Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Whinging about affordable good design

There's a certain period of design between roughly 1945 and 1965 we refer to as "mid-century modern."  "Mid-century modern is an architectural, interior, and product design form that generally describes mid-20th century developments in modern design, architecture, and urban development from roughly 1933 to 1965.  The term was coined in 1983 by Cara Greenberg for the title of her book, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, celebrating the style which is now recognized by scholars and museums worldwide as a significant design movement." (from wiki) 

 A high school chum in the late 60s lived in one of those iconic split-level ranch houses, built in the mid 50s, with Bertoia Diamond chairs (http://www.squidoo.com/Harrybertoiadesigns) on the patio, Saarinen's Tulip table (or a good reproduction) surrounded by Eames fiberglass Eiffel chairs in the kitchen, and the most beautiful modular sectional I've ever seen in the den.  All of this surrounded by wood, glass, and concrete,  resting on a big, heavily wooded lot.   I loved being in that house and I'll always remember it.  My friend's parents weren't wealthy.  His dad was a retired college professor,  his mom a public school teacher. That house, combined with my mom's 60s decorating magazines and the movies of the 50s and 60s I grew up with, instilled in me a love of modern design. 

A 40's bungalow or a 70s tract house will never be a modernist house, no matter how much Saarinen, Jacobsen, Eames, McCobb,  or Bertoia furniture is scattered about.  I was reminded of this when looking at the beautiful experimental Case Study Houses.  Commissioning major architects of the day,  Neutra, Ellwood, Eames, Soriano, Saarinen, etc.,  Arts and Architecture magazine sponsored the design and build of "inexpensive and efficient" homes for the U.S. housing boom caused by the return of millions of soldiers after the end of WWII.  The program ran from 1945 until 1966. 

All those fabulous furnishings I love were meant to inhabit these houses.  That doesn't mean I don't like seeing mid-century modern pieces in houses built in the 20s or the 70s, but as I discovered in my last house:  a few pieces of well-designed furniture cannot overcome a really badly designed house!   Now it seems that pieces from the 50s and 60s are virtually impossible to find at an affordable price.  What I'm seeing far too much of are blogs and magazines showcasing a lot of things that all look the same.  The really great stuff is far too dear, and the rest of it looks like Ikea or Crate-and-Barrel-do-modern.

The zealous over marketing, and accompanying overpricing, of all things "mid-century modern" is hateful, but there's nothing to hate about good design. (I am getting bored with a certain look, though--sort of an Ikea meets DWR thing--and am trying to find a new look to love.)  One of my issues is that good design is not really affordable, except by the often rather disposable Ikea route.  And let me say, I have the ubiquitous Ikea Malm (http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/categories/series/07468/) bed and a big expedit (http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/80071357) shelving unit.  They were useful, inexpensive, and expedient purchases, but if I had it to do all over again, I don't know if I'd choose that route. Ask me in 15 years.  We'll see how the stuff holds up.   I prefer buying stuff from garage sales, Craigs List,  and thrift stores, but it's hard to find substantial, well-made pieces anymore, unless shopping is all you do.   

 And, can someone tell me, when did people get this idea that they needed to replace perfectly good pieces every few years?  My parents bought good furniture and lived with it until they died.   Redecorating was a new coat of paint.  By the look of it, people seem to think they need a houseful of new furniture every few years, "...doesn't go with our new decor."  How many times have I seen that in a Craigs List post?  

 Advertising and marketing have really done a number on us.  We all seem to like the same thing and right now it's "mid-century modern" and its ilk.  I'm still going to throw a few wretchedly beautiful old bookcases with peeling paint into the mix.    

A few good links:


  1. I have that popular mania for redecorating to thank for my beautiful collection of brightly colored bath towels, hand towels and wash cloths. Can't imagine buying them new!! Also bed linens. It does seem just crazy to me that people do that though, throw out perfectly good stuff cause they have the need to redecorate.

  2. Good post. I was bothered for a long time that I wasn't drawn to any particular style, but I'm starting to think "eh, whatever" can be a good aesthetic too as long as it's all things you like.

    Also, I am always amazed at how many brand-new sofas there are on Craigslist because they "don't fit" in the room they were purchased for. People spend $1,500 on a sectional and don't bother to pull out a measuring tape?

  3. joolie, Yes! What idiot doesn't measure before buying, especially when dropping a lot of money?! I just saw a gorgeous sofa listing last week that "didn't fit." Must be a bunch of Fox News watchers.

  4. I feel the same way. Personal style, whether it's for your wardrobe or your home, takes a long time to cultivate into something unique and special that's neither straight out of a trendy magazine nor haphazardly thrown together--only with furniture, it's a lot bigger investment! Now that I have my own house I struggle with this all the time. I think Ikea basics interspersed with those special thrift store/Craigslist finds can be a decent compromise.