Tag Archives: mid-century modern

Furniture

We’re huge fans of furniture from the 1930s to the 1960s, the period that’s generally described as mid-century modern. We don’t mean the more kitsch American ‘atomic age’ stuff, rather what we’re interested in is the well-thought-out and well-made furniture that started being produced in Denmark and then spread to other parts of Scandanavia before its humane principles spread more widely. This kind of furniture varied quite widely from traditionally made pieces from skilled cabinet-makers all the way through to proto-Ikea type democratic kit-furniture. Many of the classic designs from this period are still being produced of course and you’ll find things like Arne Jacobsen’s Series 7 chairs in dining rooms and offices all over the world.

Finding the vintage furniture you want

We wanted to take the opportunity when we had built our new house to find some really good pieces from this period, whether vintage or new. However, we have to be patient and very selective as we don’t have a lot of money, and there really isn’t a great selection available in Ontario, which was still very conservative and still very much a farming-dominated economy during the mid-century period, so local sales sites like kijiji aren’t that great and vintage stores have very limited selections of truly good stuff. There are excellent European vintage sales site aggregators, in particular Vntg.com (formerly known as Retrostart), however shipping costs are prohibitive for anything bigger than a single lounge chair. North America has sites like Chairish as well as the ludicrously expensive, 1stDibs, and of course you can try your luck with ebay and even etsy (you might be surprised…). Shipping from parts of the USA can also be ridiculously expensive, although services that find spare space with existing delivery services, or act as a clearinghouse for local movers and shippers, can sometimes come up trumps. UShip ¬†seems to be the best of these.

Anyway, what did we get and why?

The Lounge

Here, we wanted a couple of really comfortable armchairs and a daybed for, well. lounging. Early on, while we were still starting the build, when we still thought we had money over, we found our vintage armchairs, both Danish from the early 1960s: a classic Senator high-back armchair and foot stool designed by Ole Wanscher, and one perfect oak-framed armchair designed by Hans Olsen.

Senator high back armchair in teak by Ole Wanscher for Cado (early 1960s).

The Senator series was originally made by PP Jeppersen, and this original version is more expensive. Ole Wanscher had a reputation as being relatively conservative compared to his contemporaries, however this is perhaps as much due to his manner as his designs. In fact he could be remarkably innovative, and the design of the Senator series lent itself to a more reproducible iteration, which was duly created by Paul Cadovius’ firm, Cado, which became famous mainly for its modular wire-frame and teak shelving systems. This version screws together in a way that Ikea made the basis of its entire business model. However, the Cado chairs fit together beautifully, the quality of the materials is way above what Ikea offers. They look almost exactly the same, except for the screw holes. And the extra advantage of the Cado version is that you can have them shipped more affordably, because they come apart.

Easy Chair by Hans Olsen in oak, late 1950s (this is our actual chair but photographed professionally prior to purchase)

Hans Olsen is one of the less known of the major Danish designers of the time, but he’s one of my favourites, and I think his Easy Chair (1955) is simply perfect. For various reasons I am not really a huge fan of teak, the wood that was used in by far the majority of Danish furniture in the 1950s, and were fortunate to find a perfect example in oak.

More recently, I happened to find another superficially very different chair from the late 1960s on Etsy, which uses steel, suede and cabling. However, while is might be superficially different, the proportions are almost exactly the same as Olsen’s earlier lounge chair – this may be the reason why it’s often attributed to Olsen (and consequently overpriced – so beware!), but actually it was an in-house design by LEA and doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with him. it’s a fun piece, although our son and our cat have to fight over who gets to sit in it…

For the daybed, we wanted something relatively low, that wouldn’t go above the level of the large south-facing windows’ lower frame, but which had moveable cushions. That eliminated my favourite Danish vintage daybed – the ‘Minerva’ model by Hvidt and Molgaard. We also decided that we wanted some lighter wood as our floors are very dark. So in the end, we bit the bullet and ordered a new Artek 710 bent birch daybed. When we say, ‘new’, we mean in production terms – the design is an early (1933) mid-century modern classic by Finnish architect and designer, Alvar Aalto. We bought it with the cushions uncovered, and got hold of some new Artek-designed fabric separately in a sale, and Kayo made some removable covers, as well as using some of the Marimekko fabric from the curtains she made for the old house to recover some cushions.

New Daybed 710 by Alvar Aalto for Artek, first produced in 1933

The Dining Room

As it happened, the same place we got the daybed, an Artek dealer and slightly eccentric vintage furniture shop in Toronto, Studio Pazo, also had some sale-priced Artek Chair 69 bent birch dining chairs, , also designed by Aalto in 1935. These ones had coloured seats and backrest, one on each of the six colours they do. We decided these would be perfect for the dining table.

