Standing the test of time: mid-century modern design

Standing the test of time: mid-century modern design



By Victoria Wells

Portrait Photographer: Stephen Tilley

It’s the perfect antidote to today’s ‘fast’ consumer culture: furniture with a past that fits easily into our modern lifestyles. Dan and Emma Eagle specialise in sourcing and restoring old furniture and artworks. We meet the couple whose business, Mr. Bigglesworthy, is breathing new life into mid-century modern design.

When Dan Eagle spotted a couple of chairs on Trade Me, his sixth sense made him take a closer look. Covered in aged, dark-pink vinyl, the chairs had been photographed from above, so they looked like two ugly rectangles. But Eagle was sure there was something familiar about them. “I kept thinking about it and then realised, ‘That’s a Panton chair’! They were something like $50 for the pair, because someone was trying to get rid of them.”

The chairs were indeed a pair of distinctively shaped ‘Relaxer’ rocking chairs by Dane, Verner Panton, who is considered to be one of the most influential furniture and interior designers of the 1960s. The chairs’ elegant lines, simplicity and quality craftsmanship are key characteristics of mid-twentieth century modern furniture.

The optimism of mid-century modernism

Mid-century modernism saw design pared back: objects became simpler and more organic; craftsmanship was intrinsic to an overall design; and new production methods meant timber, steel and plastic could be used to create furniture suited to a more modern way of living. Iconic pieces from this period include Arne Jacobsen’s Egg chair and the Eames lounge chair. 

The Eagles focus on furniture from the late 1940s to late 1970s. They find a surprising amount of New Zealand-made items locally, as well sourcing pieces internationally. They then restore what they have found and sell it through the Mr Bigglesworthy website and from their showroom in Ponsonby, Auckland. 

Dan says the mid-century period holds a lot of appeal for the couple. “In the late ’40s, everyone is coming back from the war… there are these designers who just want to rebuild a really amazing world. They’re quite human-focused in a way and it’s optimistic and exciting.” 

“Modernism is obsessively forward-looking,” agrees Emma. “It didn’t want to have anything to do with the past; it wanted to invent something new and be new and that was what was so strong about its concept.” 

Modernism was also a reaction to the furniture of earlier periods, such as Art Deco, when furniture was lower, heavier and often encased in swathes of fabric. “It is so different to rip all of that off and start again. To ask, ‘what can a chair be? What can a sofa be? How can we reinterpret this entire thing?’ I can see why this new, young, fresh audience, who have just been at war, wanted to lighten up their whole living environment and do something new.”

The demand for mid-century design

Since Mr. Bigglesworthy launched in 2005, Dan and Emma have seen interest in mid-century modern furniture skyrocket. TV shows such as Mad Men and Masters of Sex have undoubtedly given ’50s and ’60s style a boost. The growing appeal of furniture from this period lies also in its ability to fit so well within today’s modern homes and still feel fresh. Buyers also appreciate the quality of the craftsmanship. 

“Modern design will always be relevant because it has a lightness of form, it can fit in a small space, and it’s very practical for modern ways of living, with stereos and TVs and things like that,” says Dan. “It’s beautiful timber and craftsmanship and you can see that as the pieces age they are the sort of products that get better.”

Dan focuses on sourcing. Blessed with an almost photographic memory for the furniture he researches, he trawls auction sites in New Zealand and overseas. He and Emma also contact dealers locally and internationally, and sometimes people simply bring items directly to them. 

The value of a piece depends largely on the designer (if one can be attributed) and the materials. “If it’s a designer who has really defined a certain aesthetic or a certain style, or who really stands out in history, then that will definitely make a piece more expensive,” explains Dan. “Then there’s the construction – different pieces have different levels of quality and types of timbers or veneers.”

Dan’s lucky discovery of the Panton chairs is one such example – knowing the designer and the history gave the chairs context and put them in a new light for potential buyers. 

The Eagles have also seen a real demand for Curtis Jere metal wall art from the States, which Emma says is really hard to get. “And there are other designers we’ve tried to introduce that we think are really important to the modern design conversation, like Adrian Pearsall, a guy who did lots of quite chunky, but quite unusual shapes in furniture,” she says. 

The skill and complexity of restoration

Restoration is also a crucial part of preparing a piece of furniture for sale. Most of this work is done by Dan’s parents, together with another restorer. Although museum-quality restoration work is outsourced, the Eagles prefer using their in-house team where possible. 

Dan explains: “The difficulty with this furniture is that it’s not one size fits all. We don’t like to over-restore things; people like a bit more of a natural texture and patina. It has to be a nice, premium product, but it doesn’t have to look like it’s brand new. So it’s finding a way of restoring and keeping the history that people can still connect to. That sort of restoration is a lot trickier and requires a lot more work to get it perfect.”

The next big thing

The couple is keen to keep Mr. Bigglesworthy ahead of the wave and Emma says they’re already looking to the next big thing. “We’re starting to see a migration to 1980s furniture. Not puffy, black-leather sofas, but more like what’s called ‘Memphis style’; a little bit different and quirky with unusual materials and combinations of form. It’s quite different from what a lot of people would think of as ’80s furniture... and we’ve started collecting a few of those things.”

Classic pieces by iconic designers will always appreciate in value, say Dan and Emma. But they also believe in buying what you love, while keeping an eye on the market. 

With their astute eye for design, attention to detail and passion for their subject, Dan and Emma seem set to flourish and continue curating perfect pieces for Mr Bigglesworthy customers. 

“It’s really like finding needles in haystacks,” says Emma. “There’s so much ugly stuff we look at before we find the beautiful pieces. People don’t realise what we go through to find things, but we love doing it.”  

Visit www.mrbigglesworthy.co.nz