It wasn’t until 1984 that the dominant American design movement of the mid-20th century got its name. In her defining book on the period, art historian Cara Greenberg dubbed the simple and functional style that drove the movement “Mid-Century Modern.”
The book sold more than 100,000 copies and the name caught on immediately, as it perfectly captured the feel of the period’s architecture and furniture: straightforward, yet somehow both minimalist and lyrical at the same time. In fact, the style had largely gone out of fashion by the time Greenberg’s book was released, but the public’s interest in Mid-Century modern design grew considerably within a few years.
Mid Century Modern by Cara Greenberg
Vintage pieces, and reissued versions of popular styles, sold in growing numbers during the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly after the debut of the wildly-popular period TV show Mad Men. But the recession of 2008 put a damper on most businesses, including those selling Mid-Century modern-inspired furniture. A new wave of popularity for the iconic design style has emerged, however, as the economy has somewhat recovered.
What is it about Mid-Century modern that still captures the imagination today? Above all else, it is the melding of clean and simple lines with bursts of imagination, color, and even whimsy. The best way to understand the style’s appeal is to examine its origin.
But first, what has recently happened to once thriving stores that carry modern furniture in New Jersey and elsewhere?
Where Have All Modern Furniture Stores in New Jersey Gone?
Until the recession of 2008, a number of furniture stores in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and just about everywhere else in the United States specializing in niche designs such as Mid-Century modern-inspired furniture were flourishing, with an enormous combination of well-known designs and stunning new ones available. Sadly, most of those stores were forced out of business when clients became woefully short of disposable income.
House of Norway
A few modern furniture stores in New Jersey that have recently gone out of business come to mind. House of Norway, for example, was established in 1983 and in its heyday had locations throughout New Jersey: on Route 35 in Oakhurst, Route 46 in Fairfield, Route 27 in Edison, Route 9 North in Howell, Ledgewood, and East Hanover. They specialized in Scandinavian modern and contemporary furniture. They have since closed their doors.
Interni is another contemporary and modern furniture store which has closed its doors for good. They had 2 locations in Paramus, New Jersey. One was on Route 17 South and the other on Route 4 East. Their move to close mirrored what House of Norway did. As the home prices fell and consumer discretionary spending slowed down and for some it even became non-existent, it was just a matter of time.
Maurice Villency in Paramus
Maurice Villency is one more example that had locations throughout New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Maurice Villency was renowned for providing beautifully designed and superbly constructed contemporary and modern furniture. They have since closed all of their retail locations during this recession. Now, they are concentrating on business to business contracts.
These are just a few specialty stores just in New Jersey alone that sold modern furniture that ceased operations and became causalities since and during the recession. Modern furniture retail landscape is changing, however. New specialty niche stores are slowly but surely emerging.
We’re now slowly entering a new “golden age” for these beautiful modern reproductions evocative of the 40s, 50s and 60s, though. The slow rebound in the economy has seen the opening of many new specialty furniture stores featuring designs inspired by the period’s famed works as well as faithful reproductions. The number of these unique furniture stores and the size of their collections is growing by the year. In short, Mid-Century modern-inspired furniture stores are making a major comeback.
It’s certainly easy to purchase vintage Mid-Century pieces, of course – if you have the patience to look for it and a five-figure credit limit to play with. And even new furniture produced from original designs by famed houses like Herman Miller can set you back an enormous amount of money. For example, a vintage George Nelson Marshmallow Sofa recently sold at auction for $66,000.
Perusing the selections available at niche stores focusing on Mid-Century modern furniture can make it much easier – and much more affordable – to furnish your home with this stunning period look, since so many pieces inspired by the aesthetics of the era are now being produced.
History of the Mid-Century Modern Design Movement
The Mid-Century modern design period is generally defined as encompassing the years from the mid-1930s through the mid-1960s. Even though there was no accepted name for the overall style at the time, or any stated guiding principles – American architecture and furniture design during the period took a decided turn toward a modern and utilitarian, yet aesthetically pleasing look.
Early Mid-Century modern designers drew much of their inspiration from the influential German Bauhaus arts school founded by Walter Gropius and the International Style of architecture defined by Americans Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Both were modernist-based design movements which reached their heights during the first few decades of the 20th century. In their own way each emphasized simplicity, unity, and balance, a major shift from the focus on rigorous symmetry and flamboyant ostentation prevalent during the post-Industrial Revolution and Art Deco eras.
