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Discover Mid-America — February 2008

When the past looks better
than the future

Story and photos by Bruce Rodgers

The exact age Maurice Powell got into Mid-Century Modern is a little fuzzy. Jennifer Taylor, Maurice’s big sister, said he was about eight or so when he visited a family friend’s 1950’s house with its mid-century furniture and décor.

Maurice Powell, owner of mod50s Modern, standing in front of abstracts by J. Jay McVicker

“His interest likely began then,” said Jennifer, the self-professed “bossy one” in the brother/sister relationship.

Later, when Maurice was older but still too young to drive, Jennifer would take him to Global Village, a vintage shop in Tulsa, OK.

“One day, I put on some crazy hat and said, ‘Hey Reece, does this look like Twiggy?’”

Maurice answered back, “Who’s Twiggy?”

As far as Jennifer is concerned, on that day his interest springboarded into “learning — putting the connection between the object and the iconic pop culture,” she said. Curiosity took hold; Maurice wanted to know what inspiration was behind the thing and who created it.

Knowing more was piqued by a book Maurice read while in high school — Mid-Century Modern by Cara Greenberg, published in 1984.

“It just totally fascinated me,” said Maurice. “This is what got a lot of the ‘50s guys inspired. You get reading about it, gets you into it and you become a collector.”

From the not-too-distant past

It took a while for Mid-Century Modern to establish itself as a bona fide collecting category in the mainstream press’ mind. Seems like only when manufacturers such as Knoll and Herman Miller began to reissue certain pieces from the ‘40s and ‘50s, and retailers like Crate & Barrel and Marshall Field sold the reproductions, did publications outside the antique and collectibles trade take notice.

Edward Wormley chairs for Dunbar Furniture on top of a George Nelson table for Herman Miller with chairs by Charles Eames for Herman Miller

Roughly, the years from 1945 to 1965 are pegged as Mid-Century Modern. In that post-World War II era, designers and architects embraced Frank Lloyd Wright’s “organic” conception, adding their inspiration to furniture, lamps, clocks and other products to create what Time magazine called — in a 2004 article on “retro modernism” — “the mark of the human hand,” from a period when America “was the “land of possibility.”

Some credit Charles and Ray Eames as the team that got Mid-Century going. Charles was born in St. Louis, MO and studied architecture briefly at Washington University in St. Louis. As a student, he reportedly pushed his professors to study Frank Lloyd Wright and was eventually dismissed from the university because, as one professor wrote, “His views were too modern.”

In 1941, Charles married Ray Kaiser, an artist, architect, filmmaker and designer in her own right. The couple moved to Los Angeles where they lived and worked — including making educational and promotional films for IBM — until their deaths. Charles died in 1978, Ray ten years later to the day.

George Nelson, named director of design at Herman Miller in 1946, recruited Charles and Ray Eames to the Michigan-based furniture company. Nelson described his creative process as coming from a series of “zaps” — flashes of inspiration and clarity that he turned into design ideas. He is perhaps best known for his “bubble lamps,” made of self-webbing plastic. An early environmentalist, Nelson counted Buckminister Fuller as one of friends and possible influences.

While at Herman Miller, the Eames pioneered molded plywood chairs, work that led to fiberglass and plastic resin chairs, and wire-mesh chairs for the company. Perhaps their most famous design is the 1956 Eames lounge chair and ottoman, which Herman Miller reissued in 2006 as part of the company’s 50th anniversary. At the time of Charles’ death, they were working on the Eames sofa, which went into production in 1984.

Nelson also recruited Japanese-American sculptor, landscape architect and designer Isamu Noguchi, famous for his amoeba-shaped coffee tables. He also designed various-sized three-legged tables with matching stools, and developed a lighting system called “Akari,” a grouping of lamps — standing, hanging and table versions — with shades made from Japanese paper.

Paul Frankl table & chair set with two Jens Risom chairs

In 1948, Nelson, Eames, Noguchi and Paul Laszlo produced a catalog for Herman Nelson that is often considered one of the most influential body of modern furniture.

Pennsylvania-based furniture manufacturer Knoll utilized the creative talents of Finnish architect and designer Eero Saarinen, son of Eliel Saarinen, who influenced Charles Eames.

While Eames worked with plywood, Eero Saarinen designed furniture using laminated wood. One such design is his 1946-47, “Grasshopper” armchair.

