Midcentury Modern: Pleasing All Of The People All Of The Time

by Sara Clarke

Are these people experiencing an objectively higher-quality life? Vintage image from X-Ray Delta One, via Flickr.

Why do we love Midcentury design?

Is it because there’s some kind of absolute standard of Quality, which MCM furniture objectively meets? Is it because it’s trendy?

The Wirecutter’s Allison Gibson asks these questions and decides that midcentury furniture is inherently good design.

I’m not sure I agree with Allison.

Anyone trying to convince you that Midcentury design is objectively better is selling you something. It’s worth remembering that.

Don’t get me wrong. I love almost anything that evokes the early 60’s. I’m wearing a pair of Laura Petrie style cigarette pants right now. My resume is laid out in Futura. And, yes, I have a total hard on for Danish teak credenzas and Eames chairs. They’re gorgeous. Duh.

But that’s the thing. I like them in an individual way, because of my personal taste. I like Midcentury design the same way I love Bob Dylan and think tattoos are rad as fuck. These things are matters of opinion. Sure, MCM is a little more timeless than, say, Gangnam Style, but that doesn’t mean it’s objectively good.

I know for a fact that there are people who don’t like Midcentury Modern furniture. This blog’s namesake, my grandmother, is one of them. I’m sure she has no problem with it (we’ve never discussed it in detail), but when she and my grandfather built their house in the 60’s, the furniture they bought was NOT modern at all. They passed their traditional taste down to my parents. Our dining room table was lacquered cherry with curved legs that hinted at a vaguely Hepplewhite-ish Chippendaley influence. Our kitchen chairs were a copy of a style commonly seen in Living History museums. Dressers had brass pulls dripping with rococo detail. There wasn’t a stitch of bent plywood in any house I spent time in as a child.

Growing up, the taste I inherited from family told me that modernist furniture was ugly. When I saw Eames designs in antique shops when I first moved to New York, my first thought was, “People pay money for that?” I’d always liked it a little, in a rebellious way. But it didn’t seem to be of Objective Quality, to me.

In 1987, every bank in my hometown looked like this. It was hideous and dated. Image via X-Ray Delta One, via Flickr.

Which brings me to my theory on why people like MCM furniture so much. For a lot of people of my generation, it’s what they grew up with. Midcentury to them says home, family, and oddly enough, tradition. For people of a slightly older generation, it still looks toward an optimistic future, like a little piece of Tomorrowland you can sit on to watch TV. Midcentury furniture is both nostalgic and forward-looking. It has something for everyone. It’s iconic and unique, timeless and contemporary.

Then again, maybe The Wirecutter is right. Maybe good design means something that can be all things to all people. Maybe form follows function not just physically but emotionally.

Either way, you bet your ass I’m getting a bunch of fabulous modern furniture for my new apartment. Family tradition be damned. Stay tuned for the epic flea market posts!

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