Midcentury styles: a brighter, lighter alternative

decor: Contrary to popular thought, furniture from 1930s-’40s can be inviting

St. Louis Post-DivspatchSeptember 12, 2012 

After the bloated siege of the overstuffed couch, the “chair and a half,” and mountainous mattresses, the sleek and sexy era of midcentury modern is back with a vengeance.

A slew of vintage stores cater almost exclusively to the era, and big box stores from Kmart to Crate & Barrel have knock-off versions of low-profile sofas and slick nesting tables.

Midcentury modern is as persistent as ’80s music in the realm of things that refuse to go out of style. But unlike the music genre, an Eames tulip chair is less likely to cause waves of nausea.

“One thing that makes it enduring is that it was scaled for postwar houses. … It was made to be uncluttered,” said David Deatherage of Century Design Ltd. in St. Louis. He sells online to a troupe of high-end customers who are avid collectors of midcentury modern furnishings.

Deatherage said that he personally prefers what he calls “Hollywood Modern” (also referred to as “Hollywood Regency”) pieces of the era but mostly from the 1930s and ’40s. The pieces are low-profile and slim, but they have an innate opulence – glowing acrylic accents, curved edges, glossy finishes, crystal embellishments and sculptural details sitting atop luxuriously plush rugs.

He said strict clean Danish Modern designs with straight lines and sharp angles have convinced some people that midcentury modern has to be cold.

Of the iconic Eames chair and George Nelson’s famed pretzel chair, Deatherage said: “I have no personal affinity for fiberglass and bent plywood. Inventive, yes. Glamorous, no. My personal preference is furniture from that same period but pieces more likely designed by interior designers — James Mont, Tommi Parzinger, Billy Haines and Dorothy Draper.”

Modern furniture is rarely anonymous. Every object is attributed to specific designers, even if in later years it’s ruled a collaboration or occasionally stolen credit.

For the most part, midcentury styles were designed with the intention of making rooms feel dramatically airy and inviting. There’s often a nod to nature or organic shapes through design or materials.

But as styles changed, the pendulum shifted toward furniture that people could sink into – some would say that the furniture looked foreboding enough to swallow humans whole.

Deatherage understands the desire for luxury and comfort but said furniture should be scaled to fit the environment, not some vague quest for cozy grandiosity. A 10-by-10-foot room should not have a gigantic king-size mattress tower, in his opinion.

Anna Weiss of MoModerne in St. Louis said part of the appeal of midcentury design is that it tends to be brighter, trimmer and lighter.

“It’s minimal and clean but it’s also fun, because of the colors – turquoise and pinks and yellows and the fantastic oranges,” Weiss said. She noted that it’s an easy sell to younger clients because they are craving something unique and funky that’s no longer cookie cutter. And older clients are buying nostalgia from their childhood.

“I think ‘Mad Men’ has helped a lot,” said Jennie Bates, owner of the newly opened consignment store Modern Vintage Decor in St. Louis.

She said her clientele trends younger because people might have fond memories of their grandparents’ furniture when they were a kid, but they didn’t actually have to live with it.

“Older people tend not to buy,” they browse and reminisce, she said. “But ultimately, ‘been there, done that.’”

Bates started her store five months ago because she was working at another resale shop nearby and people kept coming in with midcentury items that the other store couldn’t accept.

After turning dozens of people away, she knew there was an opportunity.

“The great thing is that you can’t go to Pottery Barn and buy these things. Your friends don’t come over and say, ‘Oh yeah.’ They say, ‘Wow, where’d you get that?’” Bates said.

Most people already own something that divines from a midcentury modern design, whether it’s cookware, glassware, furniture or table lamps, but many might not recognize it as such.

Modern style lines dominate lower-priced stores (Ikea, anyone?) and even high-end designers such as Jonathan Adler and retailers such as Design Within Reach have coordinated with manufacturers and estates to reissue licensed merchandise by modern designers.

“Price has a lot to do with whether people buy vintage or not,” Bates said.

However, that depends on the item and where it’s sold.

A desk with a thick white top sells for $199 at Cost Plus World Market, and the vintage Milo Baughman desk with similar lines sells for $2,000.

But many items, such as mass-produced chairs and lamps from the era, would be more comparably priced. And often vintage couches and huge wood cabinet pieces are much, much cheaper, but often require some cosmetic work.

“Quality is an issue no matter when the item was made, but you’re probably looking at a sturdier piece” if it has survived since the end of World War II, Deatherage said.

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