Objects of Meaning

Could it be that our collective obsession with mid-century modern design serves as familiar comfort amidst the overwhelming immediacy of an ever-present, ever-ephemeral now?

You’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary design publication without a mid-century modern feature somewhere in its pages. From teak sideboards to low-slung rosewood tables, it’s convenient for shoppers and salesmen that the most flexible, desirable and widely available design theme is also the easiest style to ape—on any budget. But beyond the slicked-back surface of the Mad Men scenography there is much more to be gleaned from our modern design fetish. Stuck as we are on the strength of stories, the attitude and emotional value of objects, is it these mid-century products and processes which can satisfy our hankering for the past? Is it possible that the modernist concern for careful craft and making might provide some respite from the relentless immediacy of now?

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” The way we furnish our lives, the way we sell ourselves to other people allows us to make sense of the moment and the space we are occupying. Our milestones and accolades are so often intertwined with precious objects, won or lost, kept or plundered. It’s no wonder that stories, real or fictional, are catalysts for the products we buy. Brands barter with curated lifestyles. Magazines selling Art, Lifestyle and Interiors talk us through the significance and subtleties of creative people’s nik-naks and their arrangements like they were so many shrines in a temple. We follow ‘tastemakers’ (née ‘trendsetters’) who win our approval by living the example—with their lives and not their sales pitches.

It’s our intimate encounter with who owned an object, why and what for which imbues it with status and value. An online experiment called Significant Objects, devised by journalists Rob Walker and Joshua Glen, measured the value a carefully composed narrative can provide. Walker trawled eBay for low-value novelty objects—a Utah snow globe, a toy hot dog, a bubble bath teapot—and purchased them for a few dollars apiece. He assigned each object a fictional backstory composed by established authors (William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Meg Cabot) and posted them back up for sale. Cumulatively the objects sold for over 25 times more than the price paid. It’s what Walker called the ‘significance premium.’ Appropriately, the best of these stories have been collated into their own physical object, a 242 page anthology which can be bought on Amazon for $24.99 (USD). Buy a product, tap a certain lifestyle, be a certain person.

Modernist homes, preserved intact like an emperor’s mausoleum, capture the ultimate curated life. In most of them, there is a surprising amount of convivial clutter. The signature West Coast breeziness of the Eames residence with terracotta folk sculptures, seashells, succulents and spinning toys. The Berber carpets in Corbusier’s Maison La Roche offset by walls of pale burnt sienna. In Ernő Goldfinger’s house at 2 Willow Road, a collection of wooden utensils, surrealist trinkets, boxes of candles, a furry wooden buffalo. In our eyes, saturated as they are already with steel, glass and hard lines the atmosphere appears warm, rosy, textured. These houses work but they are also works of art, hives of sophistication, learning and tacit synchronicity.

It’s no wonder then that the mid-century modern marketplace is thriving. Any product from Eames, Breuer, Perriand and Eileen Gray—architects, designers and engineers who lived and worked through the practical and ideological aftermath of one war and the impact of the next—transcend their swish 21st century counterparts with complex histories we can trace through their designs.

One only need take one look at 1stdibs, the booming online marketplace hawking “the most beautiful things on Earth”—search for mid-century modern and you’ll stumble on an Eileen Gray desk lamp, a Charlotte Perriand bar stool and of course an Eames rosewood lounge chair by Herman Miller—to see that design aficionados with money to burn won’t censor their spending provided they’re bidding on the real deal. The vetting process for marketplace sellers includes a visit by either founder Michael Bruno or a member of his team. Customers trust dealers that 1stdibs has anointed as a member, and that stamp of approval goes so far that dealers can sell a $10 000 (USD) table sight unseen to a client who may live halfway around the world.

1stdibs or newcomer L’ArcoBaleno, are guilty pleasures beyond most of our means. But the sheer volume of genuine, if unexceptional, period pieces available from a glut of online dealers means that the traditional relationship between scarcity and value is broken down. Mid-century modern design becomes design for everyone. The majority of people buy not for function or beauty but a certain gloss, despite the fact that many of these objects, although fashionable, don’t have a story or a heritage. But the belief that they could have is enough of a draw.

However for self-made stewards like Thomas Andrae (this issue p.XXX), collector and owner of the gallery Andrae Kaufmann in Berlin, anonymous middle-of-the-road modern will never measure up to the originals. Thomas lives in one of 69 homes designed by the architect Hermann Muthesius, an advocate of the English Arts and Crafts movement within Germany, who subsequently influenced the pioneers of German modernism and the Bauhaus. Having meticulously restored Muthesius’ home in alignment with the original construction drawings, for Andrae mid-century modern is more than just a scene—it’s a mode which is inextricable from the attitude in which it was made.

