Living with Antiques: Modern Times

Mid-century modern pieces are back in style again.
Cheryl Gerber Photographs

Just a few years ago, local decorators and antiques dealers began getting requests for a style of vintage furniture that had long since been forgotten. The calls were from mostly young collectors searching for mid-century modern furniture and accessories, pieces that were popular from about the mid-1940s to mid-1970s.    
These sleek, clean-lined pieces, many influenced by the works of Frank Lloyd Wright and the International and Bauhaus movements, were ubiquitous during these decades. The recent interest in these pieces, kindled a few decades ago in New York and Los Angeles, has finally crept into the local decorating scene.    

“In many ways, these pieces are timeless,” says Peaches Hanemann, owner of Peaches, a small boutique in the lower Garden District that features mid-century furniture and accessories. Hanemann’s own interest in the era began when she inherited a collection of brown porch furniture by Ib Kofod-Larsen, very high-quality works, with simple lines and curves.    

Likewise, Vic Loisel of Loisel Vintage Modern on Magazine Street began collecting mid-century modern pieces to furnish his own Carrollton area cottage more than 10 years ago and became so obsessed with collecting that he left a full-time job with an oil company to purse his passion as a retailer. Today, he is doing a brisk business with an established clientele of local decorators, experienced collectors and hip young adults.

“Collectors of this era are buying credenzas or sideboards and using them to house their flat-screen televisions, or they are repurposing simple bureaus or dressers to become entertainment centers,” he says. “A good decorator or an individual with a great eye can mix mid-century modern into any room and make it look fabulous.”

The simplicity of the design of each piece of this era mixes well with antiques and adds an element of surprise to a room. In my own home, I have a classic vintage-era Barcelona chair, with its chrome base and cognac leather cushions, placed in a room of French antiques and contemporary art. The chair adds an unexpected pop to a room that could have gotten a little stuffy without this chair and bold art.

Works by Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, Carlo Mollino and Vladimir Kagan are among the most-prized. Chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Paul McCobb are also coveted by collectors. But these collectors’ items are becoming more scarce and thus pricier, so wise buyers are advised to look in unconventional outlets if they are looking for bargains.

If you’re lucky, start with the attic of a parent or well-loved relative. Estate and garage sales may have a good piece tucked away. Online auction sites, such as eBay, also may turn up a treasure or two. Thrift stores used to be good sources before the mid-century look became trendy, and some might still be worth a shot. Locally, there are a number of vintage stores that may hold a bargain. Design Within Reach on Magazine Street sells newly made modern top-quality pieces, as well.

Recently, the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity ReStore reported a donation from local movie sets that had been dismantled and included some excellent mid-century modern pieces. The ReStore recently moved to a new location at 2900 Elysian Fields Avenue and may have just what you are looking for.

Decorating with mid-century modern takes skill. “Use these pieces carefully,” Loisel says. “Too much of one thing might look ‘museum-y.’ If not mixed correctly with furniture from other eras, the room can look like a hodgepodge if you aren’t careful.” He also recommends that the vintage pieces be updated with the use of 21st-century colors and fabrics.
Because many of these pieces are smaller in scale, take your time and make sure the sofas and chairs are comfortable. Turn smaller pieces upside-down and see how the joints are made, if the dovetailing looks sturdy and if the brackets are solid.

If you are a bit hesitant to invest in a large mid-century modern piece or have a limited budget, begin with a smaller piece, such as a bold lamp or accessory. Glassware by Iittala, ceramics by Arabia or tableware by Georg Jensen – all with their signature simple, natural shapes – are safe, beautiful places to start. Buy the best-quality piece you can afford, be it small or large, and grow your collection from there.

 “A good vintage piece can last forever,” Hanemann says. “It’s an heirloom and an antique of the future.”

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