Mid-Century Modern Furniture
Published in the winter of 2012 edition of Vintage KC
Written by Michael and James Fry
One of the best things about being in the estate sale industry is getting to put our hands on items that hold a historical or cultural significance. We have a wish list of items to sell. Yes, sell, not own, (OK, maybe own too) dig out of a dark, dusty back corner of a basement, unveil it to the world and then pass it along to be used and loved by someone in our community who will treasure it and appreciate its significance. From Herman Miller fiberglass chairs to Singer Featherweight machines, Toledo drafting stools to Pyrex percolators, each item that we sell ups the ante for what we want to handle next. And at the top of the list is an Eames molded plywood chair.
The Eames molded plywood chair was developed by Charles & Ray Eames and is produced by Herman Miller to this day. The chair construction went against the conventional furniture designs of its time that were mostly big, heavy, and upholstered. During the early 1940’s Charles and Ray experimented with plywood molding while designing sets for MGM. Learning of their work, the US Navy commissioned them to make lightweight plywood splints and stretchers that were used in World War II. With their molding technique perfected, the Eames built their first plywood chair in 1946. This piece is now considered a work of art and an iconic example of Mid Century Modern design. Time Magazine has recognized this chair as the “Best Design of the 20th Century.” Examples of Eames chairs are on display at Kansas City’s own Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The Eames chair, and others like it, ushered in a new design era termed Mid-Century Modern.
Mid-Century Modern design sprang from the post World War II industrialization boom and continued through the mid 1960’s. During this time there were sweeping changes in architecture, graphic design, & industrial design most characterized by functional form and simple, clean lines. Designers worked to be less formal, opting instead for organic, geometric designs. This modern style permeated the look of the time including residential housing, furniture and home décor. In addition to Charles & Ray Eames, other notable Mid-Century designers include Eero Saarinen (tulip chair, Gateway Arch in St Louis), Arne Jacobsen (egg & ant chairs), and Paul McCobb (Planner Group furniture, electronics).
It has only been in the last couple of years that the Mid-Century aesthetic has again gained mainstream popularity and its trendiness is growing. Just this past year Better Homes and Gardens magazine featured a mid-century fiberglass rocker on one of its covers. If a magazine with a readership of 39 million people displays 1950’s style then you know the trend has moved beyond the fringes. This is both positive and negative for vintage collectors and resellers. The rise in popularity means a growing number of people will dust off their mid-century items and offer them for sale, but they often have high expectations of what their “family heirlooms” should be worth.
For all who are on the hunt for great mid-century finds here are a few things to look out for: Furniture should be simple with no embellishments, scroll work or carvings. Tables, dressers and hutches are often boxy and incorporate metal hairpin or tapered wooden dowel legs. Look for pieces made out of teak wood or finished with a light natural appearance. Upholstered couches and armchairs usually have straight lines, great textures, and come in organic colors such as brick red, mustard, olive green, turquoise, or burnt orange.
Etsy.com and EBay.com are two of the best resources to gain both a well-rounded eye for “mid-century” and to find those hard-to-come-by gems. If you are in the market for larger items like furniture, you will likely need to stay local to avoid immense shipping fees. Estate sales can be hit and miss, but when you stumble upon a mid-century treasure, often the price is hard to beat. For a dependable outlet in the Kansas City area, The River Market Antique Store is the place to go. They have a very consistent – ever changing supply of Mid -Century Modern furniture & décor, and their prices are generally quite good. Happy Mid-Century Hunting.