I’m not fond of the word “retro.” Too often it stands in for vintage when retro doesn’t really indicate vintage at all. In too many instances “retro” means a modern throwback, and a mere nod to a previous design era.
Sadly, when it comes to Mid Century Modern fabrics and textiles, retro rules — but only in that retro is constantly trotted out as if it’s vintage. The truth is that retro designs are often actually just a contemporary designer’s take on what they think is Mid Century Modern. This is usually limited in design scope, and sometimes a caricature of what really went on in that dynamic design era.
With “retro” fabric one typically sees so much “atomic era” boomerangs, atoms, and other nuclear elements and one would be tempted to conclude that this was the dominant design signifier of the MCM era.
Or you get a highly repeated geometric form, usually again with a kind of atomic nod.
While there was certainly some atomic and space-age futurism from the late 1940s until the early 60s, they’re not the singular, nor the dominant themes in textile design of the era.
More to Mid Century Modern Fabrics
Also prevalent during the larger Mid Century Modern era — mid 1940s to end of the 1960s — were abstractions, color blocking and color layering, simplified geometric forms, oversized design statements, biomorphic and organic designs, lush natural elements, and pedestrian designs such as everyday objects including food, architecture, animals, products of all kinds, and more.
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has a great little photo gallery of some of the stand out Mid Century Modern textile artists that gives a breadth of understanding of the range of the era in just a few example pieces.
Significant textile artists of the period include Frank Lloyd Wright, Anni Albers, Ruth Adler Schnee, Alexander Calder (better known for his mobiles but oh my his textiles!), Alexander Girard, Marian Mahler, Lucienne Day, Barbara Brown, Esther Kahn, Isabel Scott, Josef Frank, and Stig Lindberg, among others.
And when I say “others” many of those were workaday artists at the top fabric houses or boutique outfits, rather than being primarily gallery artists. It’s easy for us to lose the names of these amazing working designers because their work was folded into the firm. Sometimes there are signed selvages, including Gabrielle Cie, Robert Lester, John Piper, Boris Kroll and too many more to begin to name.
Authentic Mid Century Modern Re-Upholstery Projects
So if you’re looking at restoring a Mid Century Modern piece of furniture, please look to fabrics from the actual era, and not just at contemporary fabric companies doing “retro” takes with more boomerangs than anyone could ever want.
For real restoration, Spoonflower and other modern fabrics will try to mimic the look but never give the fiber, weave, or hand of an authentic Mid-Century Modern piece of fabric. Quality across all those fronts have decidedly gone down except in the highest end fabric houses in the world. And that’s pricey!
Because of naturally limited quantities in vintage fabrics, it’s true that it’s often more difficult to find authentic vintage pieces for larger scale projects like couches or soaring drapes. But they are out there, so do keep looking.
In addition to the work of top fabric houses like Brunschwig & Fils, Scalamandré, and Greeff, who also got in on the MCM game to a degree in their time, I also look to smaller boutique firms of the time like David & Dash, Bob Collins and Sons, Stroheim and Romann, and S. M. Hexter, among others, who had lesser-known but equally compelling textile designers on staff. Finding fabrics from any of these firms for your MCM redo is a score!
Similarly, what were mid-range firms of the times, like Cohama, Waverly or Bloomcraft, produced some of the most fun pieces of the era. These pieces are coveted today for doing repairs to common period furnishings and for complete re-dos. Big illustrative florals, story-book florals, flower power florals, intense color abstractions, and bright, bold geometrics offer great finds for getting that mid century middle class look (which is a super fun look, btw!)
Another great way to use MCM pieces when, as too often happens, there’s only a small amount of the fabric, is to make a pillow, a Roman shade, a message board, or cover a lampshade. Getting that authentic vintage vibe from the real deal goes a long way to making a design statement in your space.
Here’s a slideshow of some pieces we currently have in the shop. Some of these are in enough yardage that a really exciting piece could be done. But act fast — they won’t last long. And keep coming back — we’re exclusively adding authentic vintage Mid Century Modern pieces to our vintage fabric shop every day.
— Lindsay Curren, Lady Virginia Vintage Fabrics