The mid-century modern craze: clean-looking furniture for a dirty world

Demand for a 60-year-old style of home decor has grown so strong in the United States that it now dominates high-end galleries and discount stores, malls and auction houses

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 January, 2016, 2:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 January, 2016, 2:00am

I moved flats recently and decided I should buy some new furniture to fit the new space: a lounge chair, a couple of lamps, maybe a nightstand for the bedroom. I thought I’d find a wide range of options, but everywhere I turned stores in Los Angeles were pushing variations on the same style: unadorned, airy, lean and elegant – the sort of home decor that would not be out of place on an episode of Mad Men. A single vibe prevailed: mid-century modern (MCM).

I quickly learned that at some point in the past 10 years the cult of MCM design, once intense but self-contained, had grown into a mass religion. Long, low couches and womb-style chairs now appear in high-end galleries and discount stores, at the mall and in the auction house.

How did we get to be fanatics for a style that, in its original formulation, lasted just a decade, from 1947 to 1957?

The classic shapes of Eames and Nelson and Noguchi began their broad resurgence in the early 1990s. That’s when the key purveyors of the style from the postwar years, Knoll and Herman Miller, returned to making items for the home after a several-decades-long detour into office furniture.

But it was a savvy, style-minded businessman, Rob Forbes, who made MCM both glamorous and attainable. In 1999, Forbes founded Design Within Reach, a company that would disrupt the furniture business by bringing MCM pieces directly to consumers. Until that point, people had to buy their MCM through middlemen and showrooms; now they could buy them via catalogue and have the pieces delivered from a warehouse.

“It’s high-quality comfort food,” Forbes says whenasked to explain MCM’s appeal. It’s full of joy and optimism, not so serious, easy to appreciate.

Even as Forbes was making MCM the aesthetic of the creative class, mid- and mass-market designers were churning out contemporary imitations. CB2 and West Elm mastered the sleek-yet-simple look. Ikea marched across the US slinging cheap, MCM-adjacent Scandinavian couches and chairs. At the same time, marketing had spread even to superstores: Michael Graves’ post-modern tea kettles and toasters were flying off the shelves of Target in 1999 just as Forbes was launching Design Within Reach.

Perhaps the clean designs favoured by our grandparents have been subsumed into our broader mania for things that feel natural and organic. If the simple shapes of MCM have been handed down to us from an older generation, that must mean they’re good for us – and unspoiled by ill-considered innovation. We think about our health in the same way: Better to avoid newfangled, processed food; better to eat like our ancestors; better not to suffer the new.

Taking the long view, however, MCM hardly seems a perfect fit for these contemporary values. After all, it arrived in the postwar years, on a raft of forward-thinking lifestyle innovations that are now in disrepute. Processed foods? Those were another source of crackpot, jet-age optimism. And in the early days when MCM was first admired for its “clean design”, the words conveyed the great convenience of using new technology.

“The pieces were literally marketed as being easy to clean,” says Lily Kane, director of exhibitions for the R & Company design gallery. Now Kane is amused by all the people on her news feeds championing retro-futurist designs while they indulge in fantasies of a farmstead past – making pickles, weaving blankets. “It’s like we want to lead a 19th century lifestyle in a mid-century house,” she says.

Tribune News Service