Fabulous Fifties

Collecting mid-century furniture

A red chair by legendary designers Charles and Ray Eames started it all. When Gary Gand put the curvy plywood chair in his 1950s house, he knew "that's where it belongs." Gand and his wife, Joan, have since collected more than 50 mid-century pieces from auctions and furniture dealers, including an Alvar Aalto coffee table they snagged for $100 and a $5,000 Arteluce tri-cone lamp. Their house "is pretty much like a 1950s museum," says Gand, 51, the owner of Gand Music & Sound, a $5 million, 20-employee company in Northfield, Ill.

For collectors who admire sleek lines and unadorned craftsmanship, mid-century design is an obsession. The era dates from just after World War II, when designers including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, and the husband-and-wife Eames team experimented with then-radical materials such as molded plywood and glass. They crafted furniture more concerned with comfort than ornamentation. In recent years, the popularity of their designs has sent prices sky-high. In December, 2004, Sotheby's (BID ) New York sold Jean Prouvé's pair of "porthole" doors for $680,000, tying the record for postwar design.

Luckily, not all mid-century design comes with sticker shock. Authorized reproductions of many iconic works are available for much less than the originals. Plus, mass-market retailers are offering reproductions of famous works, such as Crate & Barrel's reissue of Eva Zeisel's free-form dinnerware. A Barcelona chair designed by Mies van der Rohe and reproduced by Knoll, its licensed manufacturer, costs about $3,348 (compared with about $12,000 for an original). Mass-market replicas, often under different names, go for about $1,000.

Collectors can still spot treasures at auctions, flea markets, vintage stores, and tag sales."If a little old lady at a yard sale says she has a nice carved table made by a Japanese gentleman, take a chance and buy it," says Richard Wright, owner of Wright Auctions in Chicago, a leading house for mid-century design. He's referring to Isamu Noguchi's famous amoeba-shaped coffee tables, which regularly fetch as much as $6,000 at auction. For a primer on the period, check out auction catalogs, coffee-table books, and institutions that have strong design departments such as New York's Museum of Modern Art or the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Authorized manufacturers such as Knoll and Herman Miller build reproductions to the designer's specifications. The pieces usually carry a special stamp or signature of authenticity. Most of the manufacturers have retail outlets or sell the pieces online through Design Within Reach at dwr.com. Limited-edition pieces generally sell for more than unnumbered reproductions.

Then there are pieces that don't exactly replicate a particular designer's work but appear similar. P.J. Casey, CEO of New York retailer Cite , which sells "designer-inspired" pieces, says these allow people to "appreciate the design without paying outrageous prices." (his version of a Saarinen Tulip chair goes for $295, vs. $741 for Knoll's authorized reproduction.) Purists argue that these are knockoffs. Those who sell them "are trying to confuse the customer," insists eames demetrios, director of the Eames Office in Los Angeles and a grandson of Charles Eames.

Mass-market pieces won't likely be of the same quality. The differences may be subtle, such as how the leather is stitched or a joint welded. "If the dimensions are off by an inch we see it, but others might not," says Liz Needle, general manager of the KnollStudio in New York. "The fakes look similar until the chrome starts peeling off."

Whether you choose an original or a replica, the pieces are meant to be used. "We sit on them," says Gand. "We buy them because we love it."

By Ernest Beck

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