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Midcentury Furniture + Grandkid Nostalgia = Modern Trend

May 29, 2013
Originally published on May 29, 2013 7:18 pm

Open a design magazine or turn on a home decorating show these days, and it's clear: Midcentury modern is hot. It first showed up in the 1950s and '60s — think low-slung sofas, egg-shaped chairs and the set of Mad Men. My first midcentury modern find was a dining set I bought on Craigslist for $75. There was something about the clean lines and gentle curves of the wooden chairs that got me. I saw the name Drexel Declaration stamped under the table, Googled it and found a world of people in love with 60-year-old furniture.

I quickly realized $75 was a steal.

"It's blazing hot. It really is," says Eddy Whitely, a midcentury modern furniture dealer in Baltimore. "People that are into it are into it."

So who are those people? Let's start with who they aren't: baby boomers. According to Stacey Greer, Whitely's business partner, "They just don't want to look at it anymore, they want something different. They grew up with it and their parents had bought it, so they want anything but that. It's definitely more of a younger, urban look."

'People Tend To Like What Their Grandparents Liked'

Martina Alhbrandt loves finding and fixing up vintage pieces, things her parents would call dated or tacky. She's drawn to the simplicity of midcentury design. (She even keeps a blog called My Mid-Century Modern Life.) She describes the style as "clean and functional" and says it reminds her of the values of her grandparents' generation.

"My grandparents were very frugal," Alhbrandt says. "They worked hard and they bought things with cash. And if something were to break, like the drawer of a dresser were to break, they would fix it. They wouldn't just throw it away and go to Wal-Mart and buy a new one."

According to Bobbye Tigerman, a curator of design at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, nostalgia is a big part of what's driving the trend. "People tend to like what their grandparents liked and reject the taste of their parents," she says.

That same thing happened with art deco a generation earlier. "In the late 1960s, art deco became very popular," Tigerman says. "And the term was actually coined in the '60s; it was not a term used in the 1920s."

Similarly, back in the '50s, no one was talking about "midcentury modern" — not even the people who were there creating it.

Plenty Of Midcentury Supply

I tracked down Stewart MacDougall and Kipp Stewart, who designed my dining set. They're both well into their 80s and living in California. I was curious to know what they think of today's midcentury modern craze. It turns out, MacDougall has also been shopping. He's been visiting a site called 1stdibs because it sometimes lists his designs.

He says he's bought a few pieces just for fun, but he's not sure why other people would want them. Finally, he settles on this explanation: "I think there is a huge market for nicely designed things."

When I tell Stewart, his design partner, that I see Drexel Declaration all over design blogs and in magazines, Stewart looks at me puzzled. "Really?" he asks. "Maybe because there's so much of it. It's just available."

Stewart may be onto something: After World War II, home ownership surged. People who bought homes in the 1950s and '60s would now be in their 70s and 80s. Many no longer want or need houses full of furniture.

Whitely, the Baltimore dealer, says it hits him when he's driving through neighborhoods. "I just look at block after block after block of houses. There's a sofa in every single one of them; there are dining room chairs. So think about it, just the sheer numbers of furniture."

That means there are still plenty of chances to find the perfect midcentury modern piece — and, if you're lucky, at the perfect price.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Open a design magazine or turn on a home decorating show and it's clear midcentury modern is hot. Think low-slung sofas, egg-shaped chairs, the set of "Mad Men." NPR's Andrea Hsu wanted to find out why a style from the '50s and '60s seems to be everywhere all over again.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: My first midcentury modern find was a dining set I bought on Craigslist for $75. There was something about the clean lines and gentle curves of the chairs that got me. I saw the name Drexel Declaration stamped under the table, Googled it and found a world of people in love with 60-year-old furniture. And I realized $75 dollars was a steal.

EDDY WHITELY: It's blazing hot. It really is.

HSU: Eddy Whitely is a dealer of midcentury modern furniture in Baltimore.

WHITELY: People that are into it are into it.

HSU: So who are those people? Well, let's start with who they aren't. Whitely's business partner, Stacey Greer, says baby boomers who had it in their homes as children don't want it.

STACEY GREER: They just don't want to look at it anymore. They want something different. They grew up with it, and their parents had bought it, so they want anything but that. It's definitely more of a younger, urban look.

MARTINA ALHBRANDT: Yeah, it's definitely our generation.

HSU: Martina Alhbrandt loves finding and fixing up vintage pieces, things her parents would call dated or tacky. She's drawn to the simplicity of midcentury design. Clean and functional is how she puts it. It reminds her of the values of her grandparents' generation.

ALHBRANDT: My grandparents were very frugal. They worked hard, and they bought things with cash. And if something were to break, like a drawer of a dresser were to break, they would fix it. They wouldn't just throw it away and go to Wal-Mart and buy a new one.

HSU: Nostalgia is a big part of what's driving the trend, says Bobbye Tigerman, a curator of design at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

BOBBYE TIGERMAN: People tend to like what their grandparents liked and reject the taste of their parents.

HSU: Same thing happened with art deco a generation earlier, Tigerman says.

TIGERMAN: In the late 1960s, art deco became very popular, and the term was actually coined in the '60s. It was not a term used in the 1920s.

HSU: Just as no one was talking about midcentury modern back in the '50s, not even the people who were there creating it. I tracked down Stewart MacDougall and Kipp Stewart, the two men who designed my dining set. They're both well into their 80s and living in California. I was curious to know what they think of the midcentury modern craze today. Turns out, Stewart MacDougall has also been shopping on a site called 1stdibs.

STEWART MACDOUGALL: I look on 1stdibs because there's some of my stuff.

HSU: He's even bought a few pieces just for fun. He's not sure why other people would be so into it, but he finally settles on this explanation.

MACDOUGALL: I think there's a huge market for nicely designed things.

HSU: When I tell his design partner, Kipp Stewart, that I see Drexel Declaration all over design blogs and in magazines, he looks at me, puzzled.

KIPP STEWART: Really? Maybe because there's so much of it. It's just available.

HSU: I think he's onto something. After World War II, homeownership surged. The people who bought homes in the '50s and '60s, they would now be in their 70s and 80s. Many no longer want or need houses full of furniture. Eddy Whitely, the Baltimore dealer, says it hits him as he drives through neighborhoods.

WHITELY: I just look at block after block after block of houses. There's a sofa in every single one of them. There are dining room chairs. So think about it, just the sheer numbers of furniture.

HSU: Which means still plenty of chances to find the perfect midcentury modern piece. And if you're lucky, at the perfect price. Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.