The Allure of Mid Century Furniture
Born in 1962, I am sort of Mid Century myself. It is a rather peculiar feeling having lived through a period that has become a style. As I grew up my parents eschewed the rich upholstery and heavily carved furniture of their childhoods for the clean lines, delicacy and mechanical references that epitomises the Mid Century.
The term itself, however, is a trifle vague and woolly and has come to mean anything that isn’t really definable in another way, in terms of furniture and objects from the last century. It does not exclusively mean made and designed in the 50s but as we will see it can refer to anything up to pieces post 1980 and not before the last dregs of Art Deco and Modernism. Almost anything from Ruhlmann to the fantasy of Sottsass can broadly be called mid century furniture. It is a voguish term because that moment in the 50s and after when furniture was simple, slim and stylish is currently so easy to live with. It fits comfortably with what is broadly called antiques and with brand new modern furniture.
As a child of the mid-century, I have bought and live with a number of pieces from this era. The smart black side chairs stamped, made and designed by Sanguinetti epitomise the era with their Gio Ponti style Superleggera form. They are delicate – you can lift one with one finger, but they are also robust enough to support a large person sitting in them. They are smart black and versatile like the iconic Chanel little black dress.
This delicacy is echoed in the iron side table with its brass feet and wooden top. The design seems to hark back to 18th century English and French consoles but is deeply rooted in the mid 20th with its crypto mechanical, crypto anthropomorphic shape. It is fundamentally very useful given that it could be behind a sofa, against a wall or even in the centre of a room. This multi-function aspect can also be seen as a characteristic of mid-century.
After the Second World War and all through the next two decades many people found themselves living in flats rather than houses and in these stylish new homes they needed mid century furniture that could fulfill a number of functions or uses.
Take the brass two tier round coffee table as an example. It can be small, sit at the end of a sofa or beside a chair and hold a lamp and a drink but it could have its lower-tier rolled out and become a capacious coffee table, small and large in one piece.
Mid century furniture refers to a style but it also refers to a date and pieces made during the era that don’t necessarily embody the perceived 50s ethos. Even though they don’t reflect the style, they are fairly and correctly described as mid-century. Often this is a question of style but it can also refer to the periods’ enthusiastic use of unusual or novel materials.
For example, we have the extraordinary Colombian tortoiseshell veneered armchair. This piece which is by style English Regency or French Empire is in fact made in the middle of the last century. We have never before seen a chair veneered in this way, and in this style, therefore it becomes descriptive of its mid-century era of creation rather than the original era of its style.
There is a third way Mid Century furniture can be used and that relates to pieces that are Art Deco or Modernist in broad style but were clearly made later and have the unmistakable thread of the actual mid-century running through them.
For example, the amusing set of cafe chairs and the steel flower centre table are both from an undefinable period best described as Mid Century.
Maybe 30s maybe 40s maybe even 50s. It is impossible to be exact. In another way, the red and black faux leather armchairs and the chrome hall stand both have deep roots in the Art Deco but they are examples of when a design has longevity.
They are part of a continuous line of aesthetic and whilst their roots are 20-30 years older than their moment of manufacture, their expression conveys both their past and their present whilst being clearly made in the 50s.
To conclude we have with Mid Century both a precise term and a loose one. We can see exactly what is meant and we can simultaneously use it simply as a marker to pin down an object that would otherwise be hard to describe.