Ways to Tell between Original Mid-Century Modern Items & Reproductions

Would you like a little insight into what more and more pickers of vintage and Mid-Century modern items are facing on a daily basis? Read on and take notes if you, too, want to venture out and hunt down some Mid-Century modern items in the wild, as this information can be quite useful the next time you come across a “Mid-Century” chair at your local Goodwill.

This this lamp authentic Mid-Century Modern, or a loving reproduction? How can you tell? Start by checking the cord and plug.

What about this one? The green bottle lamp (above) is modern from Johnathan Adler, while the wooden one (left) is original MCM.

I, too, have been fooled on occasion, buying items and thinking they were actual Mid-Century, only to find out they are less than 10 years old. This is, in part, thanks to Ikea, Target, overseas knock-offs, unscrupulous dealers and new designers to the market.

One example that recently fooled me was a table lamp by Johnathan Adler. The lamp was pot metal, very abstract, with a nice patinated finish but missing its socket and wiring. Excited, I went to work on my “MCM” lamp in my shop with new wiring and put it up for sale. It wasn’t long until I was notified of its true age. After a little more research on the item, I found it was produced (or, should I say, reproduced) by Adler. So many designers now days are literally riding the coattails of vintage designers and manufacturers of the “Mad Men” era, from lighting to sculpture, furniture, art and even dinnerware. But, there are numerous ways to deduce the age of a particular piece if you know what to look for.

This blue paper ring with the Underwriter Laboratories’ mark is a good clue that the piece is original.

When looking at lighting, the first thing to check is the cord. If it’s polarized (one prong wider than the other) then it was made sometime after 1966-67. That can at least tell you it’s a vintage lamp. You can also look for the UL sticker (UL stands for “Underwriter Laboratories”) and note weather it’s marked “Union Made”—if it is, it’s an older lamp. Also, if the UL sticker is oval and blue and made of paper, then more than likely it’s vintage, as your newer UL stickers are usually silver in color, plastic and have the look of a hologram. If the lamp is a ceiling fixture, the UL sticker is your best bet, but also check for a separate ground wire along with the main power wires, as that ground wire tells you the fixture isn’t that terribly old.

This super Mid-Century modern credenza or dresser is usually have some kinds of label—of paper, decal or metal nailed or pinned—on the inside, back or bottom.

Keys to Identifying MCM Furniture
If you are checking out a piece of furniture, materials in construction can be the answer. Look for flat or pan-head type woodscrews, as these were used more than any other type screw during the mid-century. Look for small nails instead of staples when inspecting the upholstery and dust covers. Cushion foam that feels old due to age or straw, horse hair and hog hair as cushion fillers are dead giveaways to a vintage piece. And lastly, the foot glides on the legs will be metal rather than a cheap plastic like on newer furniture.

A paper label from the Evans Products Company stating the piece if made of molded plywood or a Charles Eames design for the Herman Miller Furniture Company.

Case-goods furniture, such as credenzas, tables and bookcases, etc., will often have Formica or fake wood-grained laminate, which was a “high-tech” material back in the day. Though now frowned upon, it is a good way to tell the age of the item. Also look for glue-blocks under furniture, flat-head screws, stamped ink model numbers and whether the core wood is particle board or plywood. Particle board was used during this time, extensively in fact, but older pieces will have plywood under the veneers/laminates. Many case-good pieces will have labels with possible business address and, if the address is missing a zip code, then the item was produced pre-1970.

Of course, in-the-field experience and gaining knowledge of Mid-Century items will be your best bet in not “being fooled,” but these few tips will hopefully help until then!

Bradley Downs is a Worthologist who specializes in Mid-Century modern furniture and the owner of Odd 2 Mod in Atlanta, Ga. You can e-mail him at bradleydowns1973@gmail.com

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