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'Mad Men' brings mid-century modern furniture back in vogue

Feb. 17, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

The popular television series, "Mad Men" has effectively refocused attention on what is termed as mid-century modern furniture. This phrase refers to furnishings made from approximately 1935 to 1970, and many would say the nostalgia factor has helped return it to favor as much as the television show. This avant-garde style of a bygone era dwelt on clean simple, sleek and functional lines that could readily fit into newer smaller homes of the time.

Materials such as molded plywood, tubular steel, plastics and fiberglass were used to make unusual forms that up until now were impossible. Hence we have egg and tulip shaped chairs and boomerang desks to name a few of the innovative shapes that came into being. From the bright and bold to basic black and white, the imagination had no limit when it came to color.

These interesting designs were meant to be mass-produced for the public's consumption. The casual living furniture often was multi-purpose and lots of it could be stacked, flexed and rearranged to fit the owner's need. Plastic chairs and tables were meant to be easily wiped and cleaned by the busy housewife.

The mid-century modern furnishings have a festive element to them when you look at some of their shapes and note their monikers. Whether it is egg chair, chaise lounge or the marshmallow sofa, experts advise keeping the original upholstery if at all possible. It seems to increase the value.

As the furniture became more established the mass-production became ever more cost conscience and for some the quality suffered. Many collectors look for the quality of earlier designs and those that are no longer in production. Those earlier designs might be more expensive however they in turn will hold more value. Any innovative design that can be attributed to a recognized designer will always be coveted.

Those who collect mid-century modern look for items designed by such giants as Arne Jacobsen, Charles and Ray Eames or Harry Bertoia in America. On the international level, Weber, Aalto, Jacobsen, Race, Breuer, Noguchi and Paulin are a few that stand out. Herman Miller was a noted manufacturer of such furnishings who teamed with designers like the Eames'. For example, with the Eames' they generated some significant items such as the famous lounge chair and ottoman.

Cara Greenberg's book "Mid-Century Modern: Furniture" of the 1950s is recommended by several sources as a go-to missive on this subject.

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.