Which Came First: Current Mid-Century Modern Enthusiasm or ‘Mad Men’?

“Mad Men” Don Draper (John Hmm) and Roger Sterling (John Slatterly) in an advertising office on Madison Avenue. The show’s style (the furniture, the clothing, the attitudes) has been credited by some for a rebirth of interest in mid-century modern style.

If you, too, are mad about the popular AMC TV drama “Mad Men”—about the men (and women) who work for a Madison Avenue advertising firm in the early 1960s—it’s likely you’ve noticed the furnishings and style of the homes, offices and places the characters visit. That’s mid-century modern you’re looking at, and it’s not just of the era during which the show takes place, it’s a movement that has held strong for decades.

Some wonder if the authenticity of the show’s mid-century modern look has created a resurgence of interest in the style. Media always influences shoppers’ habits, said Wade Terwilliger of Objects in the Loft, a West Palm Beach, Fla., gallery of 20th century modern design. David Rago, founder of Rago Arts and Auction Center, says the show’s popularity certainly hasn’t hurt, but isn’t convinced the show is driving the renewed attention.

A photograph of designers George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames and Jens Risom from a July, 1961, Playboy magazine article. They look like they could be working for the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising agency.

“Has there been a revival of interest in mid-century modern? I think the interest in ‘modern’ influenced ‘Mad Men’ instead of the other way around,” Rago said.

The show (now in its fourth season and has racked up a Florence Knoll-designed cabinet-full of Emmy Awards) is one of Rago’s favorites; he watches regularly, but what the show evokes doesn’t partner with what he believes is the foundation of mid-century modern; exuberance.

“There’s something sad about ‘Mad Men.’ Everybody is so unhappy, people have so little power. Women are powerless. Everyone’s treated so poorly,” Rago said. “‘Mad Men’ has a lot of unhappy things about it, whereas mid-century modern is a very happy time period.”

The mid-century modern time period begins after World War II and runs through about the mid-1960s, according to Rago and others. The term was first coined in 1983 by Cara Greenberg for the title of her book, “Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s” (Random House).

A mid-century modern Murano vase by Fulvio Bianconi.

“The whole spirit that existed after the end of World War II; Italy was being freed from the fascists. To emerge from something so horrific; it was a very uplifting time, a positive, hopeful time. Just look at the Italian glass before and after World War II. That spirit is what I see in classic mid-century modern design,” Rago said.

“The exuberance, freedom, technological advances are to me what defines—all those elements that make up make up mid-century modern,” he said.

That Italian glass—think vibrant colors; think Venetian, Murano, Venini—is holding interest and value, according to Rago and Terwilliger. Italian glass art sells well in the Terwillger’s gallery, as well as his Web site. Other Italian-designed furnishings, such as Gio Ponti, have also “proved durable,” according to Rago.

Overall, the lackluster economy has forced a drop in prices on just about everything, but Rago and Terwilliger both are taking a glass-half-full approach. Both say lower prices provide an inviting price-point for people who are new to shopping for antiques. It entices a wider range of people to shop, and buy.

“Prices have cooled, that would be true, but the interest has been there,” Rago said.

Cost savings have not been equal across the board, however, they said. A few years ago, furniture designer Paul Evans was “the design darling for five or six years,” Rago said, but now Paul Evans coffee tables that may have fetched $10,000 to $15,000 then, are now selling for $2,000 to $3,000.

Mid-century modern will most likely continue to hold strong, in part because there is a healthy stock of designers who evolved during that time.

A mid-century modern living room that sold on eBay in 2007 for $999.

“There are people who may not have been discovered, and there are people who have been discovered but not championed,” Rago said.

He’s counting on that, then betting that post-modern—early ’80s to about 2005—contemporary glass and ceramics may be the next big thing.

“We’re moving toward contemporary glass, contemporary ceramics. We think our timing is pretty good. That’s what we’re focusing on,” Rago said.

There may be a chance to see some of that in an upcoming Rago Arts auction. Rago said the upcoming October auction (the catalogue will be available online Sept. 13) includes some brilliant pieces, including two Waylande Gregory terra cotta sculptures, Earth and Fire, which debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

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  1. Andy Emery says:

    I recently sold 2 modern dining chairs I picked out of a skip recently for £100.00. While I haven’t got the room for furniture of this type, I’ve been collecting smaller pieces from this period for ages.
    When you look at design at this time it was great………..infact how far have we come since even with much better modern materials??????