Midcentury modern style's sleek possibilities going strong

07/07/2012 12:00 AM

07/11/2012 9:42 AM

It used to be just "modern" – furniture and architecture featuring clean lines, strong design and a distinctive mix of natural and man-made materials.

That was 50 years ago.

Now, it's "midcentury modern," a 21st century nickname for a post-World War II aesthetic that celebrates a peak of ingenuity.

Leather meshed with chrome, aluminum coupled with fiberglass, walnut mixed with synthetic fabrics – these promised a future of sleek and sophisticated possibilities.

Imagine life at home with the cast of "Mad Men," martinis optional. Maybe throw in a little '50s kitsch to keep it fun.

Then and now, Sacramento sits in the midst of "MidMo" greatness. Some of the period's most celebrated architects and designers lived and worked here. Their work formed a marriage of technology and craftsmanship that was made to last.

And new generations are discovering the attraction of MidMo style and making it their own.

"If you grew up with this stuff, you either really love it or think that this stuff is awful," said Toni Okamoto, co-author of the Mimomito blog devoted to midcentury modern design and Sacramento-area finds.

Okamoto, 25, was born after MidMo style came and went. The design period spans roughly from 1945 to 1970 or a little later, with a 1960s heyday.

"Sometimes, it's so easy to watch 'Mad Men' and think you need a whole midcentury modern house – right now," said Okamoto, who started by collecting '50s knicknacks. "I watch the show religiously. I think it sparked a lot of interest in midcentury modern."

Scout Living, a "curated collective" devoted to midcentury modern design, has flourished in midtown Sacramento. The store, which celebrated its first birthday in June, quickly found a local following.

"I always was attracted to it," said co-owner Erin Boyle, the daughter of an Arizona antiques dealer. "Lots of people think it's some new trend, but dealers started collecting 1950s (stuff) in the '80s."

Boyle, 32, started collecting midcentury modern pieces at age 15. The style quickly grew on her.

"I love the clean lines," she added. "It's not all foo-foo or oversized."

Stefan Betz Bloom, her husband and partner in Scout Living, got hooked, too. They started with a MidMo furniture and accessories business in San Francisco, then opened Scout Living after researching the area.

"We actually moved here in 2008, right when the crash happened," Boyle said. "We kept selling stuff in San Francisco, but we started meeting people here through midcentury modern blogs.

"We instantly became friends with the folks we met," she added. "These were people with the exact same interests. We're all young antiques/vintage dealers. It's just awesome."

Serene Lusano, co-author of the Mimomito blog and a seller at Scout Living, thinks customers appreciate the value of these vintage pieces.

"More people are realizing that midcentury modern furniture is very high-quality, sustainable pieces at reasonable prices," Lusano said. "This furniture isn't just pretty to look at; it's useful and unique. People who come into the store are often furnishing a home with practical pieces, not just splurging on an antique."

Bloom, a graphic artist who was working on graduate studies in psychology at California State University, Sacramento, found his niche in restoring and renovating furniture.

"I've always been interested in industrial design," he said. "It's clean, elegant, functional. It goes with everything.

"So many pieces are so clean and sleek," he said as he ran his hands over the smooth walnut of a compact credenza. "They're modern but timeless. They go with everything."

Walnut, mahogany and teak tend to be the dominant woods, paired with bright white and eye-popping colors such as hot pink, orange, turquoise or avocado green. Tubular chrome and cast aluminum – both modern metals – formed frames of chairs and tables.

"Many of the pieces are very compact, too," Bloom said. "They work well in small spaces and make rooms look larger."

In homes, midcentury modern design emphasized that spacious look, even in a small footprint. MidMo ranch homes feature soaring ceilings with high beams, open floor plans and lots of large windows to bring in as much light as possible.

Gretchen Steinberg, co-founder of the nonprofit SacMod, got seriously interested in midcentury modern during the 1990s. Her family bought a Sacramento house designed by Joseph Eichler, one of the best known modernists.

"The Eichler house really started it for me," she said. "I had an interest in midcentury modern design, but when we bought the house, we had no information about its history. I got very excited when I found out who built it and started learning more. It's such a distinctive style."

Eichler built 55 homes in South Land Park, Steinberg said. A few more dot other Sacramento neighborhoods. There also are houses by Rickey + Brooks, A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons.

The style isn't limited to houses. The main terminal of Sacramento Executive Airport, Fairytale Town, Holy Spirit Parish School and the Sacramento Zoo's entrance all are examples of MidMo design.

"I think the interest has always been there; it waxes and wanes over time," Steinberg said. "Certainly, the style has always been a favorite in films and television.

"I think the designs represent an era when America was optimistic about its future and that inherently appeals to us," she added. "The current resurgence in interest probably is pop-culture based – look at 'Mad Men.' Moreover, we have reached the point in time where we are beginning to see an interest in preserving examples in our environment as we see them being lost."

That's where SacMod comes in. The nonprofit helps raise interest in preservation of these examples before they're lost to redevelopment or remodeling.

"SacMod is very interested in preserving these examples and our sense of place," Steinberg said. "When Sacramento loses an important example from any era, we lose our heritage and identity."

That heritage includes Charles and Ray Eames, a husband-wife team of designers who shaped America's modern taste. Born in Sacramento, Ray-Bernice Alexandra Kaiser Eames and her work will be showcased in an upcoming exhibit at the California Museum.

Meanwhile, MidMo pieces still are available and affordable for collectors, Boyle noted. They can be found in thrift stores and garage sales as well as stores like hers.

"That's what makes it fun," she said. "There's so much cool stuff you can find."

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