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The Good Eye: Nostalgia for the New

Pull up that Arvin and read about from whence it came

By Amy Gentry, Fri., July 18, 2014

The clean, symmetrical lines, low profile, and slender legs on this reupholstered club chair (spotted at Prima Forme) exemplify midcentury modern's utopian design principles.
The clean, symmetrical lines, low profile, and slender legs on this reupholstered club chair (spotted at Prima Forme) exemplify midcentury modern's utopian design principles.
Photo by Amy Gentry

I've been thinking a lot about midcentury modern lately. Who hasn't? In Austin, the sleek, streamlined retro-futuristic style never really went away, but with seven seasons of Mad Men under our belts and half a dozen stores in town now specializing in midcentury modern furniture – from the affordable buried treasures at Corner Collector's Market to the meticulously restored pieces in the posh Uptown Modern showroom – MCM is becoming almost as mainstream in Austin as it was in its Fifties and Sixties heyday.

Ever since my husband and I moved into our 1955 Windsor Park bungalow, however, visions of Danish teak have been dancing through my head in Technicolor. Having escaped the trendy remodels currently being inflicted on all Central Austin neighborhoods, our modestly sized – not to say miniature – house retains some of the social-engineering impulses of midcentury architecture: A partition wall hides the kitchen without walling it off, a built-in room divider seems designed to function as a cocktail stand, and floor-to-ceiling windows invite the outdoors in. Our gateway MCM furniture purchase, a teak dining table from Uptown Modern, quickly led to a set of dining chairs from Rave On Vintage, and before I knew it, the Victorian fainting couch I've been dragging from apartment to apartment for years looked tragically out of place. (Luckily, tragedy suits a fainting couch. It's currently contributing an air of Freudian retrospection to my home office.)

Above all, MCM reminds me of Celine. I waited tables at a diner with Celine in 2001. She arrived at work every day in a neatly pressed vintage shirtwaist dress, something Betty Draper might have worn to clean the house – or rather, to smoke a cigarette at the kitchen table while her maid cleaned the house. Celine's home was as rigorously curated as a museum. Her record collection lived in a midcentury modern stereo cabinet; her kitchen was stocked with vintage Pyrex nesting bowls and CorningWare; she even sewed on a vintage Singer. There wasn't a stick of IKEA in the house, and almost everything could be dated to within a few years of 1960. As we drank highballs from matching glasses on the rusty Arvin patio chairs out back, she gestured toward the time capsule within. "It's about comfort and control," she said. "This is how I stay sane."

The more things stay the same, though, the more they change. One of the movers who helped lug our boxes to the new house stopped dead when he walked through the door, his face bearing an uncanny expression. "I've been here before," he said. "I think I used to hang out here." A reminder that before gentrification started whitening the neighborhood at a snow-globe's pace, the neighborhood was full of people who looked more like him than like me. Or maybe he was feeling a shiver of déjà vu from one of the many houses with an identical floorplan. I'd like to think our house bears the signature of architect Frank De Groot, who worked on Windsor Park for developer Nash Phillips-Copus when he was fresh out of architecture school; but probably it's one of the slightly altered designs NPC "adapted" (i.e., ripped off) from architects like him. Compromised from the start, the midcentury modernist's signature is buried under decades of hypocrisy, and the bright future it evokes is still more equal for some than for others.

Nevertheless, the oxymoronically named midcentury modern style will always represent a frozen moment of faith in modernity. Its streamlined shapes look toward the future, but its warm, solid woods reassure us of a future linked to the past. It must have been something to look toward the future and see permanence and stability. As long as we're nostalgic for the feeling, MCM will never fully go away.

As Austin continues to boom, however, we may start seeing a drift toward lusher modernisms. I anticipate a Seventies revival in home decor to match the one we've seen in fashion. The Seventies took the functionalist design principles of midcentury modernism and exaggerated them, stylized them, dipped them in gold or painted them in neon swirls or covered them in shag. For better or for worse, the plushy, funky, individualistic Seventies seem well-suited to the changing mood here in Austin.

Eh, more Brasilia for me.


See the online photo gallery for a guide to Austin's best midcentury modern furniture stores.

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