Top MCM Brands at Estate Sales
It’s official: we’re in love with midcentury modern, and it doesn’t look like the affair is fizzling out any time soon. Coined by Cara Greenberg in her 1984 book, Midcentury Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, this style spans the mid 1930s to mid 1960s. While the phrase “midcentury modern” stuck, the style had taken off long before there was a name for the simple streamlined look. Post-war America fell in love with the new “mod” style that would come to define modern suburban life, and with it, the promise of the American dream.
MCM, as it’s also called, later found a resurgence in popularity during the early 90s and has continued to flourish today, thanks to period shows like Mad Men and The Astronaut’s Wives Club that keep the style trendy.
The real question is: how can you get your hands on some of these iconic pieces? Well, you could pay thousands of dollars for a reproduction from one of those swanky furniture stores or design websites.
Or you can get creative and find original MCM furniture at estate sales. Estate sales (also called “tag sales”) are great places to snatch up some fine midcentury pieces for your home or office. (Keep in mind you won’t find cast-offs sold for the cheapest price. Instead, you’re likely to find furniture that has been well cared for, and as such, priced accordingly.) However, you’ll avoid the markup you’re likely to run into at antique stores, so it’s worth the time spent scouring the sales in your area.
We’ve singled out just a few famous midcentury brands to keep your eyes peeled for at estate sales. With a little knowledge about what to buy, it’s still possible to find a good deal. And remember, part of the fun is the search — so happy hunting!
1. Adrian Pearsall
When you think of that midcentury “Space Age” look, American architect and designer Adrian Pearsall is probably responsible for some of what you’re picturing. Known for incorporating geometric shapes, swooping lines and sharp angles into his work, as well as the use of warm-colored woods, Pearsall designs are easy to recognize. (Pro-tip: examine furniture bases for that signature walnut wood).
Some backstory: According to his son, dad Pearsall was a pretty unassuming and humble guy, which is, let’s be frank, pretty unusual with these artsy types. He founded Craft Associates with his brother back in 1952, and the story goes, was such a practical businessman that he gave his company a generic name. In case designing furniture didn’t work out, he could use the name to sell something else! Luckily, the furniture did take off, and pieces from that time period are still in high demand today. If you’re trying to discern an original from back then, look for tags that read: Craft Associates, Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania.
In the 60s Pearsall formed Davidson-Pearsall, and later, in 1968, he sold the Craft Associates label to the Lane Company. In the 70s, Pearsall formed Comfort Design, and stayed there until his retirement in the 80s.
Some designs Pearsall is known for include the iconic long and low gondola sofa, like the one pictured above. The gondola sofa was so named for its resemblance to a gondola seat, with its curved seat and concave back. Like much of the furniture designed in the 1960s, the Adrian Pearsall gondola sofa was low to the ground.
Other Adrian Pearsall-inspired designs to be on the lookout for: armchairs with high backs flanked with angular armrests or chairs that incorporate neck rests into the design. Like most midcentury modern furniture, Pearsall pieces make great focal points in an otherwise simple space. Fun fact: You can also thank Pearsall for designing the famous Beanbag Chair that got you through all those all-nighters in college. Who knew back then that you had an eye for American modern art?
Founded by a man, but grown to empire status by a woman, Knoll is a name you need to know if you’re into midcentury modern. Hans Knoll founded the company in 1938 but after his sudden death, his wife Florence took over and grew Knoll into the international company it is today.
Design nerds will recognize a number of American and European artists who worked under the Knoll label, including Niels Diffrient, Maya Lin, Carl Magnussen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Max Pearson, Jens Risom, and Eero Saarinen — to name a few. Chances are you’ve sat in a Knoll designed chair: the Tulip, the Barcelona, and the Hardoy chairs are all popular models that are still manufactured today.
The Tulip Chair was designed in 1956 by Eero Saarinen (who also designed the famous St. Louis Arch) as part of the famous Pedestal Series. Saarinen’s mission was to eradicate the “slum of legs” into a cleaner more streamlined look — hence the chairs and tables resting on a single leg. You might have sat in a Tulip at the last hipster restaurant you dined in. Saarinen wanted his chairs to be more than just places to sit; he wanted his furniture to be able to stand on its own — no pun intended — as art. With clean lines and easily replicated materials such as aluminum, plastic, and fiberglass, the Tulip Chair married the best of modernism with post-industrial design.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was the designer responsible for concept-ing the famous Barcelona Chair, which he created for Barcelona’s 1929 International Exposition. The Barcelona Chair was originally designed for royalty, but the Spanish King and Queen never actually tested them out — their loss was our gain. Upholstered with deep tufted fine leather over a steel chrome base, the criss-cross chrome base was inspired by the ancient Roman campaign chairs, which were foldable to easily transport on the trail. In 2015, the Barcelona Chair design lives on, thanks to modern design stores — and will only put you out about $5,000.
