Back from the past: funky 1950s furniture

High-style modern furniture first became popular five decades ago. Now it's a hot collectible.

Home furnishings from the 1950s have bounced back into favor. So much so that New York's premier auction galleries are selling them. Could it be that their exuberant, novel forms turn heads? Or that their easy care is ideal for today's fast-paced living?

Jeni Sandberg, who handles the fine furniture and decorative arts auctions at Doyle New York auction house, says that people are tired of decorating their homes and apartments in matching suites of just one period. Instead, they want an eclectic mix of the old and new - preferably peppered with at least one high-style modern piece to jazz up the decor.

Cynthia Passas of Tepper Galleries mentions that the ups and downs of the stock market have unnerved many people. Some are now investing in what they see as a less-risky commodity: 1950s furnishings. And they're having lots of fun, she adds, going after choice examples.

Sometimes they find bargains. Greg Kuharic at Sotheby's says that since the modernism style was "rediscovered" just a few years ago, it's not as pricey as Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces.

According to James Zemaitis of Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg, baby boomers and well-heeled 20- and 30-somethings dislike 18th- and 19th-century antiques, but will pay top dollar for blue-chip modern pieces.

To many who were around in the 1950s, it may be surprising that the sleek furniture styles of the time have become some of the hottest collectibles of today.

The design of the furniture was in tune with the style of the homes of the era. What some 1950s houses lacked on the outside, they made up for on the inside.

How did this come to be?

After World War II, GIs returned home to find a housing shortage. Then the Levitt family of real estate developers began to build affordable houses on Long Island - a postwar settlement since called Levittown.

Where else could families move into a brand-new house that included five rooms and also an unfinished second floor that could be theirs at a bargain-basement price of $8,000 to $10,000? (Even better, it was paid off over time - a $500 down payment and a monthly mortgage of $58.)

Although the houses were look-alikes, they had innovative, state-of-the-art interiors, especially the living rooms.

The early '50s version, for instance, featured a picture window that commanded a wide view of the outdoors and at nightfall were perfect for stargazing.

Opposite the picture window was a huge see-through fireplace sandwiched between the kitchen and living room.

And, naturally, the furniture in these 1950 tract homes had to be as interesting and innovative as the houses themselves.

Mom, Dad, or a visitor could have the best seat in the house - a comfortably cushioned Barcelona chair (with a chrome-plated flat steel frame), designed by Mies van der Rohe. Or perhaps one would lounge in an understated Scandinavian armchair designed by Jens Risom, or a simple woven-rope Wegner chair next to a Parsons table. (A little-known fact: This type of table got its name because it was created by a teacher from the Paris branch of the Parsons School of Design.)

Nearby might have been a meticulously crafted Dunbar sofa on legs that seemed to be invisible so it looked as if it were floating on air. Although obviously an illusion, it gave the feeling of enlarging the size of a room.

That's also one reason why wall-to-wall carpeting became popular at that time - it made rooms look bigger. Among those who didn't want wall-to-wall, Vsoske and Edward Fields area rugs - whose designs were patterned after Japanese kimonos - were considered the crème de la crème of rugs. Those made during the 1950s are very collectible now - if you can find them.

Oriental rugs, even the finer ones, were totally out of fashion. In fact, a group of six Orientals, part of a Rothschild estate auctioned at Parke Bernet in the 1950s, fetched a measly $60.

Instead, '50s furniture shoppers preferred to indulge themselves with such status symbols as a modernistic Lightolier chandelier, a curved metal floor lamp from Italy, a Tommi Parzinger wall-hanging lamp made of brass, or a teak lamp whose round glass shade resembled a bright ball when lit. All of these have now become widely sought-after.

The pieces that are expected to appreciate most in value, experts say, are conversation stoppers such as a rocking chair that rocks only sideways and works by designers with a certain cachet - Edward Wormley, Robs John-Gibbings, Paul McCobb, and Charles Eames, among others.

To explore the possibilities of this genre, beginning collectors may want to take a long look at the mid-20th-century collection at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another excellent source is the Vance Kirkland Museum located in downtown Denver. Among the beguiling modern masterpieces on display there are everything from extremely scarce Frank Lloyd Wright furniture to everyday dinnerware by Russell Wright.

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