What’s Behind Midcentury Modern Mania?

midcentury1

A stroll through the lobby of any given destination hotel between Tucson and Thailand may transport you back to America circa 1950, when furniture design, and frankly not much else, was at its artistic peak.

Fashion, music, film, literature – and above all, hair styles – in those post-war years may have been a total snooze, but America’s thoroughly modern living rooms were alive with textures, colors, and a sleek, streamline joie de vivre not seen since Frank Lloyd Wright introduced his Prairie school several decades earlier.

Why the sudden obsession with Eames chairs, Herman Miller tables and Noguchi parchment lamps in this digital, apartment-centric age?

While it’s tempting to link the sudden reappearance of midcentury modern design in our lives to the popularity of TV’s Mad Men, with all due respect to Don Draper, historians maintain there’s more than one causal popcorn kernel buried in the creases of this cultural trend.

Roger Sterling's office on Mad Men

Roger Sterling’s office on Mad Men

National Public Radio’s Andrea Hsu roots it in supply and demand. “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,” she explains.

In fact, the midcentury modern look was so out of style by the late 1960s that it was commonly known by a simpler name: old.

But as the baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 hit middle age and began families of their own in the 1980s, the furnishings of their youth, with its optimistic wink toward some bright future, assumed both a functional and nostalgic role in their lives.

All it needed to take flight was a brand.

Enter author Cara Greenberg, who obliged with the title of her 1984 book, Midcentury Modern: Furniture of the 1950s. While Greenberg admits she made up the term out of whole cloth, the New York Times was quick to christen it a trend. “There is no denying that the ‘50s are back in vogue again,” the Times bespoke.

By the mid-1990s, the burgeoning midcentury modern collectable market was so ravenous that furniture makers from the period, notably Herman Miller, began to reissue updates to their original designs. Soon, the Museum of Modern Art was launching retrospectives and competitions, further restoring the era’s allure.

midcentury3

The lobby of Scottsdale’s Hotel Valley Ho.

Subsequent generations that missed the sixties entirely were quick to embrace the midcentury look and vibe, prompting a healthy knockoff market that keeps the lights on at IKEA, Pier 1, Target, et al.

Don Draper will sip his last highball this May when Mad Men ends its seven-year run, but the furnishing craze he helped reignite will likely continue to fascinate hotel guests and conventioneers from Austin to Abu Dhabi well into the middle of this new century.

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald is an award-winning journalist, author and blogger who incorporates humor and human interest into a broad range of topics. Follow him on Twitter @omnisaurus

Leave a Comment