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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mid-afternoon musings on marketing mid-century

We all have different takes on things, and one business philosophy is no more valid than another. I’ll concede that up front. I’ll also say that growing up in the 1950s and 60s has its drawbacks, as well as its advantages, when you become a seller of mid-century items.

On the upside, I recognize pieces from that era more readily than some younger sellers, because I grew up with them, giving me less homework to do. It is fairly easy for me to put things into two distinct groups: 1) the “In My Grandparents’/Parents’ Houses” category…in other words, 50s and 60s pieces bought by middle-aged adults who could afford to decorate well and 2) the “What Was I Thinking?” category, which encompasses a lot of the inexpensive 70s junk I decorated with as a newlywed because that’s all we could afford. (I also call that category “horrifica,” as opposed to “atomica.”) For some young sellers, it all looks the same…old.

On the downside, having those categories firmly in my head made me a pickier seller. My daughter argues, and not without merit, that many young buyers just want something cool and retro, not necessarily mid-century. Therefore, something from 1974 that looks like it was made out of Greg Brady’s pants (also her term) makes them just as happy as a top-quality piece from 1954. She contends that my philosophy limited our market, and I agree. It did.

I wanted our retail space to have a certain cachet…that of a shop carrying fine furnishings, not a flea market. Fortunately, my daughter has extensive merchandising experience from her years with Pier 1, so she arranged items in beautiful room vignettes which looked like snapshots of well-decorated MCM homes, rather than just throwing a mish-mash of unrelated items into a booth.

As a seller, I cared about more than the bottom line. I wanted us to make quality mid-century furniture affordable to anyone who appreciates it. Of course I also wanted to make money on what we sold, but if we found an extremely valuable piece at a rock-bottom price, I much preferred to tack on our usual markup and sell it to someone who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford a piece like that than to consign it to a gallery and have it sold at an obscenely high price.

This philosophy of selling mid-century furnishings didn’t exactly make us high-volume sellers. I know quite a few sellers who have a much higher turnover of merchandise than we had, but I was always proud of every piece we put on the floor, and I knew that everything we sold was going to a new home where it would be treasured…not tossed when the Mad Men craze runs its course.

With all that in mind, I wonder if my son-in-law will have second thoughts about starting another business when he reads this. :)


  1. Guess I'm old school too. To me, "mid-century" means, the late 1940's-early 1960's. The Brady Pants deal was a whole other style. The mod, hippy psychedelic era. It's defined by a completely different set of colors and icons and materials. The late 60's - early 80's.

    And the late 60's is past "mid-century", that's more "post mid-century". "Three-quarters century".

    But... I see others who call this "mid-century", so there you go. =)

  2. I see the line of demarcation between the early 60s and the late 60s very clearly, because 1968 was the year I decorated my first apartment. I thought my parents' and grandparents' furniture was hideously old-fashioned and wanted my art Peter Maxish and my furnishings "mod." In the early 70s, I wanted Spanish-style, meaning gold crushed velvet and a big conquistador picture. Now I'd give anything for my grandmother's low, sleek sofa and her fiberglass lamp shades, as well as my parents' blonde coffee/end tables and room divider.

  3. I think you always have to have your standards as far as your retail store goes. I do think there is a difference between an antique mall space and your own space. I also think that the problem we had originally wasn't the quality (or lack thereof) of the furniture. It was the traffic and location.

    With all of that said... I haven't changed my mind. :)