Bauhaus Arts School
The Bauhaus approach, in particular, was instrumental in the development of Mid-Century modern design. Gropius and his school aimed at unifying the contemporary tenets of industrial design, art, and architecture with the seemingly contradictory goals of functionality and beauty. And the signature look of Bauhaus architecture, with clean lines and sweeping designs in steel and glass, remain popular today as lasting examples of modern style. The Bauhaus also redefined the 20th century approach to furniture, with minimalist designs which reduced pieces to their core purpose without unnecessary decoration.
International Style design similarly embraced simplicity without ornamentation and often relied on steel and glass, although with more of a linear look than the creations of the Bauhaus. Much of the early work of architects and designers like Frank Lloyd Wright also had an impact on Mid-Century modern architecture although, for example, those in the International movement disdained much of Lloyd’s early work as a remnant of the Arts and Crafts era rather than something new and exciting.
Building on that base, Mid-Century modern designers added new materials and color to the clean, geometric lines. Modern industrial techniques enabled them to work with various metals, plastics, and natural material to craft unique and intriguing pieces which still valued function over form. This allowed for previously-inconceivable combinations of materials like stainless steel, plywood, granite, and molded plastic and gave birth to a brand-new era of furniture design. Flashy colors were not a major factor in Mid-Century modern design, with white, black, and shades of gray and brown normally featured. However, splashes of bold primary colors were often added as accents, particularly later in the period.
Mid Century Modern Designers
Numerous designers are revered for their work during this period. Husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames are best known for the iconic Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman made from leather and molded plywood, which Charles Eames described as “comfortable and un-designy” with the “receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.” However, they developed many other important Mid-Century modern techniques such as the construction of furniture from plastic resin, wire mesh, and fiberglass.
Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman in Black Leather
The Eames chair was designed for Herman Miller Furniture whose director of design, George Nelson, was another major figure in the Mid-Century modern world. Not only did he and his team create countless famous designs, but Nelson was also the first to conceive of common design features like the family room and the office cubicle. Other important names from the period, like Isamu Noguchi (best known for the Noguchi coffee table, made of a rounded walnut base and solid glass top) and Harry Bertoia (creataor of the Diamond Chair with welded polished steel mesh forming both back and seat), were also members of Nelson’s team at one time, as were Charles and Ray Eames.
Noguchi Cocktail Table
Herman Miller, Knoll, and other famed designers are still producing furniture from their original Mid-Century modern designs; in fact, the Eames Lounge Chair has been in constant production ever since the 1950s. However, an enormous industry has grown around the creation of new, Mid-Century modern-inspired furniture as well as faithful reproductions of the original pieces. All remain extremely popular today.
Modern Living Rooms
The living room is where Mid-Century modern-inspired reproductions and new designs can make the most dramatic style statement. Friends, family, and visitors are transported back to an era defined by cocktail parties, console televisions, and clean yet stunning design aesthetics. Mid-Century modern sofas, sectionals, chairs, ottomans, occasional tables, and lighting set a mood more suited to Don Draper than Justin Timberlake.
Modern Sofa in Fabric
Some of the characteristics defining these pieces include the use of materials like classic woods such as teak, walnut, and oak, but also more unusual materials like plywood, glass, Bakelite, Plexiglas, and stainless steel. Geometric shapes and sharp, sleek lines predominate but less-common shapes often provide a striking counterpoint, with function always uppermost in the mind of the designer.
Modern Sofa in Leather
Bench seating, along with uniquely-shaped arms and legs (often tapered and slanted) and fanciful cushions are features often seen on Mid-Century modern-inspired living room sofas, chairs, and sectionals. Tufted fabrics (often channel tufted or button tufted) can add to the authentic look of new and reproduction Mid-Century pieces, as can fabrics and leathers in unusual accent colors, particularly on smaller furniture like chairs and ottomans.
Modern Sectional in Fabric
We’ll look shortly at the occasional tables and lighting which also add to the authenticity of living rooms or other areas furnished in this style.
