The design era known today as midcentury modern is popular for its accessibility and affordability. Furniture designs tend to be as simple and practical as they are beautiful. And many pieces by famous mid-century designers were created for mass-market consumption (and pricing). This concept is best summed up by Charles and Ray Eames, the best-known midcentury designers, describing their own ideology: "Getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least amount of money."
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For those just beginning to explore the realm of midcentury modern home furnishings, Eames is the natural point of departure. The name Eames has become almost synonymous with midcentury modern. In fact, midcentury pieces bearing no maker's mark often are dubbed "Eames-era" to garner attention.
The modern look that took root in the 1940s and expanded into 1950s, '60s, and early '70s in America reflects on innovative Bauhaus design originating in Germany decades earlier, around the same time that Art Deco was on the rise. Designers like Charles (1907–1978) and Ray (1912–1988) Eames built on this modernist ideal with their colorful furniture made of bent plywood, and plastic chairs molded to fit the curve of the body. Their designs are considered to be classics among modernism fans.
Like the Eames desk and return (1954) and side chair (1958), many Eames pieces were manufactured by Herman Miller, another name entrenched in classic midcentury design.
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Sculptures by Harry Bertoia (1915–1978) are widely sought by modernism aficionados. He is well known for his "sound art," along with free-form works and bush-shaped designs made of welded metal. Some use large wires, either straight or curved, welded into position to form modern masterpieces that can sell well into the six figures.
In furniture design, Bertoia's work for Knoll has been on the map of collectors for quite some time. "In 1950 Hans Knoll, one of the leading manufacturers of modern furniture in the United States, commissioned the prominent American metalsmith and sculptor Harry Bertoia to design several chairs," said author Marvin D. Schwartz in "American Furniture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas & Beds." "Bertoia's designs transcended the barrier between decorative and functional design...his objects balanced successfully between sculpture and furniture."
Bertoia's "Diamond Chairs" have a base of lattice-like metal (which can be seen from the back) with a fabric cover. There were five different sculptural, open-weave metal designs in the original Bertoia Collection for Knoll. Like most Knoll designs from the 1950s, these chairs were made over a long period of time. Knoll Associates labels were used through 1969; versions made since then are marked Knoll International when the labels are still present.
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Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) was known to say "I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good." Desired or not, in addition to overwhelmingly good design, his work is some of the most interesting and desirable to fans of modern decor. He served as director of the Bauhaus, a school dedicated to exploring modern art and design, from 1930 to 1933 when it was closed at the urging of the Nazi command. He migrated to the United States in the late 1930s, where he continued to influence the architecture community.
Like Bertoia, Mies designs were also manufactured by Knoll Associates. This production yielded many designs, expertly using open space akin to Mies' architecture, that have cantilevered seats artfully suspended above air. This is true of the Tugendhat lounge chairs as well as with many of his other chair designs originating at the Bauhaus. These styles have been widely copied since they were introduced.
Mies' most famous design, however, is the Barcelona chair. This iconic seat was originally made for the International Exposition of 1929 held in Barcelona, Spain. Knoll International (the name of the company since 1969) is still producing the "less is more" Barcelona chair today.
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Marcel Breuer (1902–1981), like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, designed many tubular-steel chairs for the Bauhaus in Germany. Many of these chair designs employed cantilevered seats, and they were copied widely in both the United States and Europe during the 1920s and '30s. To true modernism fans, the originals—with their airy feel—are much preferred over heavier mass-produced variations.
Breuer's most famous design, the Wassily chair, came about during his tenure as the head of the cabinet-making workshop while still at the Bauhaus. The first example of this extreme variation of the traditional club chair was made in the 1920s and was named simply Model B3. It came in both folding and stationary styles with fabric straps attached to steel tubing like that used in hospital furniture of the day. These early chairs are the most valuable examples in the eyes of collectors. After World War II, the Wassily was produced with the more familiar leather straps, although fabric was available as well.
By 1968, Knoll purchased the Breuer catalog and began producing his designs, several of which are still available today. This includes the Wassily chair in numerous color variations, the cantilevered Cesca chair in versions with and without arms, and his popular Laccio coffee and end tables.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Another renowned midcentury modern furniture designer with roots in architecture is Arne Jacobsen (1902–1971). This Danish visionary drew inspiration from the modernist designs of Charles and Ray Eames and collaborated with other designers to create furnishings for a number of the buildings he designed.
For example, Jacobsen conceived every detail of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of the furniture pieces for the hotel was his signature Egg Chair with matching footstool, designed in 1958. This curvaceous lounger is one of his most well-known designs and one of the most popular among fans of modernist furnishings. It is still being produced today.
Jacobsen also conceived the Ant chair and the Swan chair, along with other innovative designs, including flatware, cocktail sets, and tea service sets. All of these are very functional in addition to being interesting to display and are quite valuable to collectors today.
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The designs of Paul Evans (1931–1987) have been noticed more and more over the last decade by modernism enthusiasts, and values have risen accordingly. He designed furniture for his own business while sharing a New Jersey showroom with Philip Lloyd Powell in the 1950s, and also for a North Carolina company, Directional Furniture, in the 1960s. By the '70s he was back in his home state of Pennsylvania employing more than 85 workers who helped fill his New York showroom with his designs.
Evans' furniture is known for the use of sculpted metals, including bronze, stainless steel, and copper, with a strong Brutalism influence. His tables usually consist of a geometric mass of metal or wood, sometimes bringing natural stalagmites to mind as if they are growing up from the floor, and some were topped with glass. His case pieces often are heavy and massive, with fronts that are broken into a series of squares decorated primitively or are shiny and angular, forming a metal patchwork.
Many Evans pieces were commissioned directly by clients through his studios. These were often held by the original owners, and their estates have documented provenance confirming them as Evans' work when they come up for sale. Most of those pieces are marked with the initials "PE" or the full name "Paul Evans," along with a two-number date.