This summer my stepson worked for his uncle, who makes mailboxes in what I guess is a mid-century modern style. I say “I guess” because “mid-century modern” can mean so many things that I would hesitate to apply it to anything I actually liked. In a conversation over dinner one night, I said something to that end, and added that I really did not like mid-century modern style.
Then, almost immediately, I had to backtrack.
As a first-order approximation, it’s true; I don’t like mid-century modern. If you line up a hundred random pieces of furniture built between 1950 and 1970, inherited from your grandparents or purchased at “vintage” or “antique” shops, chances are I’ll dislike ninety-five of them. It’s dull and boxy with occasional forays into weirdness. Much of it looks like it was designed by committee. In particular, I cannot abide unornamented rectangles with upside-down cones for legs. When I see them I think “firewood.”
Just that month, in trying to design a coffee table and an ottoman, I’d looked hard at several examples by pioneering Danish designers working circa 1960. They weren’t exactly what I wanted; I had no interest in copying them—but I appreciated their efforts to make furniture with a spare kind of elegance not out of place in, but also not capitulating to, an industrial age. Not to mention there’s Sam Maloof, whose work I generally like a great deal, and respect even on those occasions when it doesn’t speak to me.
I also had, in a rotating stack of junk mail I keep for irritainment, a catalog of “Shaker” furniture that might have been constructed from 4×4s and planks, slathered in something intended to look like milk paint. It was boxy, boring, and just plain ugly. (Also, a nightstand with a drawer cost a thousand bucks, so it was expensive ugly.) The best actually Shaker-made furniture is a testament to the beauty of minimalism (what I said above about the aspirations of Danish modern could perhaps apply to 19th-century Shakers as well), and Christian Becksvoort has done beautiful work extending that style. But based on most of what’s marketed as “Shaker,” I don’t like Shaker style either.
In fact, based on most of what’s marketed as any style, I don’t like it. Arts and Crafts is boxy, heavy, dark, and depressing. The Jacobean style it half-imitated was all that, partially hidden by as much turning and carving as the buyer could afford. Chippendale makes me think of women with birdcages in their coiffures. Hepplewhite is going to fall over any minute now, I’m sure of it. Empire, bless it’s heart, wants to be everything at once. And so on. The older the style, the more bad examples have long since been turned into firewood. But there are always reproductions.
Do I really mean that? Yes, and no. Within each style—at its root—are examples that are thoughtfully, well, and beautifully made. The idea behind each style, considered in its historical and cultural context, is valid and interesting. It’s the knockoffs and elaborations that suck. The cheap imitations by people who meant well but didn’t grasp that core idea. The versions designed not for personal use but for mass production. The orgies of ornamentation, the bad reproductions, the pieces made for people with more money than taste.
Unornamented does not have to mean uninteresting; interesting does not have to mean off-putting. In any era, in any style, good craftsmen have been at work. Some eras take more digging than others, but they’re there, finding new ways to solve old problems and solving the new ones that every generation invents. At the heart of things there’s always good design, good work, and good furniture.
Once it becomes a style? You can keep it.