Mid Century vs Mid Century Modern

Everyone gets the warm fuzzies when they stumble upon a golden nugget that reminds them of their childhood which is now labeled as "vintage". Not "antique", unless you are well over the Centenarian mark, because to qualify as "antique" it must be over 100 years old. Currently, making anything made before 1917 "antique". Vintage, Mid Century, Mid Century Modern, Retro, Art Deco, Atomic, Kitsch....these are some terms that are used for items of age that are not yet "antiques". Being in this business for several years now we have noticed how most people interchange these terms when there are very clear lines as to what separates them.

Mid Century Modern is a "popular" style of interior decorating at the moment. It has made a huge comeback in the past few years with new stores such as Wayfair, Target, Ikea, Restoration Hardware as well as most every large retail chain now offering "MCM" style. So, in today's world there is a lot of NEW Mid Century Modern, which is kind of an oxymoron in itself. Mid Century is the term used for furniture and accessories made in the "mid-century" (1950-1970). Mid Century 2017? Can you tell the difference? Here's how:

First we need to distinguish between Mid Century and Mid Century Modern. As we have seen many times on Craigslist, just because your coffee table was made in the 1950's does not mean it is now worth your next house payment.

Mid Century MODERN furniture (made between 1945-1975) does not take any design cues from the past. You won't see turned legs, Victorian Era embellishments or turn of the century influences. Mid Century modern was a completely new design for its time. It is characterized by sleek, minimalist lines, low profile design, solid wood construction usually of oak, pecan or poplar with beautiful, expertly grained solid wood walnut, rosewood, mahogany, or teak veneered finish (usually...there are always exceptions). Quality construction value with dovetail joints, expert woodworking skills such as bentwood lines with no seams, and true MCM almost always has an Iconic Designer name attached to it such as Kagan, Pearsall, Eames, etc.... (There are also Mid Century Modern lamps, art, and other items with distinguishing characteristics but that's a whole other blog). The key is the designer. So, say digging in grandma's attic you come across an authentic Adrian Pearsall sofa that was stuck up there in the 80's (when she "remodeled") and is labeled as such. You Google it, the first photo that comes up (which looks just like what is in the attic) is selling on 1stdibs for $8000. You jump for joy, snap a photo on your cell and post that sucker on craigslist for $7500, a bargain right? No....no no no no. Let's be clear, 1stdib's dealers are high-end dealers with high-end clientele. If the person shopping on craigslist doesn't have 7 figures in their bank account, then they are not going to buy your $7500 sofa. (And even if you find the lottery winning craigslist shopper, they would still buy that sofa from 1stdibs as opposed to yours with attic dust and grandma's pet "Pooky's" hair in all the crevices.)

So, that's authentic Mid Century Modern furniture. In contrast, "NEW" Mid Century Modern furniture - Number 1 - has been built for consumers in the 21st century, which by and far are much larger...er...heavier....than people were in the 1950's. The furniture is larger, bulkier, not as low profile (people need to be able to get up you know), the construction value is usually much lower (pressed wood construction instead of solid wood), and what we have heard by "being in the business"....is that the "New" MCM sofa you just bought for $1800 with free delivery might last you a year or 2 before it completely falls apart. By comparison - authentic, designer Mid Century Modern furniture has already currently lasted 60-70 years and is still going strong!

Other terms....Retro....other than Michael Jordan shoes....this is more a term used for items from the 70's. Disco era, bright colors, velvet wall posters, psychedelic art, generally "groovy" things. Some Herman Miller tulip base pieces or other acrylic items are termed "retro".

*As a side note, several chrome pieces such as those designed by Milo Baughman for Thayer Coggin were manufactured in the 1970's and are labeled as "Mid Century Modern" even though they are not made of wood and are from the 70's. The main reason being the iconic designer name as well as the iconic manufacturer. As stated before, true MCM pieces almost always have a well known designer name behind them. Exceptions would be iconic lines such as the Broyhill Brasilla or Lane Acclaim (which was actually designed by Andre Bus but not well known). Brasilia is the capital of Brazil....see photos below from the "Palacio Do Planalto" in Brazil and the Brasilia line by Broyhill....see a similarity?

"Atomic" refers to items from the Atomic Age (1940-1960) during the cold war when nuclear bombs and war were very real. We happen to know a LOT about this Era living in the "Secret City". (You can read more about that in a previous blog.)

"Atomic" in design references pieces with a "space age" look. UFO, Saucer, Futuristic, Jetson's type designs. Some amazing pieces came out of this Era such as the Kagan Unicorn chair, remade by Chromcraft as the Sculpta chairs and used on the set of the original Star Trek.

"Kitsch" by definition is "design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way." Aka....it's the warm fuzzies when seeing something from your childhood. There are people that LOVE and collect Kitsch items. Grandma's card table chairs are Kitsch, so are her.....flowerdy decorative things....but they are not Mid Century Modern....

"Art Deco"....I'm not sure why this one needs explained but apparently it does as we see things labeled Mid Century Modern all the time that are Art Deco, or vice versa. Art Deco is the design era mainly between the 1920's thru the early 1940's. This era has gorgeous decorative symmetrical lines. The term "Art Deco" was coined in the late 60's...maybe that's where the confusion comes in?

Here's another good way to tell if something is Mid Century or Mid Century Modern.....paint it and see how many people scream when you list it for sale....:)

QUIZ.....Mid Century Modern, yes or no?

3 comments Dec 8 2017 02:34PM by MICHAEL

I assist my girlfriend at her shop which carries a variety of merchandise. There is everything from furniture, art, posters, kitchen-ware,on and on. None of theses items which are new. That's where I come in to the picture. I have set up a small shop in the basement of the business, repairing, refinishing, and restoring alot of these items. I hear so many people come in often referring to the exact same piece of furniture in so many different terms.I guess I am considered "Old-School" by alot of this younger generation, but I found myself confused with all these different terms. Maybe its a trend or identity issue, some need to feel different or special, maybe its nothing more than a sales pitch. But certainly "Mid Century Modern" in the year 2017 is an oxymoron. Well thank you so much for your blog. You have made alot of sense out of this for me. I have often wondered whether to repair a certain piece of furniture back using the original materials and design or just screw it and paint it. Maybe I should just stash some of these nicer pieces away...after all as long as there are centuries there's bound to be future mid-centuries. Maybe that's what I should do "I have "FMCF's" for sale. Future Mid Century Funiture, all day everyday for the low low. Thank you again for the information.

Apr 11 2018 07:09AM by Kai

Excellent post! Thanks so much! As a designer, I get SOOOOO tired of people naively (or intentionally!) mis-labeling items. In fact I've coined the term Mid-Century Traditional to help my clients understand there's a difference! Cheers!

Apr 11 2018 12:06PM by amysams

Thanks for the response! :) We appreciate it!

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