Philadelphia a hotbed for midcentury treasures

At Era Atomica on Passyunk Avenue, manager Taryn Zychal sits at a Heywood Wakefield vanity. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff
At Era Atomica on Passyunk Avenue, manager Taryn Zychal sits at a Heywood Wakefield vanity. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff
Posted: May 12, 2012

When Stacey Bartholetti first stepped into the split-level ranch house in Cheltenham, she discovered original tiled bathrooms and built-in teak bookcases, almost unaltered since the home’s construction in 1962. Other prospective buyers asked for discounts to tear out the dated decor. Bartholetti and her husband bought it — and embraced it all.

“The house was definitely inspiration,” she said. “We realized we could buy furniture from that period, and make it almost as if it was 1962.”

And like so many others in Philadelphia, she began an enduring love affair with midcentury modern furniture.

Certainly, Mad Men gets credit for renewing the public’s interest in the old, solid-wood, handmade pieces — good for decorating small spaces in Philadelphia rowhouses and replicating a Dwell magazine spread. But what many don’t know is that Philadelphia has long been a hotbed of good-quality period furniture — furniture that was purchased by design-forward residents in the postwar years, but that’s now coming to market (or to the curb on lucky trash days) as the original owners downsize or die.

As New York’s own market has become both picked-over and exponentially more expensive, dealers say, there’s been growing interest in Philly’s cache of mid-20th century finds. Add to that the region’s status as a hub for the contemporaneous and aesthetically linked American studio furniture movement, and it’s no wonder local estate sales and auctions are packed with out-of-state treasure hunters, hot for your parents’ old furniture.

“For a long time, it wasn’t in demand. People just didn’t want it,” said Brian Lawlor, who owns the 2-year-old Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse in Fishtown and now counts among clients local vintage-lovers, out-of-state midcentury aficionados and set-dressers for Philadelphia-made films, including the Colin Farrell movie Dead Man Down that’s currently in production. “It’s become harder and harder to buy. The prices have gone up and people are more aware. The Internet changed that, and so did shows like Mad Men.”

It’s a far different atmosphere from when Michael Glatfelter first opened his Old City midcentury shop Mode Moderne 32 years ago, after he was laughed out of the Black Angus Antiques Mall in Lancaster County because “no one would ever want to buy bent plywood chairs by Charles Eames.”

Even in Philly, people weren’t sure what to make of his “’50s store” back then. “Now, midcentury is sort of mainstream. But in the beginning, artists, architects, and a few weirdos were the only ones who were interested. Now we have just ordinary people who are furnishing their homes.”

And yet, even at that time, the good stuff was hidden in local homes, especially within Philly’s impressive stock of modernist Center City high-rises and modern homes designed by Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Vincent Kling.

“Even though people think of Philadelphia as a very conservative design market, it’s not true,” said Bob Aibel, who owns Old City’s venerated Moderne Gallery with his son Josh. “Historically there has been very good design going on here. People are just very quiet about it.”

Now, local dealers are buying much of their stock from people cleaning out their parents’ homes, or from professional senior transition services. “Some of the high-rises — the Society Hill Towers, the Philadelphian, some of the best pieces come out of those buildings, from people that believed in the arts and bought better stuff,” Lawlor said. Residents went up to New Hope on the weekends to shop at the studios of furniture makers like Paul Evans or George Nakashima, or bought production models at the better department stores.

So it’s natural those pieces would still be around, from a groovy $25 lamp that looks like it came off Don Draper’s desk, to a stunning Nakashima Long Chair — an exemplar of the furniture maker’s affinity for both organic wood contours and crisp modern silhouettes — that Aibel values at a cool $95,000.

Midcentury connoisseurs have caught on, as have dealers. Lawlor said local auctions — once the domain of a few pros — are now clogged with New York dealers. He said they also travel up from the South, where midcentury modern is far hotter now than it was when it was brand-new; and from D.C., especially since the Obama administration took over.

“When the Republicans moved out and the Democrats moved in, a lot of younger people, they changed over from the conservative furniture to the more modern furniture,” Lawlor said.

While Lawlor’s affordable offerings may draw a young crowd, eminently mix-and-matchable midcentury pieces seem to enjoy an all-ages demographic.

“It’s a very easy-to-live-with period. It’s modern, but it doesn’t scream ‘modern,’?” says Michael Gruber, an interior designer whose Nakashima dining table, Norman Cherner chairs, and assorted Harry Bertoia furniture easily made the move from his old house in Havertown to an airy new apartment in Center City earlier this year.

Like others, he cites the quality of the pieces — stuff that lasts long enough for Mode Moderne to see customers from 15 or 20 years ago selling pieces back as they, too, look to downsize.

Even those who once preferred antiques are now thinking midcentury. As antiques dealers worry about the graying of their clientele, Glatfelter says he sees plenty of empty nesters trade antiques for “vintage” as they move out of Main Line stone houses and into the city. “Have you ever seen a French provincial apartment in the Murano? It just somehow doesn’t look right.”

Last August, Bartholetti and her husband opened Era Atomica, a midcentury modern store on East Passyunk Avenue, the nexus between old South Philly and a new wave of hipsters.

“The original residents of the neighborhood come in and crack up. They tell us, ‘I had this, my mom had that.’ It’s like going to a museum for them,” Bartholetti said. But many bring their kids and grandkids back to shop; others — once they stop laughing — take note of the streamlined, minimal style and recognize its utility.

“We’ve had customers completely switch out rooms in their house, get rid of the puffy furniture and the mahogany case pieces, and still be able to store everything — and have room on the floor to walk around and just to live.”

She also gets plenty of customers online or visiting from out of state. If they gripe about prices, she can usually find the same piece online for three to five times more. “That tends to quiet them down.” Prices in Philly have risen over the years, but Bartholetti and others said there are still deals to be had here.

Mary Harris, who was picking through the offerings at Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse Sunday, is hoping to find some of those bargains. She recently purchased a “1970s split-level ranch which is so hideous that I figured I might as well go with it.” Now, the challenge is finding the pieces to match the retro Mount Airy home — at a price she’s willing to pay. “I’m 45 and I find it so amusing that this stuff I grew up with, that everyone had in their house, is now so in demand. I didn’t know.”

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