Everything today is thoroughly modern

In the past year I have seen the term ‘midcentury modern’ increasingly more often, usually in the context of hip and happening decor. At first I had no idea which era they were referring to but then it dawned on me that they meant the 20th century. This has the unfortunate implication of branding me and my peers as officially antique. On the other hand, it may also imply that we could be hip and happening if we tried hard enough.

The same rule probably applies to furniture fashion as clothing fashion, that is, if you wore it/used it the first time just say no the second time around, lest you look like someone who has not updated her wardrobe or lifestyle in far too long. I do not plan to redecorate to recreate the good old days. Instead, I am planning a new and no doubt lucrative career as a historical guide to the household habitat of the 1960s.

1. Glassware

As all of us in the antiques business know, glassware can be rare because it gets broken. Some of the most coveted glassware of the midcentury (based on personal experience) was actually ‘free’. These were give-aways at the gas station or glasses that started out filled with grape jelly, the latter being one of the few ‘store boughten’ spreads on offer at our house. Marmalade was one of the others probably because it was hard to make and a single jar could last up to five years since no one wanted to eat it anyway, but I digress. We went through gallons of grape jelly and it is a good thing it came in 8 oz. glass tumblers rather than gallon size jars, otherwise we would have been deprived of the Apollo astronaut series and the equally culturally important Flintstone’s collection. This was an evil plot on the part of the Welch’s company, which made a trip to the grocery store a scavenger hunt for the missing patterns in the set (one of which was always illusive) and turned innocent glasses of milk into a battle of wills over who was going to get drink out of the moon landing. For midcentury modern glassware breakage was certainly a longevity issue, but perhaps the biggest downfall was the advent of the dishwasher. Two or three trips in the phosphate-unfree automated bath wiped Neal Armstrong off the moon faster than a renegade asteroid.

2. Dishes

The midcentury brought two big dinnerware innovations: plastic made to look (sort of) like ceramic, and glass made to look (sort of) like ceramic. The latest issue of Bon Appétit has an entire article about melamine plates. They forgot to consult with me because one fact they got wrong is that melamine is unmeltable. Okay, maybe it doesn’t melt into a pool of (probably) toxic ooze, but if you placed a stack of plates on top of the stove to await breakfast and accidentally lit the wrong burner and walked out of the kitchen for what you are sure was not a particularly extended period of time, you would return to a fused mass. Just a word of advice to the ironic hipsters among us.

The dinnerware that started out as some form of glass fared somewhat better, although once again with a bit of hyperbole in the ‘unbreakable’ label. Corel offered some funky patterns and all of the must-have decor colours like avocado green and aqua, and they looked acceptable for the dining table (as opposed to the picnic table, where melamine fared best). They were also more likely to survive the abuse of the average kid than the fine china. The Corel dishes fared okay in the dishwasher, probably because their decoration was baked-on in the Corning blast furnace. Their dénouement arrived with the popularity of the ceramic floor, which resulted in something like a fight between two superheroes with equal powers: they tend to cancel each other out. One innocent slip of the fingers when unloading the dishwasher and the indestructible plate smashed to razor-sharp smithereens on the fancy kitchen floor (trip to the emergency room optional).

3. Furniture

Midcentury modern living room furniture was a major innovation because it was a transition from the bulky over-stuffed pieces of the 1940’s and 50’s to sleek Scandinavian lines with lots of (teak) wood in evidence and tweedy earth toned upholstery with accents of the requisite burnt orange. It did look incredibly modern. However, the full-midcentury-modern-monty went a little too far, with the average house containing enough teak lamps, teak chairs, teak couches, teak coffee tables, and teak end tables to denude an entire rainforest. There was also the dirty secret that no one dared name: it was not very comfortable. Fortunately for the aspiring hipsters there is a lot of it currently available, thanks to the indestructible fabric and the fact that they didn’t get a lot of wear since nobody sat in them for extended periods. Could this also be the reason floor pillows surged in popularity in the midcentury? I feel a Ph.D. thesis coming on…