Posted on: March 30, 2020

Beginner’s Guide: Mid-century Modern Design

In this week’s beginner’s guide, we’ll be taking a look at one of the fastest growing areas of collecting in the antiques market – 20th century design. 

The 20th century encompasses a broad and varied range of art and design movements, including the Art & Crafts movement and Art Deco to name a couple, but here we will be focusing on mid-century modern, which generally encompasses furniture, art and antiques created between 1945 – 1969. The post war period represented a change in global design aesthetics, when large scale re-building, the availability of new materials and the growing influence of Scandinavian design combined to create what we know today as mid-century modern. In interiors, clean lines, compact designs, fluid shapes and a dynamic new colour palette became the order of the day, with British manufacturers including G-Plan, Ercol, Stag and McIntosh quick to follow the path set by Danish designers like Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner and Kai Kristiansen.  At the same time creators like Andy Warhol led an art and design revolution, and makers including Troika and Whitefriars challenged conventions in ceramics and glass.

Mid-century design has never been more desirable, with healthy demand across all levels of the market. Mid-century pieces offer quality, style and practicality, often with the added benefit of clean lines and small scale, making it easy to blend with other styles and perfect for today’s homes. If you’re thinking about bringing a touch of the 20th century into your home, or simply want to learn more about mid-century modern style, here’s a few tips to get you started.

Furniture

Pictured: Arne Jacobsen ‘Egg’ Chair

The origins of mid-century modern style can be traced back to Scandinavia; Danish designers were greatly inspired by the Bauhaus school in Germany. In an increasingly industrialized world, the Bauhaus school sought to combine beauty and practically, and unify mass production with individual expression. Drawing on these principles, Danish designers pulled away from the ‘unnecessary’ ornamentation of furniture, to create far more minimalist pieces, which were not only more functional for the modern home, but could also be appreciated for the elegance of their pure, clean lines. These pieces were often crafted from man-made woods such as plywood, or chipboard with veneers of lighter coloured woods such as teak and rosewood – not only were these materials more affordable and readily available, but where more malleable and allowed more complex shapes to be created from fewer pieces of wood. 

Pictured: Eames mid-century lounge chair

One of the leaders of the Danish Modern movement was Arne Jacobsen, who is perhaps best known for his ‘reinvention’ of the chair. His most famous design, the ‘Egg’ chair, which has been replicated many times and can still be found in offices and homes today, encapsulates many of the principles of mid-century 

aesthetics; it relies on a clean, fluid silhouette which makes a bold visual statement without sacrificing practicality. Other contemporaries such as Hans Wegner and Kai Kristiansen had the same values at the heart of their designs; striving for functionality as well as beauty, with neither being sacrificed for the other. 

The core elements of Danish Modernism resonated with the post-World War II mindset  in the UK and USA; cities expanded and suburbanization swelled after the war, and to meet the growing demand for furnishings and quickly built modern homes, designers threw out fancy details in favor of simple, functional pieces. Advancements in technology allowed American designers to simplify furniture production even further. Charles and Ray Eames, a husband and wife design duo, pioneered techniques to mold plywood, creating pieces which were more lightweight and simple than ever before.

As mass production technology continued to advance, more industrial man-made materials such as plastic, stainless steel and glass were incorporated into designs, which allowed designers to move away from the more neutral tones of early mid-century pieces, and allowed experimentation with pops of vibrant colour in the late 50’s and 60’s. British makers such as Robin Day, Merrow Associates, Ercol, Stag, McIntosh and G-Plan established themselves as some of the leading names in furniture design for the modern era, and are amongst the most in-demand names at auction today.

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Posters

Pictured: French mid-century ski poster

One of the fastest growing areas of collecting in today’s auction market is 20th century posters. While posters of the era were never meant to be considered works of art so much as simply advertising ephemera, they are now much admired amongst collectors for how effectively they let us trace the footprints of fast-moving social and technological change in the 20th century, from the introduction of photography in the 1920s to computer graphics in the 1980s. While designs from the 20’s and 30’s are rarer and often fetch the best prices, mid-century examples are becoming increasingly popular and can be a much more affordable way to start your collection. From a decorative point of view, there is a wealth of styles to choose from, whether it’s idyllic portrayals of family life seen in poster’s of the 40’s and 50’s, to the psychedelic images of the 60’s.

Pictured: ‘Diamonds are Forever’ film poster sold £360

Amongst the most popular genres in this area of collecting is the travel poster. Appealing to the adventure-hungry millennial market for their romantic depictions of travel and bold colourful prints, travel posters fetch some of the highest hammer-prices at auction. Even in this more narrow area of collecting, there is something to suit every taste, as styles shift from decade to decade, but also between locations – French designs focus on cafés and cabaret, British posters depict sunny images of the seaside and circuses, and Italian examples are more dramatic, focusing on fashion and opera. 

Another sub-genre of note is vintage film posters. Original printed posters for classic and cult movies generate enormous interest at auction amongst avid poster collectors and more casual buyers for nostalgic purposes alike, and are a simple way to bring 20th century flair and iconography into any modern home. For example, posters from the Roger Moore and Sean Connery era of James Bond remain popular across generations, as the character remains one of the most prevalent figures of 20th century pop culture to this day. Some of the most recent examples from our own archives include a 1969 British quad film poster for ‘Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid’ which fetched £480 and a another example of the James Bond flick ‘Diamonds are Forever’ which sold for £360. 

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Glass & Ceramics

Pictured: Murano ‘Pucini’ bird

A great way to start experimenting with midcentury style is with smaller, decorative pieces of ceramics and glassware. As the Danish influence of mid-century modern furniture hit its peak, home accessories followed suit. While ceramics and glassware take on many different forms between the 1940’s and 1970’s, they are again defined by clean, simple forms and stripped-back decoration. 

Glassware by Scandinavian makers such as Strömbergshyttan and Orrefors set the trend for glassware in the mid-20th century; pieces produced by these makers were simple and suitable for everyday use, but were elegant and sculptural in their forms nonetheless. However, it is examples from outside of Scandinavia which attract the best prices at auction. Some of the most innovative and popular glassware to be produced in the decades that followed World War II hailed from Venice, more specifically the Venician island of Murano. Venician and Murano glasswares are noted for their exaggerated, fluid forms and luxurious colours. These again can vary hugely from large bold vases and dishes to more understated pieces that suit a wide variety of tastes. 

Pictured: Whitefriars ‘banjo’ vase

In the UK, the long established firm Whitefriars Glass embraced modernism wholeheartedly during the 50’s and 60’s, experimenting with new molds and vibrant colours to produce some of their most well known and collectable pieces to date. One of the most recognisable examples is the ‘banjo’ vase, named for its distinct shape. Banjo vases of certain colours can fetch in excess of £1000; examples from our archives have taken £4500. 

Pictured: Troika ‘slab’ vase

Contrary to the core principles of earlier mid-century designers, the trend in ceramics was to disregard the function of an item, and moved towards creating ceramics which were more sculptural. Nonetheless, the stripped back aesthetics of the mid-century are still apparent in ceramics of this era. Studio pottery, which is ceramic pottery made by amateur or professional artists making unique items or short runs, drew inspiration from simple, organic forms and modest decoration. British artists and designers such as Bernard Leach, Lucie Rie and the Cornish art pottery house Troika, were at the forefront of the studio pottery movement, and remain some of the most collectable names in British ceramics today.

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