In 1998, The New York Times noted a new design trend. Cool creative types were tossing aside their thrift store decor in favor of midcentury modern. Out went the funky votive candles and wrought-iron beds, and in came the clean-lined furniture of Arne Jacobsen, Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Florence Knoll. The look’s adherents were labeled “Generation Wallpaper,” after the magazine.
For some reason, time stopped.
Nearly two decades later, midcentury modern remains the rage. If anything, it’s even more popular. Flip through a shelter magazine, scroll on 1stdibs.com or shop at a mass retailer like CB2 or West Elm, and it’s all variations on a spiky-legged-chair-and-Tulip-Table theme.
Art nouveau, 1920s Spanish and shabby chic were all looks that the cognoscenti embraced at one time or another but never for this long. It’s as if the mechanism that refreshes cultural trends every few years has developed a glitch.
A snarky Tumblr that lampooned the ubiquity of Noguchi coffee tables couldn’t kill it. A brief flirtation with 19th-century Victoriana didn’t usurp it. Midcentury is the decorating style that won’t die.
The best of midcentury design is undeniably beautiful and functional. But will we still be living in 1950s-inspired interiors through 2050? We spoke to a range of insiders to get their thoughts.
Why has midcentury remained so popular for so long?
Jill Singer, co-founder of the design magazine Sight Unseen: “When this stuff was designed, it was specifically made to be democratic and to be lived with. It makes sense that it has a wide appeal. It’s beautiful materials, classic simple shapes that can seem timeless. It’s not like a blob chair from the early 2000s. It just kind of goes with everything, somehow.”
Michael Boodro, editor-in-chief, Elle Decor: “It looks particularly good in lofts, in glass towers. The upkeep is easy. It’s very safe. And now you can get it at any price point.”
Jim Brett, president, West Elm: “America is urbanizing again. The purpose this furniture served a long time ago is still a purpose it serves today: It’s intuitive to smaller spaces. I don’t know if there’s another time period with such a prolific amount of beautifully functional designs.”
Patrick Parrish, owner of Patrick Parrish Gallery: “I cut my teeth 20 years ago on this stuff, and here I still am shipping it to a show. We all cut our teeth on this stuff. It was American, it was easy to find. That’s why it won’t die with the dealers. It’s like camouflage: It’s been the new cool thing five times in the last 50 years.”
Miles Redd, interior designer: “Decorative movements can last years. Simplicity is universal and understood by everybody, whereas the Baroque and Rococo take a person who appreciates fantasy. But the worm will turn. It always does.”
Are you over it?
David Alhadeff,owner, the Future Perfect: “I’m completely over it. I roll my eyes. Placing another Womb chair in the corner of the bedroom is easy and a real cop-out, frankly. Designers and architects should know better at this point. Oh, my gosh. Enough!”
Barbara Bestor, architect, author of “Bohemian Modern”: “There is so much that’s been reproduced and mass produced. I’m much more careful with it now. I wouldn’t really put Nelson Bubble Lamps anywhere these days.”
Michael Boodro: “Your eye does get bored. Twenty years ago, when midcentury was first being discovered, you could do a straight interior, and that was exciting. People want to go beyond the expected. You don’t have to show the Florence Knoll sofa in nubby beige like she did.”
Jill Singer: “Nobody wants to see a room that’s all midcentury. I don’t want to see that ‘Mad Men’ look that’s just a pastiche. And so many retailers capitalize on the popularity and make these knockoffs of midcentury. But when you have a beautiful, interesting piece, it doesn’t seem tired.”
Liz O’Brien, 20th-century decorative arts dealer: “Definitely not. It’s such a broad category. I continue to find super-exciting things. I just got a great pair of chairs by John Dickinson. That happens often enough to keep me hooked.”
What pieces are so cliche they should be forever banished?
David Alhadeff: “Eames fiberglass chairs. If there’s any hope for us, maybe it’s the Eames fiberglass chair. Those have crested and gone away.”
Michael Boodro: “I think it’s hard to look at one of those Eames chairs. But then I bite my tongue because we have an apartment in Paris in our October issue that uses them in the kitchen in this bohemian high-style interior, against a traditional brown dining table, and they look really cool. So I eat crow.”
