The medicine cabinet seemed to be precisely what my friend Gretchen Siemers was looking for at the Long Beach Antique Market. The lighted, chrome-mirrored piece was priced around $75, a true bargain for a mid-century piece in near-mint condition. When I pointed it out to her, thinking it would look great in her new home in the slowly gentrifying neighborhood of East Hollywood, her response was visceral: "Ew, no."
"I hate Mid-Century Modern," she declared. "It's so lame to like it at this point."
When I pressed her, I quickly got to the root of her hostility: "That stuff is everywhere and everyone loves it. But I don't want my home to look like everyone else's."
Well, yes, it is everywhere. Still…. Thanks to seven beloved/hated/over-discussed seasons of "Mad Men," and wildly enthusiastic coverage by magazines such as Elle Dcor and Vogue, and websites like Houzz and, well, this one, the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic -- the post-World War II era architecture and design style borne out of a desire to build things quickly and simply -- has become a 21st century obsession. What accounts for the boom? Perhaps it's mainly a nostalgia trip -- a yearning for a simpler time of defined workplace gender roles, rampant nicotine addition, and binge bourbon consumption in the office.
Or, just maybe, it's about the need to get back to the design basics. After all, the aesthetic was clean and unfettered -- casual living, defined. Gone were the overly intricate and ornamental details. Instead, pieces played with organic curves and made use of polymorphic and geometric shapes that were rearrangeable and interchangeable. Product lines were multipurpose and could be easily stacked, folded, or collapsed. Today, Mid-Century Modern has come to dominate a broad and increasingly mainstream swathe of American design culture -- from teapots, to lamps, to chairs.
And, of course, it extends to homes, too. The Mid-Century Modern aesthetic -- including the iconic Los Angeles and Palm Springs Eichler designs and the coveted and rarely listed Neutras -- is all the more popular (and quickly sold) then ever. Mid-Century Modern homes, whether rambling ranches or unique case studies, can generally be distinguished by their use of steel and Japanese influences, along with such characteristics as cantilever and butterfly roofing; massive, flat panes of glass; split-levels and partial walls; an integration with nature; and open-style living rooms and kitchens. The intention was to keep things very simple while encouraging gathering spaces for residents and friends to hang out and enjoy.
So the mid-century locomotive keeps steaming along. Casual shoppers drop the names Eames, Knoll, Cherner and Saarinen. Mod Cloth and Nasty Gal's collections come off as everyday office- and date-wear, not costumes. IKEA, whose Swedish roots connect directly to the style's origins, still traffics heavily in the look. Upstart home furnishings firm West Elm uses the buzzword "Mid-Century" to describe nearly 150 products and recently launched a collection of Mid-Century Modern office furniture. Over the course of those seven Draper-filled seasons, Mid-Century Modern went from something only deep-pocketed architecture and design geeks oohed and ahhed over, to what you, your friends, and your parents universally decorate with.
But, just maybe, enough is enough.
"I'm so over it," says Sarah Engler, a lifestyle editor for several Conde Nast publications. "All those reproductions…. It's like everyone I know has the same coffee table. How can you express your own personality through your living space if it contains the same pieces as everyone else's?"
"Mid-Century Modern had its glorious moments in the late '40s and '50s, even again in the '90s," says Kim Price, a peppy 31-year-old, who has her own line of high-end custom furniture, lighting, and home designs under the label KAVANTE. "It was once experimental and edgy, but those designs are now part of home collections from Target, CB2, West Elm, Design Within Reach, and IKEA. It's become America's go-to style."
And so what does it say about America?
"I associate Mid-Century Modern with a kind of anal-retentive personality," says Erin Melina Stamos, a 38-year-old costume designer in Baltimore. "I find it weirdly tidy. If I walked into a home and everything was Mid-Century Modern, I would assume the person was a Type A pain in the ass."
OK, time for a deep breath. The design still has plenty of advocates and paying customers.
"It is timeless, and when you pair it with other modern furniture it stands out and blends in all at the same time," says architect Carolyn Hinger, a founding partner at HiRe Design Architects in Brooklyn.
"It can round out a space," says fellow architect and HiRe founding partner, Natalie Pearson. "I think it's more interesting to have an eclectic mix of furniture. All-modern furniture is too cold, all-antique is too stodgy."
My friend Gretchen, for her part, explained that she wanted something that looked and felt real: "Something older, shabbier, less perfect."
An hour later, she found her piece -- a rusty medicine cabinet dating to the 1920s that she bargained down to $125. We lugged the clunker into her spacious Honda Element. The cabinet's white paint had yellowed and weathered away, its metal door handle creaked when the tin doors were pulled open. It looked like the polar opposite of Mid-Century Modern -- more like the overpriced, damaged stuff I see all the time at New York City flea markets.
"I love this," she said. "So excited. I'll paint it, and it will be perfect."