Monday, September 28, 2009

The Beginnings of Modernism in American Furniture




Welcome back to our ongoing series, "How to tell Real Vintage Furniture from Contemporary Knockoffs". In our last post, we discussed how to distinguish Danish mid century furniture from American.

Within the realms of Danish and American furniture, there is still a very broad range of possibilities, from the rarest, highest end pieces imaginable, to the lowest end, most commonplace "dime a dozen" factory made furniture.

As an aside, do keep in mind that in this discussion of "low end" vs. "high end" vintage modern furniture, by referring to "low end" furniture, we are not trying to disparage it. We understand that not everyone has the means to be able to afford the desirable, higher end pieces that we like to talk about, and while we may not spend a great deal of time discussing or dealing with the lower end vintage stuff, most of it is still well-made, entirely serviceable furniture that is suitable for use in many living situations.

Also keep in mind that even if you can only afford what we deem to be "lower end" vintage furniture, by choosing this option over some cheaply made, ultimately disposable new piece of furniture, you are participating in "recycling" of the highest order, which is definitely something to be proud of. You can even think of lower end vintage pieces as sort of a "gateway drug" - get started with something easily manageable and easy on the wallet, and graduate little by little to more serious (and more expensive) stuff!

A (very) Brief History of American Modern Furniture
The Modernist movement in US furniture making can be traced to the end of WWII, and the building across the country of countless clean-lined, unfussy ranch-style homes. US furniture makers clearly saw an opportunity to capitalize on this new aesthetic, and started churning out simpler, clean-lined furniture to match this new style of home that was becoming increasingly popular among the middle class.

Although the roots of Modernism can be traced back to Art Deco furniture of the 1920s and 1930s and, more significantly, the "International Style" espoused by European architects like Mies Van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, it really wasn't until the late 1940s that Modernism really started to catch on in the American public consciousness. Most of the companies that we are going to discuss had been been in existence since the early 20th century, producing mainly antique reproductions. For instance, both Dunbar and Herman Miller had been dabbling in Modernist furniture since the early 1930s, but it wasn't until the mid to late 1940s that both companies decided to turn their backs on the antique reproductions and fully embrace a Modernist aesthetic.Below are two examples of this early "proto-modernism" - a pair of Rosewood chests by Gilbert Rohde for Herman Miller, below, and a desk by Edward Wormley for Dunbar, below that.

At first blush, both of the above pieces could easily be mistaken for Art Deco, but upon further inspection, you will notice the overarching simplicity that defines both of these pieces. The forms are very much rooted in the Art Deco tradition, but the details are very much in the modern idiom.

As Modernism grew and evolved throughout the 1940s and 1950s, certain companies grew to represent a more cutting edge version of modernism, while others, for the most part, stayed fairly close to the more traditional Art Deco influenced styles shown above. In our next post, we will start to explore some of these companies in greater detail.

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