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Our Obsession With Midcentury Modern Design Is Out Of Control


Turn on nearly any real estate reality show these days, and you will almost inevitably hear a couple ask for a new home in the “Midcentury Modern” style.

While such programs can be a good excuse for a drinking game—chug every time you hear the words “retreat” or “character”—no one seems to have noticed that the tyranny of “Midcentury Modern” has virtually eliminated the history of Western civilization from the home. In this universe, Monticello would be vastly improved by whitewashing the “dated” Federal furniture and reupholstering it with microfiber, after knocking down some walls to make the place more open-concept.

The term “Midcentury Modern,” as it happens, began as the title of a 1990s coffee table book by journalist Cara Greenberg. It considered some of the interesting chairs designed between 1947 and 1957. Today, this expression is so abused, it includes virtually every building or object created between 1930 and 1980, even though its original intent was as an alliterative yet accurate way to describe some of the clever designs that emerged during the Post-War period.

Now, with the term “Midcentury Modern” attached to it, a cheap ceramic ashtray that resembles a Sputnik takes on the aura of an art object, while a free-form table made from plywood and plastic laminate is treated as if it were an inlaid cabinet by Boulle.

Attributed to André-Charles Boulle: oak armoire with ebony, brass, and tortoiseshell inlay, circa 1715, The Wallace Collection, London.

How Midcentury Modern Is Supplanting Traditional Design

Yet instead of existing in parallel to the traditional home as it once did, “Midcentury Modern” has largely supplanted traditional design, both as an aspirational goal and as an economic reality. What the trade calls “brown furniture”— traditional wooden furniture made between the late 17th and early 20th centuries—is no longer wanted. In fact, when it is featured at all, “brown furniture” is often treated as something pitiful, oppressive, or even sinister.

Living Room. Part of the living room of Richard and Emily Gilmore: an antique mahogany “seminaire” (7-drawer dresser) is shown in the background.

Take Richard and Emily Gilmore’s home on “Gilmore Girls,” which was full of this stuff. The dining room had a suite of carved chairs in the style of the eighteenth-century English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale, surrounding a double-pedestal Georgian dining table with traditional brass feet. While the viewer was supposed to perceive their home as stuffy, a more educated eye would spot the Gilmores thinking outside the box, by their placing an early nineteenth-century semainier—a seven-drawer cabinet traditionally used for daily linen—in a corner of the living room, rather than in one of the bedrooms.

The Gilmores’ dining room features carved chairs in the manner of Thomas Chippendale, and matching double-pedestal table with brass feet.

Unfortunately, for all the care and thought that went into furnishing this home, chances are that the Gilmores’ furniture would be worth less today in real terms than what it cost Richard and Emily at the time that they purchased it. Only the very highest quality antique pieces remain at high price levels, and even these are nowhere near where they used to be when it comes to valuation. Your Bostonian great-great-grandmother’s walnut writing desk with the hand-carved legs is not as valuable as a brand new desk made overseas in some Communist backwater for a lifestyle furniture chain.

This state of affairs is paralleled in the art world. A slashed canvas from the 1950s fetches tens of millions of dollars at an auction, while a sublime little Renaissance altarpiece goes for a few thousand. When the appreciation of history and craftsmanship is so greatly deteriorated at the top end of the market, it can only be expected that the same phenomenon will undermine the middle end of the market.

Because “Midcentury Modern” is the style deity before whom all must bow down and worship, most American consumers are now easily conned by designers and furniture manufacturers into buying junk. In order to have a home that will not be sneered at by the alleged cognoscenti, we are asked to believe that items poorly constructed in third-world countries, which lack all but the most basic design elements, are worth outrageous prices. In order to show how ridiculous this mindset is, I invite the reader to consider purchases by two different young couples, who are in the market for furniture today.

