Type ‘mid-century furniture’ into Google and you’ll discover there’s a resurgence in its popularity 70 years since its inception. From the global pages of Vogue to the local pages of Verve, ‘mid-century’ appears to be the darling of many discerning design eyes the world over.
For the uninitiated who have no clue why the love affair, Dan and Emma Eagle are the go-to masters on the merits of this design period. The couple own Ponsonby vintage design store, Mr Bigglesworthy.
Both are born curators and collectors to the core. Emma is a former fine arts graduate and childhood stamp collector, whilst Dan, who collected bottles as a teen, left accountancy a year ago. It’s not surprising to learn, given the prolific knowledge they share, that the Eagles have previously worked with the Auckland Art Gallery.
The progressive movement of modernism and its impact on mid-century design was both an exciting yet courageous time according to the couple. “People were using technology and looking forward. That’s why they say mid-century design is quite optimistic. A period of creating beautifully crafted furniture that most people could afford,” says Dan.
It was this “paradigm shift” that opened up purchasing opportunities for the middle class thanks to technology. Before that, furniture was highly decorative, usually referenced the past, made by artisans and was expensive to craft. “Then it became a bit more egalitarian for ordinary people,” says Dan, “not just the elite.”
The fifties’ focus changed from the overly decorative to organic. The actual design became part of the form. Cantilevering was one type of technique to pioneer groundbreaking design: “There were sculptural elements, not superfluous decoration, just very clean lines in a piece that’s quite stripped back to the essence of the function.”
Pushing the boundaries was a signature of the style. “Not looking backwards is the modernist philosophy,” adds Emma. During the transition to the new, people moved towards more abstract forms of art and machine based pieces that in the early days perhaps were, Dan says, “a little cold for some to embrace”.
It wasn’t until the Danish designs emerged that there was a better balance between man, machine and materials. The work masterfully understood the balance element, the forward focus element, and the decorative element after being stripped back in an honest way describes Dan.
“The Danish style took off due to not putting the machines first; instead they put the materials first. Their history of craftsmanship working with lots of natural materials meant a lot of warmth came through that people instantly connected with.”
Integrity was the other huge attribute behind the furniture’s appeal.
“They say that there’s a real honesty to mid-century furniture — there’s nowhere to hide — you see the construction within the furniture and all the elements are out on display so you have to do something really well.”
Nowadays in this age of ‘disposable everything’ Dan and Emma identify with the demand for mid-century as people have a deeper desire to connect, to be nostalgic and to find a statement piece with legacy that they can pass on to their children.
“People want more enduring, they want something that they can connect with — gorgeously crafted furniture can get better with age,” says Emma.
She notes designers who rose to prominence during the period like Verner Panton, considered one of Denmark’s most influential 20th century furniture and interior designers. “He did his own thing that was a step away from organic Danish furniture. Panton used wild bold colours and experimented with how space was used as well. Things like ‘can a lounge be a playground?’” she says.
Another signature of mid-century is the element of freedom. Designers imagined how things could be without being dictated too. “If you look at New Zealand pre-modernism, there was a lot of European and English influence so a lot of our architecture looked like the English countryside. Then when modernism struck, people were questioning what New Zealand design was how to create pieces that referenced us,” Dan says.
Dan and Emma explain the new direction developed in New Zealand that was known as pan-Pacific modernism. They admit they’re amazed about how many mid-century furniture designers in New Zealand there were.
Even though it sources 70% of its stock from Denmark, the UK and United States, walk around the gallery at Mr Bigglesworthy to see New Zealand pieces. It’s obvious our designers pushed the new form and mixed different materials ranging from rattan cane, ceramic, brass, glass, mahogany, rimu, kauri and oak to steel. Look out for the stunning multi-coloured mosaic tile coffee table and hand sculpted bowls by John Crighton that are currently for sale.
“One designer, Garth Chester, designed the Curvesse chair which so experimental and bold – I don’t know how he would’ve found customers to buy it as it would’ve cost a fortune to make,” Emma says.
The perfect fit for apartment dwellers, mid-century furniture works exceptionally well in smaller spaces. “Sustainability and having a smaller footprint is important which fits with the homes people are building now too,” says Dan. “There’s an honest simplicity about the materials and the craftsmanship. This furniture is understated. It doesn’t always jump out at you straight away yet over time you notice subtle details about the way it’s been constructed — so your relationship with it can evolve over time.”
Developing a discerning eye before buying pieces is a learnt, critical skill, Dan believes. You might get two chairs that look the same, one for $50 and an identical chair for $500. An untrained eye may not know the difference.
“You need to know the integrity of the designer, country of origin, the condition, the materials, the referencing and its provenance — when you understand all of that and then look again, the subtleties will be seen. Suddenly you then become aware that a design doesn’t quite nail it.”
Kiwis are snapping up mid-century and, says Emma, love “good cabinetry, clean and elegant design”. “They like understated in an elegant and thoughtful way. We do find our clients want to invest in pieces that are put in a really special place which is very encouraging.”
It’s very easy to see the appeal of Mr Bigglesworthy. It’s not a retro store recreating the 1950s, rather it curates a unique gallery collection that fits the modern lifestyle and context exquisitely.
10 Mid-century Furniture Buyer Tips — What You Need to Know From the Experts
- Let your emotional response guide you — you might have a specific colour and want to match it immediately but sometimes not matching it can look better.
- Look for the common strand in your interior look — do you need a piece that’s bold and organic or plain and linear — so the look and feel goes together.
- Look at the aging of the timber — has it aged nicely or does the piece need restoration and how much is required?
- Provenance is quite important — know the designer. Did they push the boundaries with originality or did they reference someone else’s work? Understanding the history is important to understand how to correctly value what you are buying!
- Different materials range in quality — beware of cheaper copies! Know your designer and the materials they used. Ensure you do not pay too much as the piece may be low quality in its construction — do your research. Come in to Mr Bigglesworthy and we can advise.
- Different timbers can be used in different spaces — Danish typically used teak and then there’s rosewood, a lavish rich grain. In New Zealand we used mahogany and oak.
- Be eclectic — not many people decorate completely in mid-century. Be an individual — the best houses are free of clutter and each piece is really, really special.
- Take your time when collecting.
- Clean lines are the beauty of mid-century — it’s perfect mixing and matching. Great with an industrial or a lavish antique piece — the contrast is key!
- Be curious — pull an interior together where people will question where did that come from? What’s its story?
Words: Sarah Sparks
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