing is, and Chris opened my eyes to it, those pieces are found throughout time and didn’t just start in 1952.

      I’m going to stop now before I start using food words to describe furniture. Maybe I’ll lift heavy weights, or put the spare tire on the truck just because I can to shore up my man card stock. 😉 Point being, I’m a design idiot, but I know what I like.

      • I agree…some of it is beautiful and of a sustainable nature…

        I think of George Nakashima’s work as MCM work. I think what he gave us is not only timeless, it is so rustically simplistic that it will probably always be with us…as long as we maintain some semblance to a human ergonomically…and not devolve into some donut munching, TV addicted creature that is more round rolls of fat and skin…than what we see of ourselves today…

  7. Can I hear an Amen!? ☺

  8. yrmh1 says:

    Once upon a time Chippendale was considered good design by those who could afford it. If we all decide that cardboard box is good design, then cardboard box it will be.
    The ironic thing to me about a clinging to the mid-century modern style is the fact that this period in America was marked by an “out with the old, in with the new” attitude. Some of our most beautiful buildings (especially public ones like the City Hall building in Grand Rapids, MI) were demolished to make way for new, presumably better ones made of concrete, glass and steel. Whole swaths of urban neighborhoods were demolished to make way for the new highways and freeways. New labor saving appliances and devices of the post-war era combined with an emphasis on “dispose-ability” were intended to free us from the previous drudgery of work intensive labor around the home. And here we are trying to preserve some artifacts from this era…interesting.

  9. rickbowles says:

    That’s it. I’m getting an Eames chair.

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