A Beginners Guide to Mid-Century Modern Furniture
There’s no denying that Portlanders have style and an appreciation for quality design. We are a community of makers and revitalizers. Many of us are craftspeople at heart, which is why the mid-century modern aesthetic is so popular in this area. This classic style allows us to salvage and reuse older pieces that have already stood the test of time while still appealing to our unique sensibilities.
As any novice to vintage furniture buying knows, there’s a lot out there to choose from. To help get a better idea of where to start and what to look for when investing in a mid-century piece of furniture, I got in touch with Michael and Jake from Red Snapper. They were able to put me on the path to finding the perfect vintage pieces for my home.
Why do you think people are still drawn to the mid-century modern aesthetic after five decades?
During this time period (1950’s-1970’s) designers were creating with an eye to the future, using new materials as well as traditional ones in new ways. The designers were visionaries creating for the future using quality materials and superior craftsmanship and technology. That’s why so many classic icons of design were created at this time.
A well designed mid-century modern piece will be at home in a craftsman bungalow in SE, a mid-century home in Gresham or a contemporary home in Beaverton. It’s the simple clean lines that make these pieces so desirable.
What drives you to find and reinvigorate these pieces?
Both Jake and I have a passion for mid-century design. When we started our business we had both been collecting for years. We created a new kind of mid-century furniture buying experience for our customers: selling pieces in our shop that we want to have in our own homes, at prices we would be willing to pay and in great condition.
This is what excites us, providing great mid-century pieces priced affordable for the Portland market. Instead of settling for something from West Elm and Crate & Barrel that borrows from the mid-century aesthetic but lacks the quality and craftsmanship of the originals, customers can own an authentic mid-century piece.
We enjoy educating our customers and exciting them about the rich design history of mid-century furniture. We also get satisfaction restoring these pieces, bringing out their original character and beauty, since much of this furniture has been heavily used during its previous life.
What are some things to look out for as a novice buyer of mid-century furniture?
Mid-century modern furniture is used furniture. Just like used cars or homes, quality and condition vary widely. Carefully inspect the furniture you are considering buying and ask questions. The store you are shopping at should encourage and assist you in this.
Here is a quick guide to inspecting case goods (dressers/credenzas/desks):
Make sure drawers open and close smoothly and that rails and guides are in good condition.
Ask for assistance and place the piece on its back. The legs should be sturdy.
The entire piece should be clean and the finish should be intact.
There will be wear on the piece (it is 40-60 years old) but it should be structurally sound.
Couches and chairs should be clean and sturdy. Pull off the cushions and unzip them to check the foam. It should not be crumbling or flat. Ask for assistance to turn the couch or chair over and make sure it has been cleaned and the legs are sound. Stains are difficult to remove and faded fabric stays faded even after you clean it.
Be careful buying a project piece. If you are considering a piece that needs reupholstering or refinishing and someone tells you ‘that’s an easy fix’ then they should have already made the repair. There are no easy fixes.
Spend time comparing the quality, condition and price in the various mid-century shops around Portland. Shops are invested in their reputation and the quality of their merchandise. Malls with multiple dealers make it more difficult for any personal accountability, so inspect items carefully. Once you buy it, it’s yours.
Don’t get overwhelmed by your shopping experience. Take your time. Quantity of furniture does not equal quality. Ask to place items on hold if you are unsure. Most shops will have a hold policy.
When buying a piece, make sure you’ve measured the space it will go into ahead of time. Bring the measurements, a measuring tape and a camera with you. Never buy a piece hoping it will fit. Make sure pieces you will be sitting on or at are comfortable to you.
Ask about delivery options and figure that into your cost. Doing it yourself can be just as expensive as paying for delivery.
Buying mid-century furniture is exciting and rewarding if you are an educated and aware customer. You will be able to purchase unique furnishings for your home that will last another 50 years.
What are the hallmarks of a high-quality refurbishment?
Upholstered furniture: So much of what you are buying is unseen so you should ask a lot of questions and use your own good sense. A good refurbished piece should last at least 10-20 years. An amateur reupholstery job is not a good deal. It will end up costing you more in the long run because it will not hold up. Reupholstering furniture is expensive!
It must be true upholstery fabric. Lines on the cushions should be straight (not wavy!) and taut (all fabrics will stretch and give over time). Also the bottom cloth should be present. If it looks wrong it probably is.
Cushions with zippers are important. You should be able to replace the foam yourself. Unzip the cushions and check out the foam. You don’t want foam that compresses all the way down-that means it is low quality or old.
Mid-century styles should not be overstuffed like contemporary furniture. It is not true to the design and will look wrong.
Use a period appropriate upholstery fabric. The pieces were designed with the fabric choices in mind. Once again use your own good sense and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Refinished furniture: there are many quick fixes and tricks to avoid in refinished pieces. Here are some things to look at and look out for.
Make sure that there is an actual finish on the piece. We have seen many examples of dealers who will sand the finish off without replacing it. It looks beautiful and feels great but has nothing on it to protect the wood surface. One drop of water will permanently stain the surface.
There should be visible wood grain and variation in tone and color-especially on the Danish pieces. Most of the mid-century pieces had lacquer finishes. These types of finishes show off the depth of grain. Avoid flat polyurethane finishes. You lose the beauty and they are very hard (if not impossible) to remove.
Repairs should be secure and aesthetically pleasing. Joints should be secure on table legs/dining chairs/dressers and edges should not feel rough or uneven.
Do not be afraid to ask questions!
What advice would you give to friends or customers who are looking for older pieces to decorate their homes?
I tell my friends to call me and send me a picture if they see something they are considering buying. We talk about condition and price. I remind them to buy what they love and to pay a fair price for an item in good condition. Don’t be cheap! If they make good choices they will have a piece they will enjoy for a long time.
I advise friends and customers to ignore designer names and appreciate and pay for great design.
When people are concerned about the age and wear on a piece I remind them how good these pieces look after their 40-60 years of use. Most new furniture you can buy will not look this good even 10 years from now. It’s part of seeing the beauty in the age and wear of a piece and understanding the value of patina and character.
An important part of mid-century furniture buying: Do your own research!
Check around at other local shops to make sure prices are competitive. There may not be an identical item but you can get a feel for comparative value.
Use the Internet. Usually this will result in the MAXIMUM amount someone is asking nationally (or internationally) and prices should be adjusted down for Portland’s economy on most items. (Keep in mind the price you see listed on the Internet is not necessarily what something sold for.)
Use your own common sense. If you love something and it is in your price range BUY IT. Many people have their ‘one that got away’ stories, and there is no ‘ordering another one’ on many items. But don’t let yourself feel pressured. As cool as you may think something is, there is always more out there.