Today, more than ever, the midcentury modern look is everywhere. Turn on The Daily Show and you’ll see the guests sitting in classic Knoll office chairs. If you dine in a contemporary restaurant tonight, there’s a good chance you’ll be seated in a chair that was designed in the 1950s—whether it is an Eames, Bertoia, Cherner, or Saarinen.
“Midcentury modern” itself is a difficult term to define. It broadly describes architecture, furniture, and graphic design from the middle of the 20th century (roughly 1933 to 1965, though some would argue the period is specifically limited to 1947 to 1957). The timeframe is a modifier for the larger modernist movement, which has roots in the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century and also in the post-World War I period.
Herman Miller pieces. Image courtesy Herman Miller.
The popularity of midcentury modern design today has roots at the time of Greenberg’s book. Most of the designs of the midcentury had gone out of fashion by the late 60s, but in the early- to mid-eighties, interest in the period began to return. Within a decade, vintage midcentury designs were increasingly popular, and several events helped to boost midcentury modern’s appeal from a niche group of design enthusiasts into the mainstream.
Some midcentury furniture designs, like the iconic Eames Lounge Chair, never went out of production, but many others had fallen out of production by the mid 90s. And even getting your hands on the pieces that were still being produced would have been challenging without an architect or a designer to order a piece for you.
Roger Sterling’s office on Mad Men.
The sales of the contemporary reproductions of the vintage midcentury designs got a huge boost in 1999, when a California entrepreneur, Rob Forbes, launched Design Within Reach, a direct-mail catalog and online business. (While many make fun of the company’s name today, it was meant to describe the ease with which consumers could purchase the products, not their prices.) Not only did DWR give consumers direct access to midcentury modern pieces that were once sold only to the trade, but the catalogs also functioned as a design education for the masses. Every piece of furniture was accompanied by a biography of the product’s designer, making Eames, Noguchi, and Saarinen into household names. DWR quickly became Herman Miller’s largest retailer.
A pair of Knoll Barcelona chairs once owned by Charles Gwathmey, offered for $24,000 via 1stdibs.com.
The Carlo Mollino table that sold for $3.9 million. Image courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.
True collectors aren’t just snapping up vintage Eames lounge chairs. Rather, they are after one-of-a-kind pieces that have documented history and provenance.
Midcentury modern design, as shown in House Beautiful issues from 1960.
Media also played a role in midcentury modern’s popularity. Wallpaper* and Dwell are two magazines that deserve much credit for championing the midcentury look.
MoMA’s “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” exhibition, which opened in 1941. Photo via Pointed Leaf Press.
Familiarity is also a factor in midcentury’s enduring popularity. Baby boomers who grew up with midcentury designs are certainly part of the market for both the originals and the reproductions. For this generation, the designs are a direct connection to their youth.
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