New Chair 69 by Alvar Aalto for Arkek, originally produced in 1935.

To add to these, as a present to my wife, who had always wanted a Wishbone Chair, otherwise known as the ‘Y Chair’, designed by the brilliant Hans Wegner in 1950. I secretly ordered a pair of special limited editions of this classic design in elm, from the original manufacturers, Carl Hansen & Sons. It’s amazing to think that these are just about the cheapest Wegner chair you can get and, well, they weren’t cheap. But they are probably the most perfectly satisfying chairs I have ever seen, both comfortable and beautiful. These chairs will all go around our existing locally made reclaimed pine dining table.

We also needed some kind of cabinet or credenza for storage in the dining area, but the space we have for this is shorter than the standard 60″ mid-century length. However, we have managed to find a beautiful Paul McCobb-designed credenza in maple. The only problem is that it’s in Brooklyn and we are yet to be able to get it shipped…

 

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Lighting

Lighting is one thing we had really left along while we finished the construction. The electricians just fitted basic fittings and whatever bulbs they had to hand – basically whatever enabled the electrical work to pass the inspection – and we didn’t really touch anything until recently.

The exceptions were the bathrooms where we got the electricians to fit water-safe Light-Emitting Diode (LED) lights and places where we had already bought fittings from Ikea that were code-compliant (Francis’s bedroom, the kitchen, pantry and outside). We also replaced most of the bulbs with LED bulbs, and now the whole house now has LED lighting. LED-based lights should last for 25-30 years without needing to be replaced and will use a tenth of the electricity of conventional filament bulbs, without the levels of mercury in Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) – which also don’t last anyway near as long and are nowhere near as energy efficient as LEDs. People used to be worried – some still are – that LEDs give a ‘harsh’ of overly blue light. That might have been true several years ago, but now LEDs can be found from this bluer end all the way through to warm yellow-orange that looks and feels like filament bulbs (and there are even LED bulbs that physically look like vintage bulbs too). Of course the great thing about LEDs is that they don’t have to look like bulbs at all. They can come in strings, or flat, or almost any shape.

However, there remained the question of proper fittings, in the main parts of the house and other rooms. Our friend in the island built a house a few years ago, and she struggled for months to find light fittings she liked. The truth is that contemporary lighting in Canada, and not just at the more affordable end of spectrum, is really bad. Terrible design, cheap materials and poor manufacturing in mostly in uncertain conditions in China, are the order of the day. Most of the lights are poor imitations of ‘antique’ designs or fake art deco. None of the lessons of the modernist movement in terms of functional and good design for everyone, appears to have been learned. Certainly there is a wide range of affordable lighting but it’s all, without exception, bad. Ikea has offered some options – and we taken a few of them – but even theirs isn’t that good and they appear to have almost given up on doing simply things well in terms of lighting.

Added to this is the fact that Kayo and I don’t have exactly the same tastes. I tend to like a greater range of modern lighting, and particularly the more colourful. Kayo is more minimal. But we have enough overlap! We particularly wanted a couple of pendants to go over our dining table and some kind of modern triple, descending pendant for the stairwell, as well as something interesting for the lounge area, and something actually Japanese for the tatami room upstairs.

Unsurprisingly we got the latter from Japan, a simple washi paper shade, and found the interesting light for the lounge from the same maker, Toshiyuki Tani, this one made from shaved birch-bark laminated with clear plastic on a metal frame.

For the others (and also for furniture, about which there will be another post in future), I had been spending some time lurking on eBay, etsy and European vintage sales sites like vintg.com (formerly RetroStart) for the last couple of years, trying to pick up some bargains from the era when lighting really was well-designed, namely the mid-20th century, particularly in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy. I picked up a few NOS (new old stock) Danish pendant shade kits, which were quite common at the time, but it doesn’t look like we’re actually going to use more than one so we’ll probably sell the others on. But we managed to find what we wanted for both the stairwell and dining room.

For the dining table, we were lucky to find a pair of genuine ‘as-new’ Louis Poulsen PH 4/3 lights for less than half the new price. I love Poul Henningsen’s designs, and it doesn’t matter how many of them you see, the simple PH 4/3 still works in almost any setting. It’s an almost perfect design.

For the stairs, we had a lot more trouble as it’s difficult to agree on one piece for such an important setting and difficult to find anything affordable that’s so big. Because the stair rail is steel, I really wanted something that echoed this and provided further contrast to all the wood. We eventually settled on a triple Star pendant designed by Dutch architect and designer, J.J.M. (‘Jan’) Hoogervorst for Anvia. It’s got an industrial feel but also creates a really beautiful light and works very well in the space. The black and white enamel finish is a little battered but it’s even better for that and rather than restore it, we’re going to leave it that way.