In 1947-48, Saarinen designed the “Womb” collection for Knoll, which included the womb chair. In 1955-56, a collection was released of “chairs and tables made of plastic and featuring one central leg ending in an organically round disc on the floor.” Included in this group is the “Tulip” chair, in which it was said, Saarinen wanted to abolish the “miserable maze of legs.” Knoll reissued the tulip chair in 2006 — priced at over $700.

mod50s Modern

Business Week, in a 2005 article titled “Fabulous Fifties, Collecting mid-century furniture,” stated, “For collectors who admire sleek lines and unadorned craftsmanship, mid-century design is an obsession.”

Maurice Powell would agree with the statement except maybe the “obsession” part. Though he does admit he bought his first Eames chair while still in high school. And with a little prodding, says that by that time, mid-century was “in his blood.”

So while others in his age bracket may have been hanging out, going to concerts, commiserating over youthful transgressions, Maurice, with sister Jennifer Taylor, were antiquing.

“We would go out antiquing once a week,” remembered Maurice. “I was buying all ‘50s stuff and she thought I was crazy. Even back then there were some good stores popping up.”

It wasn’t very long before Maurice was working at an antique mall, taking the place of his sister. Jennifer opened a booth at the Tulsa Antique Mall.

Strangely, while in college Maurice majored in physical therapy but he does confess to having had “an art history class.” Call his knowledge the self-taught kind.

Helping people while working for a private health care business had its advantage beyond the good deeds. His 200-mile territory around Tulsa got Maurice out antiquing when away from his patients. And, of course, he collected the mid-century stuff along with art, and learned more in the process.

“It was when I was running around doing home health in rural Oklahoma that my sister and I decided to open a little shop,” said Maurice.

In 1995, Deco to Disco opened on Tulsa’s eclectic E. 15th Street, east of downtown. Jennifer focused on vintage clothing, Maurice on — of course — mid-century.

Tulsa’s main location for Mid-Century Modern on E. 15th St.

The business grew and the team moved to a larger location on E. 15th Street. They stayed partners until 2005.

“Clothing got to be a bigger and bigger part, then we just got tired,” said Jennifer. “We were selling on eBay and then closed for awhile trying to decide what to do.”

It was a loving split. Jennifer open Deco to Disco in a smaller shop on E. 15th, Maurice stayed in the larger building with the name mod50s Modern, 20th century design & art.

Maurice’s store, like any good art or antique store, reflects his tastes and interest more so than what can quickly turn for a buck.

In one area, he hangs art. At this writing, Oklahoma artist J. Jay McVicker occupies much of the wall space not far from Maurice’s office door. McVicker is one of Maurice’s favorite.

But art, paintings and other hangings extend down the back wall, many above glass cases holding a collection of items from Native American artifacts to Tramp Art.

Maurice also handles ‘50s dishes and glassware under $30, along with what he calls “kitschy ‘50s furniture that looks really neat — but with no designer name — in the $50-$100 range.”

Out on the floor, chairs, tables, chests, couches and other furniture items crowd the space. And Maurice knows exactly where each piece can be found and the history and designer (if one) attached to it.

Follow him through his store to the music of 1940’s big band music coming from speakers somewhere, and Maurice begins to rattle off the names — “Paul Frankl table, Witco furniture, a Saarinen, Russel Wright, Edward Wormley chairs for Dunbar, George Nelson, that metal furniture is Norman Geddes, Eames chair…”

So what’s an original Eames chair go for?

“Depending upon the chair, leather lounge chair and ottoman — all the earlier ones were rosewood — an easy three to four thousand, even not in good condition,” Maurice said.

He doesn’t do the back-road antiquing much anymore though he hasn’t ruled it out. Maurice attends auctions, goes to estate sales and has contacts into a network of other mid-century dealers and aficionados.

“I usually find stuff because I’ve left enough flyers and door-knocked on all the ‘50s houses in Tulsa for the last 20 years,” Maurice said with a laugh. “People call me.

“If I go cold out to the antique malls, I usually find art.”

Moving in art

For someone who believes that Saarinen’s womb chair is “not just a piece of furniture, it’s an artist’s piece,” developing an appreciation of painting and sculpture was effortless. Just took some gathering of knowledge.

“White Solitude” 1955, oil on panel by J. Jay McVicker (image courtesy of Pierson Gallery: American Fine Art, Tulsa, OK)

“He has that identification prowess,” said Jennifer. “You have to driven and passionate — it’s a study. He reads, does research in museums, goes to universities and talks with these people.

“He’s an authority on Oklahoma artists. He knows the personal stories about these people; he’s not just interested in the ‘thing.’”

