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August 12, 2007 6:35 PM   Subscribe

Is mid-century modern furniture (like Herman Miller, etc.) especially trendy at the moment? If so, will I be paying too much for it if I buy it now?

I am at a point in my life when I am considering purchasing some furniture that is not just the cheapest that I can find. I've always loved American modernism, but I'm concerned that there is a larger cultural trend in that direction anyway (evidenced by things like Dwell magazine and Design Within Reach), and I'm trying to find out if I'll be overpaying if I buy it now. Part of the appeal of antiques is finding those items where people don't know what they have and getting a great deal - but that's going to take a lot more work on my part. I think I know pretty precisely the general aesthetic that I'm going for, and I know at least some of the pieces I want - but they're quite expensive. Have modernist designers always been as costly to purchase as they are right now? I know no one else actually cares, but the idea of a knockoff design or a newer version just doesn't appeal to me as much. Additionally, wasn't part of the whole thing to make furniture out of cheaper materials (plywood, aluminum, etc.)? I've been going to Antiques stores in a city (Chicago) so I'm sure that inflates the price in some ways. Any other advice in this arena is appreciated. I'm sort of hoping that it's something that's always been there, but that I just wasn't looking at furniture in the same way until now.
posted by mike_bling to Shopping (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Mid-century modern furniture is hot right now, but I don't know if prices will go down if you wait.

As you said, I think it's part of a larger overall trend, and probably one that's going to stick around. Then again, I'm really into this kind of furniture, so I'm biased.

The downside of its popularity is that it's probably a lot tougher to find a hidden gem of a piece at a sale or auction. with more people, end-users or pros, looking for this stuff and knowing what it's worth, the chance that Grandma's funky Eames chair going for $50 is slim.

It still might be worth looking, though, and you could find some good stuff.

As an aside, if you're up for a road trip to Madison, Atomic Furniture has some great used pieces sometimes. We've had some good finds there.
posted by altcountryman at 6:57 PM on August 12, 2007

I think midcentury modern has a pretty devoted following to begin with, but I do think it is going through a very popular period at the moment. It's debatable whether that's just a fashion issue, or whether things like Dwell and DWR have made more people aware of the style than would be normally. Regardless, the top quality stuff made by Knoll and Herman Miller is always going to be pricey no matter what. You're correct in that it does run counter to the intentions of the designers w/r/t affordability, machine-made objects, and materials , but that's always been the case with high design all the way back to the arts and crafts movement and William Morris.

Honestly, before DWR started up, I didn't know the stuff was available for purchase by the general public at all, so I'm happy, even if it's way out of my price range. I lust after an Eames lounge chair and ottoman, but $3500 is a bit much.

The one bright side of this is that, if IKEA is at all reliable as a trend indicator, is that fashion is trending away from modernist furniture, so the prices and/or demand may end up coming down a bit. When I first started shopping there years ago, all IKEA's stuff was basically knockoffs of Aalto and other modernists, but now they're starting to have more traditional looking furniture. I think IKEA, for better or worse, actually succeeds in the high design for the common man area pretty well.
posted by LionIndex at 7:00 PM on August 12, 2007

I'm not sure if it's trendy (though, IKEA makes its version accessible and affordable), but as someone who has a natural curiosity for design and architecture, I'm drawn to it -- and I'm probably not the only one.

Anyway, my pal Stephen has a blog called Mid Century Modernist, which provides some history, as well as perhaps some ideas where to get your own piece of modernism. If anything, it's nice eye candy!

And speaking of Madison road trips, there's also a really cool Scandinavian store on University Ave I used to pass by called Century House.
posted by pfafflin at 7:13 PM on August 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Mid-century modern has become a kind of permanent classic, especially in major cities; I just don't see prices for authentic, high-quality pieces declining significantly in the future (after all, there's a finite number of pieces in existence, and it's unlikely that there will be a sudden glut of them back on the market because people get sick of the style en masse).

Having said that, it is true that the prices you see in antiques stores in places like Chicago, L.A., and New York can be very inflated. Here in L.A., for example, I've known several people who've made the trek out to Palm Springs to buy mid-century pieces, and they've certainly paid less than they would have at one of the trendy modernist stores in L.A. -- their pieces still weren't cheap, but they were certainly more moderately priced.