Modern Occasional Tables
No furnished living space is truly complete without at least one accent piece and in Mid-Century modern design, glass is often combined with metals or other materials to create striking occasional, cocktail, or end tables to perfectly fit that purpose. These tables usually sit low to the ground with most of the same characteristics as other period pieces: they are built in simple, geometric shapes, they feature narrow, tapered and often sloped legs (or at times, a pedestal base), and they are most commonly made of wood with textured finishes and simple hardware.
Oval Cocktail Table
This does not discount the beauty of many variations on the Mid-Century modern approach, including glass-topped cocktail tables, a blending of contrasting woods or colors, or the use of other materials like synthetics or stainless steel. Reproductions and period-inspired occasional tables can easily be found to either mix or match any period design.
Mid-Century-inspired living rooms and other open spaces make an impression that’s largely for the “public.” Bedrooms furnished in this design style, on the other hand, change an ordinary room into a personal retreat which can bring back comfortable childhood memories and simply put a smile on your face.
Bedroom in Ash
The beds, dressers, and nightstands in these period-inspired rooms have a distinct appearance. Beds often sit low to the ground and platform beds are quite common, complete with the period’s trademark tapered and sloped legs. Many of the beds have no headboards at all; those which do will feature large padded headboards made from tufted fabric or leather, or stylized and patterned headboards of wood, tile, or metal. Dressers and nightstands are commonly made of wood with tapered legs, little ornamentation, and absolutely clean lines. Once again, form most definitely follows function.
Modern Dining Rooms
In keeping with the guiding principle of Mid-Century modern design, the dining room is for eating and entertaining, not for multitasking and clutter. Tables and chairs may add a bit more whimsy than the furniture in a formal Mid-Century living room, but they still feature the clean lines and sleek, geometric or organically-curved feel of the period whether they’re constructed from wood, metal, plastics, glass tops, or a combination. Often, table edges are beveled and legs are tapered, although some of these reproductions or period-inspired tables may have the solid, large bases or removable leaves also popular during the era.
Dining Room in Espresso
Sideboards and buffets were an integral element in many Mid-Century modern dining rooms. The pieces you’ll see today resemble them perfectly with long, low profiles, simple pulls or handles, tapered and often sloped legs, and textured wood finishes. Most will ideally match the dining room table and chairs, but there is plenty of room for interesting design variations by adding contrasting woods, materials, or colors.
The finishing touch for any room created with Mid-Century modern sensibilities is the lighting, and the period provided an enormous range of unique – or at the very least, intriguing – light fixtures and floor lamps. When shopping for reproductions or period-inspired lighting you will find lots of brass or chrome, odd-shaped designs with unusual pendant lights, bubble lights or frosted globes, and pedestal and floor lamps with geometric or gracefully-curved features, providing a dramatic contrast to the room’s Mid-Century modern furniture.
Floor Lamp in Black
Today you can light up any room of your home with one of these modern lamps that will blend in perfectly with different furniture styles.
The Enduring Popularity of Mid-Century Modern Furniture
Once the resurgence in popularity of Mid-Century modern furniture began in the 1980s and 1990s, the style quickly became one of the most desirable retro looks, favored by designers and consumers alike. The clean lines, pleasing shapes, and comfort of the period’s furniture, coupled with the open feel of the era’s architectural approach, were sensible and endearing at the same time.
A brief economic “hiccup” was the only thing which could derail the public’s demand for Mid-Century modern furnishings. Now that the nation has somewhat recovered from the 2008 recession, reproductions, recreations, and new designs inspired by the Mid-Century style are available in nearly any style and price range.
And the furniture’s inherent beauty and relative affordability would seem to ensure that Mid-Century modern will remain one of the most popular choices for decorators, designers, and homeowners for many years to come.
Where Can I Buy Modern Furniture in NJ?
Not only is FOW an actual brick and mortar furniture store in New Jersey, but we also sell all of our products online, including Mid-Century modern inspired products. As a result, you can do a bit of research before entering our actual store. We are moving more towards Mid-Century modern inspired furniture and accessories since there seems to be a bit of a void for this niche in New Jersey. So, click here to check out all of our collections, including modern furniture collections or visit us in person to actually see, feel, and touch these iconic pieces.