“The original Eames Lounge 670, 671” Andrae tells us, “used Brazilian Rosewood veneers, goose feather cushioning and aniline-dyed leather... it was not intended for mass production. Charles Eames was invited to the birthday of filmmaker Billy Wilder in the 1950s to which he brought some flowers and a little present. But he wanted to give something else to him, so he offered to design a chair. Wilder said it should be like a baseball glove. A bit oily, a bit run down, well worn, well travelled... needs to age well.” So, Eames created the “small” chair for Billy Wilder. “With the success the chair got, Herman Miller and Vitra decided to make it, and it became the most popular piece of furniture in history. If you see the old ones, it looks exactly like an old baseball glove.”

Contemporary reproductions cannot be viewed in the same light as the original, just as a vinyl record is incomparable to its remastered version. Newer versions are unavoidably rooted in the present, built as they are from contemporary material and from contemporary industry and make their own contribution to their own time. The new versions don’t take on patina, as they are lacquered to death with acrylic paint. The originals, conjured from simpler methods, lacquered with story, are a different kind of beast.

Beyond the allures of scarcity and status, people like Andrae aspire to be caretakers of the past—to intercept old but still functional products destined for the landfill after their customary farewell tour at the flea market or on classifieds; buy an old Porsche, hunt a qualified mechanic, spend countless nights on eBay searching for that elusive ‘genuine’ part. One chooses to become a missionary.

International companies like Vitra or Herman Miller are stewards of sorts. They have the delicate job of keeping the formula of a product intact while having to obey the constraints of modern manufacturing and customers braying for the best product for the cheapest price. The Eames 670 is no longer made from Brazilian Rosewood (now endangered) or with tar dyes (now prohibited), but it is still handmade by Vitra in Weil am Rhein or by Herman Miller in Michigan, like in the old days.

It’s now widely understood that a designer’s job specification is just as much about superficial styling, manufacturing cheap products which look expensive, about faking weight and stature, as exploring the relationship between beauty and function, but when Charles and Ray Eames launched the 670, 671 in 1956 it was still possible for a visionary design team to operate on their own timelines and not to design for a market. Commenting on the Eames chairs, Charles explains: “The attitude in all of them is always the same; we've never designed to fit a particular fashion.” It’s this elusive ‘attitude’ which infuses a product with authenticity. This is something Apple has achieved, interestingly, by looking backwards to Braun’s Dieter Rams.

Designers working now must strike a delicate balance. “Increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects” as Rob Walker and Joshua Glen claimed to do, sounds more like a mechanism of art than design. It’s a sentiment that has only ever been marginally desirable for harbingers of the now and the next because ‘emotional’ is not disposable. As in the case of so many mid-century modern designers and architects, this chair was made for a specific someone as opposed to a mass audience at large.

When Eileen Gray, for example, designed her first building Villa E 1027, a seaside villa for a man who enjoys work, sport and entertaining she was thinking of Romanian architect Jean Badovici who should “find within the architectural construction the joy of feeling perfectly himself, as though part of a whole which both extends and completes the self.”

The specificity of these designs means they bear some compromises (the 670, 671 does not fit tall people) but it is precisely this that makes them so desirable. A design process needs constraints for the products to deliver any story worth listening to. They are what make us look back whimsically on a time when technology came with a benevolent face (or so it seems to us); when glorious mass-production meant plywood leg sprints for the troops; when machines and men worked side by side to make our lives look better and feel easier. It was the beginning of the far more ambivalent world we’re now living in.

Cashing in on prefabricated standardized parts, co-opting materials and processes from the military, the Eames’ ‘big idea’ was to bring affordable and high-quality design to the average consumer by integrating high and low art forms; modern materials and construction technologies; craft and design. Eames advocated the mass-production of architectural components, furnishings and accessories as the ideal way to spread low-cost, high-quality modern design and ‘the good life’ throughout America.

Similarly the Bauhaus movement exploited mass production techniques to achieve a style of design that was both functional and aesthetic. From the most basic household equipment to the complete house, the art of technology was the key. In fact, even though the early Bauhaus furniture was handmade, it was designed to suggest industrial production.

