Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Mid Century Fabulous

A moment in the limelight brings on a stir of mid century madness.

I recall taking a tour of the Baker Furniture showroom at the Design Center on Market Street a few years ago with a group of design enthusiasts who were escorted by a longtime respected Philadelphia designer - a matriarch of the industry. A youngish rep from the company brought out some pieces from a newer line that were a departure from the traditional Baker style and the brand's typical rich, dark wood finishes. The pieces were sleek lined and minimal, and some of them were done in light wood finishes, including a few that were painted white.

The designer asked, "And what is the name of this line?" The rep said, "We call it Mid Century Modern." The designer replied, "Mid Century Modern? Heavens! What will they think of next!" My head did a double-take on that.

The fact that the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story a couple weeks ago titled Mid Century Modern Goes Mainstream, and the fact that some folks in the design world are still waking up to the Eames era aesthetic, simply mystifies me. Did it really take a show like Mad Men to finally bring the style to the forefront of people's tastes? Have names like Herman Miller, George Nelsen, Knoll and Saarinen been stowed in some sort of furniture style incubator all this time? I've spent decades seeking and collecting so many of the period's treasured pieces. Have I just been some sort of Trekie-like geek of the obscure furniture collector world?

Probably not. There's been a steady and strong core of collectors and buyers out there scouring for Mid Century Modern, Danish Modern, Eames style - whatever moniker it gets. It's just gotten a little push from a TV show and a bit over-hyped by the Inquirer's style pages.

Mid Century Furniture Warehouse lamp.
Mid Century Modern chair
Mod table and chairs.

But a point made in the article about the regional aspect of period's resurgence does indeed carry some weight:

"Certainly, Mad Men gets credit for renewing the public’s interest in the old, solid-wood, handmade pieces — good for decorating small spaces in Philadelphia rowhouses and replicating a Dwell magazine spread. But what many don’t know is that Philadelphia has long been a hotbed of good-quality period furniture — furniture that was purchased by design-forward residents in the postwar years, but that’s now coming to market (or to the curb on lucky trash days) as the original owners downsize or die.

"As New York’s own market has become both picked-over and exponentially more expensive, dealers say, there’s been growing interest in Philly’s cache of mid-20th century finds. Add to that the region’s status as a hub for the contemporaneous and aesthetically linked American studio furniture movement, and it’s no wonder local estate sales and auctions are packed with out-of-state treasure hunters, hot for your parents’ old furniture."

Saarinen style chairs
My neighbor Brian Lawlor owns the Mid Century Furniture Warehouse in Fishtown, which seems to be flourishing with activity lately, drawing clients who are local vintage-lovers, out-of-state mid century connoisseurs and even production assistants for locally filmed movies, including the upcoming Dead Man Down, starring Colin Farrell. The Warehouse was also mentioned in the Inquirer's feature.

“It’s become a good business," said Mr Lawlor in an interview with Designer In Exile. "Prices have gone up and people seem to know more about the designers and categories." He also gives the nod to Mad Men for a possible uptick of interest. "But I think the Internet has a lot to do with it," he added.

Much if not most of his business model is run off the Internet and by word of mouth, which allows him to still offer a bargain for consumers, due to the low overhead. It may well be that bargain hunting is the other essential component of the equation, given the realities of this still sluggish economy.

But perhaps the more profound take away for Mr. Lawlor's business, whether he knows it or not, is that he's contributing greatly to an up-cycling culture and sustainability, and thus piece by quality piece is fighting off another IKEA landfill tragedy. To read more on that, see our previous Exile post Vintage Smart.


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  1. Center table lamps are the main attraction of a living room. Every design must start with this.

  2. Great place, I live in the neighborhood and swear by it. http://www.vintagelooks.com