The J. Jay McVicker show has been up almost at year at mod50s Modern. Maurice has a lot of appreciation for McVicker’s work. He was a student of Oklahoma State University and later taught there, following behind Doel Reed, chair of the Department of Art at Oklahoma State, who later moved to Taos, NM. McVicker died in Stillwater, OK in 2004 at the age of 92.

In the 1940s, McVicker painted traditional regionalism, sometimes using aquatint. He later moved to abstraction and larger canvasses. Maurice’s collection spans McVicker’s artistic life.

Maurice says he’s sold 20 to 30 McVicker pieces, adding that the artist’s value continues to rise.

“I’m probably low on prints and right at where the paintings need to be,” Maurice said.

“I tried to bid on a print that was in Cleveland (OH) a couple of weeks ago, thought I would be able to get it for a thousand to twelve-hundred. It went for three thousand so people are really out for his stuff.”

Maurice can’t really pinpoint what he likes about McVicker’s art, saying, “I just like that he’s an Oklahoman and he did his stuff in the 1940s.”

A few regional painters with Kansas’ connections interest Maurice, especially two Sweden-born painters who emigrated to Lindsborg, KS and studied at Bethany College, Oscar Jacobson and Birger Sandzén.

Jacobson, a painter of Southwestern landscapes, has works at the Woolaroc Museum in Bartlesville, OK and in the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

Sandzén, whose work has been compared to van Gogh and Cézanne, also painted the American West. “I would love to have a painting by him,” said Maurice.

Like his hunt for Mid-Century Modern, Maurice now looks out for Oklahoma artists. “I think there’s a lot of good stuff out there,” he said.

Mid-century into the 21st

Maurice thinks the future for mid-century dealers looks good, despite the reissues and reproductions. Designers and decorators are helping drive the Mid-Century Modern market, especially in what Maurice calls “new classics.”

A Witco Furniture grouping, the same furniture in Elvis’ Graceland “Jungle Room”

“Today, Herman Miller still makes the Eames chair. I can order from them. Where it takes me months sometimes to find an (original) Eames at auction, I could have one in here all the time for sale.”

Would that make any difference to the mod50s Modern customer base?

“It’s funny,” said Maurice. “I have a customer base that are purists that just want the old. But most of the new collectors want the new stuff, and they want that designer look and name but they don’t want an old chair or something reupholstered.

“People’s tastes are geared toward the look, not toward the age so much.”

While Maurice contemplates selling new classics, for his home, “I wouldn’t’ have it.”

Rod Parks, who has done business with Maurice, and owner of Retro Inferno, feels the same way about originals.

“Ninety-five percent of what we handle is original,” said Parks of his Kansas City, MO shop. “The only reissue I carry are George Nelson bubble chairs.”

A Frank Lloyd Wright chair with J. Jay McVicker sculpture and paintings

Parks got into Mid-Century Modern while a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“What really gets me is the exuberance with most of the design,” he said. “I like things with an edge; there’s a fun aspect to it and it’s furniture as sculpture, too.

“It stays with your eye; the longer you look at it, the better it looks. It’s like art.”

Like Maurice in Tulsa, Parks says his customer base is people in their mid-30s to 60s with discretionary income. He believes the market “moves at a different pace in different parts of the country,”

Maurice notes that Mid-Century Modern is “huge” on the coasts, with prices climbing. “They (dealers) are naming their own prices,” he said.

Finding ‘50s stuff is getting more difficult said Parks, “Some things that use to get to market 10 years ago (via estate sales) are getting snapped up by adult children.”

One of those baby-boomer types into Mid-Century Modern is Rose Smith, who has a booth at River Market Antique Mall in Kansas City, MO. She’s been a dealer for two years.

“I have more of the small stuff — Pyrex glass, Melmac dinnerware, barware and toys like Erector sets,” said Smith.

She claims “today’s kids” want something unique. River Market is located in an older part of downtown Kansas City near the Missouri River, which is seeing a loft boom, with many young singles living in the area.

“The genre is going to grow, it’s the ultimate recycling,” Smith said. “For them, it’s hard to find something affordable and there’s no sigma to owing something second-hand. The next progression is into the 1970s.”

Contact Info

mod50s Modern
20th Century Design & Art
2921 E 15th St.
Tulsa, OK 74104

Deco to Disco Vintage
1508 E 15th St.
Tulsa, OK 74120

Retro Inferno
1500 Grand
Kansas City, MO 64108

River Market Antique Mall
115 W. 5th St.
Kansas City, MO 64105

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