“Mid-Century Modern” (MCM) has become a buzzword among furniture retailers, designers, and those seeking to give their home a certain “retro” look.
If you’re not familiar with the phrase, you may still be aware of the aesthetic. Think “Mad Men.” Remember the colors and furniture in Don Draper’s various offices? Think of his penthouse apartment, complete with conversation pit. Smooth curves, clean lines, minimal clutter or ornamentation. You got it.
And while MCM’s popularity hit a peak during the run of the show, make no mistake, designers and collectors were interested in this era of architecture, design, and home furnishing long before AMC briefly brought it back into the pop culture consciousness, and the work of American designers like Kem Weber, Heywood Wakefield, Milo Baughman, and myriad others, continues to be in high demand.
In fact, the term itself, “Mid-Century Modern,” was coined by author Cara Greenberg when it was used as the title of her book Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, published in 1984, long after the end of the era to which it refers.
Along with the American designers, Scandinavian artists like Finn Juhl and Arne Jacobsen were also creating their own modern designs in the mid-twentieth century, in a style known as “Danish Modern.” Because of the similarity of time period and style, Danish Modern is frequently categorized as MCM.
Both styles of furniture make appearances at antique shops, and contemporary stores frequently carry new models or lovely reproductions of the work. But the original furnishings were built to last, and are well-loved by their owners, so when you’re seeking out the best prices on authentic and vintage MCM designs, you should turn your attention to estate sales.
The MCM era is generally accepted to span from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s. During this time, a number of other styles were also popular—American Colonial Revival, Art Deco, French Provincial, to name a few. So let’s take a look at what, precisely, embodies Mid-Century Modern furniture design, and some of the names behind it.
A calling card of Mid-Century Modern furniture design was the use of a variety of materials. Isamu Noguchi designed tables for Herman Miller
made of wood and glass. The popular Eames lounge chair
is a vision in wood and metal. Plywood, wire-mesh, fiberglass, lucite, steel, and molded plastic were incorporated into this style of furniture. Despite such variety, the goal was...
Unlike popular and inarguably cozy overstuffed couches, or headboards carved with intricate patterns, designers of MCM furniture aimed to say more with less.
So much of the solid wood furniture is clear on its intent: straight lines and rounded curves to create a striking but sparse contrast.
But minimalist style does not equate to minimal fun. The fact that the era utilizes a variety of media frequently equates to a variety of textures, shapes, and colors. Plastic shell chairs and egg chairs, tables with curved and flared legs, atomic imagery and starbursts invoke both a now-bygone era and a more futuristic one.
Names to know
We’ve already mentioned a few of them, but let’s discuss some of the prominent designers of the Mid-Century and Danish Modern era. Many worked for manufacturers like Herman Miller, Knoll, or Heywood Wakefield, but the life of their creations carry on far beyond the life of their contracts.
Kem Weber was born and started his career in Germany, but found success in the U.S. in early MCM furniture design with his popular “airline” chair, making him a pioneer of the streamline aesthetic.
Charles and Ray Eames are inarguably the most influential married couple in MCM design and architecture. The Eameses were well known for many things, including their use of molded plywood and colorful molded plastic in their furniture design, and the creations they made for Herman Miller.
George Nakashima was a Japanese-American woodworker born in Spokane, Washington, Nakashima. He studied architecture before ultimately deciding to focus on wood and furniture design. His plans were stalled when, during World War II, he and his family were interred at a relocation center, but even then he honed his craft, working with a carpenter who was also interred. Once released, he moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania where he designed furniture lines for Knoll, as well as doing private commissions.
Hans Wegner was a Danish woodworker whose style is described as “organic functionality,” Wegner made wood and upholstered furniture for a number of manufacturers.
Harvey Probber is credited as being the inventor of sectional/modular seating. So if you’re reading this on a chaise lounge that happens to be connected to your couch and a side table, you know who to thank.
George Nelson was named the director of design at Herman Miller, despite having no furniture-designing experience. Through his work there, Nelson’s design studio is credited with some of the most recognizable MCM furnishings, including the marshmallow sofa, coconut chair, and the ball clock. He even had his hand in the creation of the modern office cubicle.
Milo Baughman designed furniture for six decades, utilizing wood, chrome, and other materials to create a modern California style. Baughman (pronounced “boff'-man”), worked with more than a dozen manufacturers, most notably Thayer Coggin, in a partnership that lasted more than 50 years.
Arne Jacobsen considered himself first and foremost an architect, it’s difficult to deny the impact he had on MCM furniture. His egg chair is one of the most recognizable popular designs of the era.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive; just an example of the myriad names behind this perennially popular style.
Despite its date-restrictive name, Mid-Century Modern design is timeless. The styles developed in the 1950s are still on production lines today. Herman Miller continues to offer the Eames chair and ottoman, which sells on their website for nearly $5000. Thayer Coggin has made an agreement with the estate of Milo Baughman, allowing them to produce his designs as long as they wish.
Where original MCM designs are lacking, reproductions abound, while still other manufacturers simply find inspiration from those vintage styles. When you’re considering making an investment on an estate sale find, it’s important to do your research.
If you’re looking on EstateSales.NET for retro furniture, watch for keywords to confirm that what you’re lining up to buy is what you’re expecting. You’ll find some pieces are listed as in the “style of” a popular MCM designer, which means it’s not an authentic piece. But that doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. Perhaps you appreciate the MCM aesthetic, but not the pricetag that can come with it. Or maybe you want to find a piece to refurbish, paint, and make your own. A reproduction will allow you to get creative without covering up a piece of design history.
If you’re looking for the real thing, seek out the manufacturer marks. Check all sides—the estate sale company may be able to help you—it’s likely they sought out the same markings when setting up for the sale, and perhaps they can give you a little history of the piece, either from the manufacturing side, or from the previous owner.
Prices can vary widely. There are pieces that were made through mass-production methods, and others on a more limited run. Know your budget, what you’re looking for, and what you’re looking at. Don’t let that leggy, curvy blonde birch table beguile you...too much. Keep your wits about you.
Also remember that by design many MCM pieces sit lower to the ground than contemporary furniture. Keep a tape measure handy (good advice for any estate sale), so if you have a specific use in mind for the piece you’ve been coveting on EstateSales.NET, you know whether it will meet your needs.