Jill Singer: “I don’t begrudge anyone for having an Eames chair. They’re beautiful. But it’s this idea that ‘I have to have it.’ It’s about context.”
John Edelman, chief executive officer, Design Within Reach: “The Heywood-Wakefield stuff was so popular at the flea markets 15 years ago. I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, and now I’m tired of it. I’m also tired of skinny legs controlling a room.”
Barbara Bestor: “I’m less critical. Some of the knockoffs are kind of annoying. I think it shows a lack of imagination. But I don’t blame the furniture.”
Patrick Parrish: “Sometimes a Saarinen Tulip Table is the perfect table for a spot. There’s a reason it resonates. It’s clean, simple, easy to live with. Even if I am sick of it, I end up recommending it to people.”
What still feels fresh or undiscovered?
Jill Singer: “You know which chair I really love? Borge Mogensen’s Spanish Chair. It has this beautiful leather seat and these thick paddle-like arms. It hasn’t been universally knocked off, so it still seems fresh.”
John Edelman: “There are two pieces we’d have to have an apocalypse for them to be out of style: the Saarinen Tulip Table and the Eames lounge chair and ottoman. They’re authored. They have a story behind them.”
Michael Boodro: “The Mies van der Rohe chrome X-base glass coffee table and the Poul Kjaerholm coffee table. They’re distilled to such a pure essence that they either star in a room or take the background in the room. That’s important, to be able to do both.”
How Dwell-y Is Your Own Home?
Liz O’Brien: “I have three Tulip Tables at home. With a marble top it’s hard to beat. But I use Queen Anne-style chairs. It’s elegant.”
John Edelman: “My home is in rural Connecticut, on 14 acres with a pond. I have Bertoia bar stools, an Eames lounge and ottoman, a Noguchi table, Milo Baughman chairs. I wouldn’t dream of a different table other than a Saarinen table in my kitchen. But you walk in my house, you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, gee, this guy lives in a modern house.’ I’ve got a dog, kids. We’re rural. I’ve got stuff.”
Jim Brett: “I just bought vintage Italian Ico Parisi chairs. I also just bought an Italian midcentury curved sofa. I also just got some pieces mixing travertine and brass – all vintage. I went to 1stdibs and had an Italian midcentury buying spree. I’m redoing my apartment.”
David Alhadeff: “I’ve got two Castiglioni chairs in my living room, made in the ‘50s. I also have Starck chairs produced in 1989. I believe in a mix.”
Michael Boodro: “I have some French ‘40s pieces, if that counts. I have brown wood – how unfashionable is that? I have Biedermeier, which is totally unfashionable.”
What’s the next big decor trend?
Patrick Parrish: “You look at a Woody Allen interior from the ‘70s: It’s the Thonet bentwood chair, the big fern, the Flokati rug, macramé. That kind of casual, lighter style that’s not as rigid. I could see that.”
Jill Singer: “Eclecticism, modern bohemian or the dark pastel Scandinavian palette. Those are all so in right now. I look at our own Instagram and there’s so much light pink. I think, ‘I want something crazy and colorful.’”
Barbara Bestor: “There’s certainly a movement of innovative craft-based modernism. Let’s call it smaller-batch semi-artisanal production. The contemporary stuff is probably more Bauhaus than midcentury. Now we have more crafts like ceramics, a combination of industrial and handmade approaches, a color palette reminiscent of textile designers like Anni Albers. So – neo-Bauhaus?”
Michael Boodro: “The thing we’ve been seeing is more seductive ‘70s: low-slung, brass, dark leathers, dark colors.”
Liz O’Brien: “Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, but something I see in magazines and on social media are more layered looks. For me, a really good example is the Eameses’ own home. They didn’t just have one of their sofas, they had a kilim draped over it.”
David Alhadeff: “Right now the best work I see is eclectic. It doesn’t leave out midcentury, but it leaves out those iconic duplicated elements that are so easy. What you see now is, ‘I bought this midcentury home, but here’s what I did to modernize it, to change it.’ That can give us some hope.”