Furniture is a funny thing. It’s one of the few objects in life that people don’t have a say in until they start living on their own. When you’re a kid, you get to weigh in on the clothes you wear and the food you eat, but your parents don’t ask your opinion when it comes time to buy a new couch. More independence comes when you go to college, but you’re still usually stuck with crappy dorm furniture that miraculously manages to be a loft bed, desk and closet. Sure, you may throw a couple Salvation Army chairs in there, but that decision is based more on resistance to beer stains than any aesthetic point of view.
It’s only when you leave school and are living on your own that you start picking out your own furniture. And eventually we all move beyond Ikea—although some of the Swedish company’s earliest designs have now become collector’s items—and approach what can be called a “grown-up” home. For many, that means making the step up to mid-century modern furniture.
The design movement that took place after World War II and lasted roughly through the late 1950s-early 1960s was characterized by creative, flowing lines and an optimistic spirit. Even if you don’t know who made them or what they’re called, you’d recognize many of the seminal pieces of mid century modern furniture instantly. They’ve become icons.
To help understand the enduring appeal of mid-century designs, we spoke with Tony Freund, the editor in chief of Introspective, the weekly online magazine of the popular digital marketplace 1stDibs.com. Though it has since greatly expanded its offerings, 1stDibs gained popularity in the early aughts for its online collection of vintage mid century modern pieces that, up until that point, had been the exclusive purview of small furniture dealers and auction houses. Freund sees his role as both a storyteller and an educator, providing context for people who may not be instantly familiar with names like Eames.
We spoke with him about the signature characteristics of mid-century modern furniture, the case for buying vintage and how people are incorporating the designs in their homes. And, if you’re inspired to go out and upgrade some of the pieces in your home, we’ve put together a collection of some of the seminal pieces, both new and vintage, that are great starting points.
How do you define mid-century modern furniture?
There’s debate on what the exact time frame is. I was just reading a second edition of Mid-century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s that was written by Cara Greenberg that came out in the ‘80s. She claims she actually coined the term and I think she’s right. In the book, she says it’s the period from 1947-1957. Today, I think mid century modernism generally applies to the '40s through the '60s. It begins in the post-World War II era. It seemed like a new modern age. There was a feeling of optimism. There was a building boom, a baby boom. Young families were starting off with affordable houses, and they needed to fill it with affordable furniture. On the higher end, there was a newly affluent class looking for a new aesthetic expression in their homes and were working with top artisans to create furniture of the highest caliber. It was an international movement—we have mid century modernism in Scandinavia—but America was a hotbed.
During the middle of the 20th century, when these designs were new, how were they received?
They were embraced and popular. It was a new era and people wanted a new expression in their homes. Prior to World War II, decor was still grounded in the 19th century and traditional styles. The [modern] pieces relied on technologies that were new or materials that were being used in new ways. It was a way of saying we’ve entered a new optimistic age.
What are some of the signature characteristics of mid-century modern furniture?
Clean lines. Materials used in a new way. A mixture of new technologies—metals, plastics. But also an embrace of wood and handcrafted materials that were either mixed with newer materials or just expressed in new ways or new forms.
Why do you think the style has endured so well?
It fell out of favor, as most styles do, after their heyday. It’s only come back into popularity in the last 20 years or so. It still is imbued with that sense of optimism, of forward thinking. The shapes are fun. The materials feel cool in a new way now. There is a sense of rediscovery. We also see that a lot of these guys and women were innovators. These people were creating a whole new design vocabulary. We appreciate them now in a way that we couldn’t 20-30 years ago.
How do you see pieces appreciating on 1stDibs?
Initially the preponderance of what we sold was mid century modern, and it’s still an incredibly important category. At a certain point, it becomes harder and harder to find great mid century modern material to sell which means that if you bought 20 years ago, you probably did pretty well because they’ve appreciated in value considerably. It’s still there for the picking. In terms of finding a great undiscovered maker whose market hasn’t yet exploded, that’s increasingly hard to do, but not unheard of.
When it comes to buying new vs. buying vintage, what are some things to be mindful of?
We’re always going to advocate for buying vintage. The idea that this was produced by the original maker, the idea that provenance can play a part in the value of a vintage piece, even the idea of patina. If you’re a lover of history, then a vintage piece is going to have appeal. And from a purely investment standpoint, a vintage piece is ultimately going to perform better down the road than a piece that’s being produced today. That said, great design is great design and not everybody can afford to stretch to buy a vintage piece.
How do you make sure that you’re not getting screwed when buying vintage?
Buying on a site like 1stdibs is definitely one way to avoid it. We carefully vet dealers. We also vet the material that is being sold on site. If you’re investing at a certain level you have to do some kind of research. You have to read books, look at auction records. Go to galleries, speak to the dealers directly. Dealers love nothing more than to talk about this stuff. There’s all kinds of data available online in terms of auction records. You can basically plug in any piece and find price histories, so you can get a sense of the market to if you’re crazily overpaying or if it’s price is in line with other like pieces.
How do you see people incorporating mid century modern furniture into their homes now?
When mid century modern first became hot again, people were creating whole environments out of this material. Now it’s all about the mix. Today people still love interesting pieces from that [mid century] period. But they’re filling rooms with a great piece of mid century modern and also some piece from the 80s and bringing 18th century English antique into the mix and then having some incredibly cool 21st century light fixture. There are no rules anymore, which is cool.
EAMES LOUNGE CHAIR AND OTTOMAN
Few names are more closely associated with the mid century modern movement than the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames, and this lounge chair is one of the pair’s most recognized creations. It features the molded plywood that the Eameses helped pioneer and is as comfortable to sit in as it is beautiful to look at.
Isamu Noguchi worked in many different mediums, including creating sets for famed choreographer Martha Graham. His Zen-like coffee table was first introduced in 1948 and is both a literal and figurative study in balance.
GEORGE NELSON PLATFORM BENCH
Nelson was not only an incredible designer in his own right, but also gave rise to many other icons of modernism through his post as Director of Design for Herman Miller furniture. The Platform Bench, which often doubles as a coffee table, is one of Nelson’s most recognizable creations and stands as testament to the fact that great design doesn’t have to be complicated.
ARCO FLOOR LAMP
When you look at the Arco lamp, you half expect it to tip over any moment. Designed by brothers Achille and Pier Castiglioni, the lamp is able to defy gravity thanks to the sturdy Carrera marble base. The Arco has been a star not just in homes, but also on the silver screen, having appeared in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever and The Italian Job.
Eero Saarinen was the architect behind some of the most striking buildings in America, such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the gullwinged TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York. He also applied his distinctive eye to furniture, and with the pedestal table, sought to overturn the notion that a table needed to have four legs. With its singular, flowing base, this table became a staple figure of the mid century modern movement.
FRANCES KNOLL SOFA
Frances Knoll was mentored by the renowned Mies Van Der Rohe and her designs reflect a shared appreciation for clean, minimal lines. This couch would look just as sharp in Don Draper’s office on Mad Men as it does in a modern home today.