My suggestion would be to start scouting stores outside Chicago proper -- out in the 'burbs, or even taking road trips to some smaller metro areas outside the city entirely (maybe try Milwaukee or Madison, for example). Also, I bet there's an online forum/discussion group for modernist collectors in Chicago. People there might have some good specific suggestions for places to look.
posted by scody at 7:13 PM on August 12, 2007

Best answer: Forgot to put this in my first post - someone, I think it was Dwell, looked at the price of the Eames Lounger at its original price, and the current price, adjusted for inflation.

It's actually cheaper now.

And it's starting to look like we should have a Mid-century Modern MeFi Meetup in Madison!
posted by altcountryman at 7:43 PM on August 12, 2007

FWIW, the guy who runs Atomic in Madison was always complaining that he got "so much more business" at his place in Chicago. I don't know where that is, but that's what he always said.

There is also a dealer in the big antiques complex on Odana Road who sells midcentury stuff; it's more unique and actually antique, unlike a lot of what you find at Atomic.

And I concur with the other posters: prices are not likely to drop soon, especially for classic pieces. MCM is considered to be one of the great design periods.
posted by rachelpapers at 4:41 AM on August 13, 2007

There's a lot of cool stuff out there that isn't exactly the designers people are looking for. My brother got a great Saarinen-ish table because it was under "Star Trek table."
and count me in for a Madison meetup
posted by mimi at 4:44 AM on August 13, 2007

I'm a fan of midcentury modern as well. My anecdotal experience is that pricing for vintage pieces is actually past its peak. I say that having sold a Heywood Wakefield dresser in '05 for a lot less than I paid for it in '97; when I sold it, I checked around, and the going rate for similar pieces was a lot lower than it had been before.

Additionally, wasn't part of the whole thing to make furniture out of cheaper materials (plywood, aluminum, etc.)?

Not exactly. The design principle was to eschew ornamentation and to make pieces that reflect the modern technology used to make them. Plenty of modernist pieces are made out of high-quality woods with high-quality construction. And aluminum was pretty high-tech stuff in the 50s: at that time, metallurgy had only recently advanced to the point where it was feasible to use aluminum alloys as structural materials. The use of plywood could be considered as elevating a cheap material, but it could also be considered as showcasing the manufacturing technique behind the piece and stripping away the ornamentation (after all, plywood had used in furniture beforeā€”it was just covered up).
posted by adamrice at 7:11 AM on August 13, 2007

Altcountryman is right on, there was an issue of dwell that adjusted today's prices for Mid-modern standards and most ended up being better deals today than they would have been new.

Since you're in Chicago there's also an Apartment Therapy site dedicated to your area. They regularly run advertisements for steals on mid-modern and mid-modern reproductions (craig's list, ebay, etc.). Occasionally you just need $50 and a pick-up!
posted by B-squared at 7:38 AM on August 13, 2007

As for all antique furniture, there are less and less in pristine condition as time goes by. So, basically, what LionIndex said:
"Regardless, the top quality stuff made by Knoll and Herman Miller is always going to be pricey no matter what."

Pricewise, if you want to pay less, you just have to do like antique dealers do: go off the beaten path. For example, I found several times that the price for this kind of furniture was half in Montreal than in Manhattan. And antique dealers in Montreal find their stuff in small towns in a 100 or 200 miles radius. So, every time you travel around, stop at antique dealers: that's where you'll find the great stuff. Sure, it takes time, but it's part of the pleasure of the chase.
posted by bru at 8:04 AM on August 13, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all your answers so far, they've been very helpful. There is a Mid-Century Modern group on Flickr as well. Any other resources out there?
posted by mike_bling at 11:21 AM on August 13, 2007

rachelpapers - good to know about the Odana joint. I'll have to check that out.

I'm pretty sure Atomic's Chicago place is a spot at the Broadway Antique Market. We stopped by there once, but I don't recall there being a lot from them, or a whole lot of MCM overall, but the inventory varies at a place like that so it's probably worth a look.

I also think I recall the Atomic guy saying they sold quite a bit of stuff in Chicago.
posted by altcountryman at 1:14 PM on August 15, 2007

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