Arts & Antiques

Mid-Century Modern

From Philadelphia to New Hope, Pennsylvania has its fair share of mid-20th century furniture designers.

By Margaret Guthrie |

In doing research for this article, I came across more than one reference to the “Eames brothers.” Let’s set the record straight: Charles and Ray Eames were a married couple, Ray was a woman—and a very talented one at that. Their furniture designs have stood the test of time, as anyone who has recently purchased a piece of theirs can attest. 

The Eameses met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield, Michigan, where Charles was head of industrial design. They married in 1941, beginning a collaboration on furniture design that resulted in such iconic pieces as the molded plywood chair and ottoman. 

George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.
George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Hamilton firmly believes that Ray Eames’ influence on the couple’s output is clear. “Charles’ architectural work is very linear, almost stark,” he says. “I think she had a softening influence when it came to their furniture designs.”

Many, if not most, of the mid-century furniture designers were architects, and few were more prolific than Arne Jacobsen.
Danish by birth, he may be remembered more for his furniture—at least in the U.S.—than for his architecture. His first notable design was most likely the Ant, a three-legged chair originally designed for a company cafeteria. The chair is well named;  its resemblance to its insect namesake is almost uncanny. 

Originally designed for the lobby of the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, the wonderful Egg chair is still in production at Fritz
Hansen, as is his Swan sofa. His stainless steel tableware is still available from Georg Jensen at reasonable prices, and so are his tea and coffee pots, creamers, and sugar bowls from Stelton. 

Harry Bertoia’s furniture remains much sought after and still in production. Born in Italy, he was an artist, not an architect.
Bertoia first came to this country to visit his older brother, and he decided to stay. After studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he met Ray and Charles, he migrated to the West Coast. There, he was actively engaged in war work in the late 1940s and also collaborated with the Eameses. 

In the early ’50s, Hans and Florence Knoll offered him the opportunity to move east and design furniture for their company. With a growing family to support, Bertoia found the offer irresistible. The family still owns his stone farmhouse in eastern Pennsylvania, as well as the workshop where many of his design prototypes were developed. 

Bertoia’s diamond chair has been listed at the 1stdibs.com website for $2,500, while replicas are in the $200 range. The chairs are still available new from Knoll, Inc.

For serious collectors of mid-century furniture, there is no one whose work is more desirable or iconic than George Nakashima.

George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.
George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

His one-of-a kind tables, benches and chairs are all made of wood, and his studio, workshop and house all located in New Hope, Pa.

Nakashima’s work is available online from sites like 1stdibs.com—but prepare yourself, as prices range from $18,000 for a walnut bench to $81,139 for an exquisite dining room table, the top of which is a slab of a walnut tree, the grain beautifully preserved.  Both pieces date from the 1960s, when Nakashima was at his peak in the execution of beautiful wood furniture. 

The Nakashima studio is still in operation, turning out exquisite wood furniture. Prospective purchasers are encouraged to visit the workshop on Saturday afternoons. A current Nakashima dining room table in black walnut is available from the firm for around $20,000.

The Hunt Spring 2016  Issue

This article was published in Arts & Antiques from the Spring 2016 issue.
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