The unbridled consumerist society we now live in operates on a wholly different scale and we’ve started to swing back on ourselves. New methods of production are harking back to a ‘mend and make-do’ aesthetic with a conscience as designers playfully integrate craft-like markings and signs of human error into their designs. Take product designer Werner Aisslinger’s biodegradable pieces currently headlining on Vitra’s News page. Forming part of the Home of the Future exhibition at the Berlin museum Haus am Waldsee, Aisslinger bedecked the museum’s brick facade (and a 1970s sports car parked up outside) with a giant patchwork ‘glove,’ transforming the monument into a toy-box doll’s house. The future, Aisslinger suggests, demands some thrifty upcycling of the way we live now.

Slow crafts have never been so appealing. We lap up production videos, just like those created by Eames 50 years ago, the intimate filmic portraits of Made by Hand where a self-employed bike-maker laments his inability to get past being “pretty good for a beginner” or the London-based bi-annual magazine Hole & Corner, the new publication assembling a young cheesemaker, a bespoke shoemaker and the father of fair-trade chocolate Craig Sams “to celebrate the traditional craftsmanship found in rural communities.”

Highly visible artworks elevating the everyday and amateur crafts are appearing in the mainstream art world—in opposition to the moneyed consumerist culture oiling its wheels. Jeremy Deller’s British Pavillion for the 55th Venice Biennale entitled English Magic featured an entire room devoted to the Arts & Crafts pioneer William Morris, a tribute to “the way he humanized the industrial revolution, his interest in beauty.” As well as displaying a mural depicting a God-like Morris plunging Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the ocean, Deller also assembled the designer’s original woodblocks, prehistoric hand axes, a banner-maker who embroiders David Bowie lyrics, and drawings from three ex-serviceman and prison inmates. Even at the most decadent international art festival in the world it’s not just modern art pieces on the pedestal, it could be your Grandma’s quilt.

This nostalgia of the young for these very ancient crafts forms a part of our thorny love affair with the now, what Will Self calls “a collectively attested and ever present past.” We are simultaneously delighted and disgusted in our ability to capture and collude in our own little victories and catastrophic blunders. “Because of this,” Self continues “it seems to me that in the past decade or so, the half-life of our memories has become artificially extended. Instead of curling photographs and yellowing newspapers, we are possessed of a shiny and permanent now.” It’s a state recently afforded an entire book by Douglas Rushkoff (Present Shock) in which he argues, as Jean Baudrillard did, that the past exists only in our continuous and conspicuous representation and construction of it.

Remnants from the first half of this century have an ephemeral allure because they occupy a rare sweet spot in our history—close enough to impact the present but too far away to remember. They had and have a life outside of our own curated existence—one which is irreplaceable. With time rapidly losing its meaning, we try to pin it down in whatever way we can. Consequently looking backwards for sense and stability has never been so appealing. Sorting through an ancient neighbour’s artfully assembled ornaments, filching flea markets, or scavenging a sad-looking sight from a skip are common pastimes for both those who can and can’t afford not to. It is us who bestow value with our sifting and spring-cleaning, with our discerning eyes and handy modifications. The kitsch and disposable, arty and dysfunctional, ugly but meaningful can carry serious gravitas when handled in the right way.

Our own personal brand of nostalgia is of course mediated by the current vogue for the authentic, the desire for a considered, slowly-formed selfhood. It may be that nothing is beyond fashion. In our current rose-tinted reveries, or what synth-pop band Neon Neon recently termed ‘Mid Century Modern Nightmare’ on their concept album ‘Praxis Makes Perfect,’ we resolutely want objects that have a genuine history, which are firmly rooted in a hallowed time and place, with a manifestly human sensibility. The joy of this age and story is that if we believe it to be so, so it will be. Long may it last.

In a world of on-demand, it feels good to escape the rather dull role of ‘consumer’ and actually sweat a bit more to actively hunt, restore, reshape and safeguard a product that not only has retained its primary purpose and design virtues, but is also infused with an authentic story (rather than the fabricated kind). How it was made, who owned it, how it was purchased, where, and so forth, adds unique value. “You never actually own a Patek Philippe,” says the Swiss master watchmaker, “you merely look after it for the next generation.” Charles and Ray Eames’ legacy might include more than beautiful objects for today’s design scavengers to find; they actually gave us a handbook on how to create irresistible products: Keep the big idea in mind and critically look at the work. Design for an attitude not a fashion. Avoid designing for a market or with mass production in mind. And lastly, take your time — AR

No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.