It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Mid-Century Modern furniture – that iconic style of the 50s and 60s – is still popular today. The designs, which range from sleek and elegant to curvaceous and funky, have become part of the indoor landscape in homes around the country. The “Mad Men” TV series might have given it a bump on the radar in recent years, but in truth the style never went away. In an L.A. Times op-ed article published in December 2015, writer Daniel Engber expressed the belief that MCM has “grown into a mass religion.” If you’re a convert, too, here are five reasons to invest in Mid-Century Modern.
1. Because of its enduring appeal, it remains a good investment.
“There’s a finite number of vintage Mid-Century Modern pieces,” says Cara Greenberg, whose classic book, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, was published in 1984 and helped launch a huge revival of interest that continues to this day. “This furniture is getting rarer, and there will never be a glut on the market.” While knock-offs and reproductions abound, only original pieces that are actually from the mid-20th century are worthwhile investments.
If you’re thinking of jumping in, start by talking to dealers and reading up on the subject. Larry Weinberg, whose New York–based company Weinberg Modern has been dealing in furnishings of the period for 25 years, says the amount of literature on Mid-Century Modern continues to expand. “That’s driving interest in the field,” he says.
2. It not only holds its value, it’s appreciating in value.
“These days, people are buying Mid-Century Modern furniture the same way they’d buy an artwork or a piece of stock,” says Weinberg. “As bigger money enters the field, it’s driving up prices, just as prices in the art market are driven up.”
Invest wisely by making sure you’re buying original pieces. “All the designers had unique designs and put distinctive maker’s marks on their pieces,” says Yuri Yanchyshyn, principal and senior conservator at Period Furniture Conservation. He suggests that interested buyers should begin by consulting books and other literature on the subject to find out exactly what to look for. “Often, a chair will be marked with a label, stamp or number underneath the seat.”
Yanchyshyn cautions against buying from online sellers: “If you can’t see the actual object, it’s hard to judge its condition. Go through a reputable dealer or someone you know.” However, other experts maintain that buyers can trust online marketplaces like 1stdibs.com, where dealers are thoroughly vetted and face bad ratings if they don’t represent their goods accurately. Estate sales are also good hunting grounds: “The original generation of collectors is dying off,” says Yanchyshyn, “so this furniture is showing up at estate sales. If you do your homework and only buy when you know the name of the designer, your purchase will hold up and increase in value.”
Everyone knows the names of the great designers – Eames, Noguchi, Saarinen and Jacobsen are only a few. But their work can be prohibitively expensive today. Try searching out lesser-known names whose pieces might not be priced as high. Weinberg mentions two French designers – Pierre Guariche and Joseph-André Motte – whose work might not fetch such a high premium. Nevertheless, there are no bargains to be had. “Increasingly,” says Weinberg, “you need money to get started.”
3. It was built to last.
Mid-Century Modern furniture was well made with simple materials. As a result, much of it is still in good shape today, and just as functional. “These pieces were never cheap,” says Greenberg, “and they weren’t cheaply made. That only adds to the reason why it’s good investment furniture.” And this is an investment you can live with – even sit on.
Yanchyshyn favors the durable furniture by Scandinavian designers, such as Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl. “The frames are made of wood, generally teak, and extremely well built, with machine-made traditional joinery.”
“You want to buy a piece that’s in as good condition as possible,” he says, “but still with its original features, nothing replaced or repaired. It’s important that the coatings are original – that’s what museums look for when they buy a chair or table.” If the original coating doesn’t look so good, the appearance can be improved by careful conservation techniques. But he warns against sending the piece to a restorer: “They might strip the coating or do other irreversible damage, making the piece worth half what it was before.”
4. It’s easy to live with.
The style works well with contemporary designs and is easily incorporated in most homes. “Mid-Century Modern looks amazingly good anywhere, even in a 19th-century apartment building with mantels and moldings,” says Greenberg. But inexpensive knock-offs from IKEA and Target, or pricier reproductions from West Elm and Design Within Reach, can’t replace the real thing, in terms of the intrinsic value, the patina and the classic design.
5. It will help save the planet.
As Larry Weinberg puts it, “Using vintage furniture rather than buying new is a form of recycling.” And, of course, there’s the undeniable cachet of having the real thing in your home. No reason to limit yourself to collecting mid-century furniture: Keep an eye out for classic lamps, clocks, jewelry, artwork and toys. In particular, Yanchyshyn mentions Jens Quistgaard, whose iconic teak-handled dinnerware was much used in 50s and 60s. Today, the Museum of Modern Art sells handcrafted reproductions, but you can still sometimes find Quistgaard’s original teak pepper mills. If they’re in good condition, they now sell for hundreds of dollars.
The Bottom Line
For serious collectors, the hunt is part of the fun. If you’re interested in buying Mid-Century Modern furniture and other period pieces, start by educating yourself: Read the literature and consult with reputable dealers. Don’t expect any bargains – but if you buy wisely, your investment will likely gain value in the years to come, while you enjoy living with your purchase.
By Barbara Peck | February 3, 2016 — 1:15 PM EST