If you’ve ever tailgated in one of those nifty cloth chairs, you can tip your baseball cap to Knoll. Indeed, your beer-swilling throne, also known as the “Butterfly Chair” or “BKF” (after designers Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan, Jorge F. Hardoy) is part of the elite Knoll portfolio. Also inspired by the easily portable campaign chair, the BKF is basically a piece of tough cloth stretched across the highest points of a foldable steel frame. Showcased in 1940, the design officially became part of the Knoll catalogue in 1947 and has remained a midcentury classic and backyard favorite.
3. Broyhill Brasilia
If you’re lucky enough to run across an authentic Broyhill Brasilia piece at an estate sale — buy it now and ask questions later. This delightful furniture line has inspired a cult following among midcentury modern fans, and for good reason. The name isn’t just for international appeal. MCM mainstay manufacturer Broyhill’s Brasilia line was inspired by the architecture of the classic Brazilian capital, also designed midcentury between 1956 and 1960.
Broyhill Brasilia incorporates many of the design elements that make the cosmopolitan city unique. Its signature swooping curves and arches are reminiscent of the Cathedral of Brasilia and other Brasilia architecture. The line was originally introduced in the Seattle World Fair of 1962 and has only gotten more popular with time.
An old Broyhill brochure calls the Brasilia wood “softly shaded walnut” and you’ll want to keep the wood in good condition in if you’re lucky enough to come across any. In any case, messing with the wood by way of painting or staining could affect the resale value of the piece. Be on the lookout for pieces with the original brass Brasilia hardware, like the ones in the highboy pictured below.
Broyhill Brasilia is easily recognizable — and not so easily replicated. Unfortunately, this means getting a good deal on an authentic piece of Broyhill Brasilia is most likely also a thing of the past.
4. Le Corbusier
While Le Corbusier was a French and Swiss guy known mostly for his architecture (and his thick-rimmed circular eyeglasses), like a lot of other designers focused on form and function, he dabbled in furniture. And like a lot of designers who dabbled, his dabblings ended up becoming iconic pieces of art worthy of museum exhibitions. Perhaps more importantly, his pieces also better served the needs of modern society (meaning: his chairs were pretty comfy to sit in).
Like any architect worth his salt, Le Corbusier was into math and fascinated with systems and proportions and the Golden Ratio. This obsession with geometry would largely inform his philosophy of “furniture that felt right” that drove his designs. He also came up with a lot of the modern comforts we take for granted today, like spacious open floor plans and rooftop gardens. A true man of the people, he was interested in making city life more comfortable for urban dwellers. He viewed the house as a “machine for living” and believed furniture should serve as “extensions of our limbs and adapt to human functions.”
5. Finn Juhl
A Danish designer, Finn Juhl was more interested in form than he was in function, which is to say he had a flair for the dramatic. It shows in his designs. A pioneer of that illustrious school “Danish Design” that hit it big mid-century and has been popular ever since, we can thank Juhl for bringing what’s officially known as Danish Modern to America.
Like many Danish artists, he worked primarily in teak, a favorite of furniture-makers because it’s one of the softer and more pliable woods. He too was obsessed with clean lines and curves which helped to define the Danish Modern style.
6. Milo Baughman
7. Heywood Wakefield
While IKEA furniture may be all the rage (at least for more mobile Millennials), solid wood furniture can last a lifetime. Heywood Wakefield was an American furniture company that’s been around since the mid 20th century and helped pioneer the process of wood bending to make furniture.
But let’s back up to the beginning. The company’s roots are with the 5 Heywood brothers in 1826 who began fashioning chairs out of wood in their father’s old barn. Later, they joined up with the Wakefield Rattan Company which specialized in — you guessed it — rattan and wicker furniture.
The first order of business for the newly merged company was to breathe life into some of their stale designs that were threatening to keep them stuck in the past. This need for innovation created the “Modern” series that includes the “Sculptura,” “Crescendo,” and “Kohinoor” lines that are so coveted by MCM fans and collectors today.
Heywood Wakefield began taking inspiration from French Art Deco for their 1930s through 1940s designs If you’ve ever traveled by train, chances are you were whisked from point A to point B in a Heywood Wakefield designed seat: the Sleepy Hollow chair. And since blondes have more fun, Heywood Wakefield used a bright blonde birch wood that adds a sunny element and soon became their signature look.
Throughout the years, Heywood Wakefield brought several soon-to-be known artists under its label including renowned midcentury favorites: Gilbert Rohde and Russell Wright. Indeed Heywood Wakefield was ahead of its time, and its designs precede the popular streamlined look that would come to dominate MCM style.
What are your Midcentury Modern styles have you found at estate sales? Let us know in the comments!