How Your Average Suburban Couple Pick Out Furniture

Let’s imagine that John and Mary are a Midwestern couple in their 30s, both of whom have steady jobs. They have just moved from an apartment to a decent-sized suburban home. Their apartment furniture was a mix of whatever each had acquired prior to marriage, along with some gifts from family and friends, and a few things that they picked up off Craigslist, at yard sales, or built themselves with kits from big box stores.

Now that they have a nicer home, John and Mary want to start replacing their old furniture with better pieces. To do so, they scroll through the online catalogues of some trendy furniture stores found in shopping malls and hipster neighborhoods. From one of these, they order a rather plain-looking platform bed in a dark gray finish. It looks vaguely like something Mies van der Rohe might have sketched on a cocktail napkin at the airport bar while he was bored and waiting for a connecting flight. It’s made out of a tropical wood from the legendary, far-off country of “Imported”. This purchase sets them back about $3,000.

Next, they order a “modern farmhouse” dining table from another popular retailer. The closest this object ever came to a farmhouse was when its components drove past a farm on their way to the factory. The table is constructed from a few boards of cheap, fast-growth wood, attached to plain legs made of an unidentified “hardwood,” finished off with stainless steel casters. Like the bed, the table came over to the U.S. on a container ship, from a country where you can be imprisoned for using Google. This little beauty can seat eight people, albeit at somewhat close quarters, and costs John and Mary just under $1800.

What If A Couple Decided To Shop Differently?

Now let’s assume that John and Mary have two neighbors, Rob and Susan, who are in the same situation. They, too, are a middle-class couple who need to furnish their new home. They want to get rid of the cheap, modern pieces they own which haven’t stood the test of time. To do this, they sign up for email alerts from the regional auction house in their nearest city, and start receiving online catalogues of upcoming sales.

For their first auction, Rob and Susan spot a Federal Revival double tester bed from about 1890. It looks like something Edith Wharton might have slept in up in Newport. They get it for $400 when no one else bids on it. At their second auction, they purchase a Neoclassical mahogany dining table, with brass inlays and four extending leaves, that was made in Paris around 1800. They land this for only $1200, since there is little interest in this style among the dealers participating in the auction.

How Societal Judgment Influences Our Purchases

While the forgoing scenarios are fictional, the items described and the prices listed are real, chosen at random from online furniture and auction catalogues. What is interesting about these results is not just the price, the materials, or the craftsmanship of the furniture. All these components would seem to favor Rob and Susan. But how will others perceive the choices each couple has made?

Because the virtues of “Midcentury Modern” are so ingrained in our minds at present, Rob and Susan have made both a social and economic mistake.

Unless Rob and Susan can keep up with the Joneses, or indeed John and Mary, they are going to be treated with a degree of disdain by their peers—and social ostracization often has economic consequences. Moreover, when they go to sell their house, their real estate agent will insist that they remove their old-fashioned furniture, and “stage” the house with “Midcentury Modern” furniture, to make it more appealing to today’s buyers. Taste, they are told, is subjective—except when it comes to their “old-fashioned” taste, which is apparently so atrocious as to require banishment before anyone sees it.

We Need To Remember That Fads Don’t Last Forever

There is nothing wrong with good, modern design. Many interesting, attractive pieces of furniture were created in the 20th century. To hold otherwise is to be closed-minded, to be unable to perceive the beauty of simplicity.

Yet the reverse also holds true, when it comes to “Midcentury Modern” aestheticism. To dismiss earlier forms of Western design as fit only for museums and nursing homes is to demonstrate ignorance of the hard work and centuries of history reflected in traditional furniture. Past generations looked to the Greeks, the Romans, and others not only for philosophical inspiration, but for the symbolism employed in the furniture decorating their homes. They wanted to remember the past, even as they lived in the present, mixing old and new together to reflect their times.

Styles and trends come and go. Who knows where the next ones will come from. “Midcentury Modern” will go away, just as other fads disappeared before it. Perhaps one day soon, we will once again see homes being filled with the kind of furniture that would make Emily Gilmore’s mouth water.