Recently a client called to ask my thoughts on American mid century furniture. I paused and then had to ask them if they were thinking of the popular greats like Charles and Ray Eames, Warren Platner, and Milo Baughman, or if George Nakashima, Paul Evans and Wendell Castle were more their taste? They didn’t know. So thus began a brief discussion about American furniture Post-War design – and a perfect idea for a feature on TheModernSybarite.
American furniture design after World War II was divided into two schools of thought and aesthetic: one group of designers took new industrial materials developed by the American military which were then suddenly available in abundance at low cost and created iconic pieces of American mid century furniture like the Eames’ ubiquitous shelving systems or Platner’s wire furniture.
These designs were sleek, streamlined and perfect for mass production, which made them affordable to millions of households in the midst of throwing out their old furniture for pieces that were less fussy and embraced the promise of a better tomorrow. This is the design that many people now first associate with the American mid century look. It’s a more popular aesthetic and one that is reasonably affordable since many classic pieces have been re-issued and unfortunately knocked-off, making them widely available in today’s market.
The other group of American mid century furniture designers encompasses those who really were master craftsmen and whose work retained the traditions of high style coupled with exquisite craftsmanship. These pieces today can easily command six and seven figure prices.
Here I’m thinking about the Nakashima furniture where the live edge of the wood is used to sculptural effect in one-of-a kind tables and benches; or the creations of Paul Evans who used metal to create sideboards and cabinets infused with industrial chic. I also see this tradition alive in the work of American designers David Ebner – who studied under Wendell Castle – and whose studio in Long Island produces maybe 30 pieces each year. These pieces are for clients interested in show-stopping furniture that is exquisitely made and are content to wait for years for the right piece to become available for purchase.
Both movements radically changed the way Americans furnished their homes in completely different ways. I happen to love the works of both schools and have worked on projects reflecting each. So now when you hear people speaking of American mid century furniture you can ask them which school they prefer – they probably had never stopped to consider their options.
Richard Rabel is a New York Interior Designer and Principal at Richard Rabel: Interiors+ Art, a design studio offering residential design, decorating and art advising services.
image credits: american mid century furniture: Wendell Castle and Paul Evans – Daniella on Design; George Nakashima – Rago Auctions; Eames Shelving Unit – Vitra; Platner dining set – unknown.