Mid-Century Popularity

Mid-Century Modern stuff is interesting — if you’re like me you can get lost down a rabbit hole just looking up various stuff from 40+ years ago: furniture, gadgets, what-have-you. It’s a bit of a puzzle sometimes as there is scant information about something until you hit a big vane of information about a topic. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon, as I’m sure you can agree.

What’s interesting is that people have various ideas about what is popular during a given time. Sometimes you’ll see a person post that ‘Drexel Declaration is hot right now’ or that something has passed from hotness back into obscurity. Sometimes these people are passing on opinions, other times they are referring to the price which items are fetching at market. But what’s really going on here? Do opinions equal popularity? Does a high price equal popularity? Can we do a better job with real, factual measures?

Backing up, one can ask “What is popularity?” Popularity for vintage items on the internet need to balance availability, enthusiasm,and knowledge.

Availability: If only a few examples were made of a thing, it’ll be difficult to be popular. On the inverse, if something was made in the thousands, it will automatically grab more mind-share because it can influence more people. A few years ago, NPR did a piece about mid-century furniture and managed to snag an interview with Kipp Stewart that sums this up nicely:

…I see Drexel Declaration all over design blogs and in magazines, Stewart looks at me puzzled. “Really?” he asks. “Maybe because there’s so much of it. It’s just available.”

The sheer production numbers of mid-century furniture, driven by the housing boom of the post-war error have generated a viable number of ‘survivors.’ When compared to something made in very small numbers, rarity can actually work against the popularity of an item.

Another example are mid-century designs that have been in production for decades. Take the Bertoia seating line — Knoll has been continuously producing these chairs since 1952. I don’t know the year-by-year production numbers, but this fact alone means that it is impactful by it’s lengthy production run and you can order up brand new units at a whim to this very day.

So, the axiom that rarity follows price is not always true. I would assert that a price is, at least, a function of popularity and rarity.

Enthusiasm: People need to like items and feel compelled to write about, sell or photograph said item. When it comes to furniture, I think people think that anything made between 1950 and 1970 had a cool, funky design. That’s not true — plenty of furniture during the period was traditionally styled. The enthusiasm for these pieces are low — they don’t capture the imagination of people today.

Via Remarkably Retro

Take, for example, this 1968 Bassett ad — not everything during the time period was cool. The ‘Modern’ column (Bassett Astra tables) might do well these days, but ‘Traditional’ (Bassett Legato tables) and ‘Mediterranean’ (Bassett Coronada tables) wouldn’t. These designs don’t capture the imagination as much as the others — right now, no one is going to write 500 words about a Coronada table, nor is it going to be beautifully photographed. It might end up in your local Goodwill or ReStore and I’m sure it’s well built, functional furniture just as much as the Astra range.

Knowledge. For vintage items, another factor is knowledge. For something to be popular, it needs to A) have a name and B) have information about the item. If you have a table that is unmarked, it makes it exceedingly hard to gain an internet popularity foothold — no one knows what to call it and it’s very hard to write much about it. The other bit is information — this makes writing and selling easier. Some collections of mid-century furniture are very well documented — Drexel Profile, as an example. With Profile, we know who designed it (John Van Koert) and there is original manufacturer materials that describe every item. An unmarked item would be difficult to compete in popularity with Profile.

Going back to our example above — despite having a magazine ad (above), finding other information about the Bassett Astra line is pretty difficult. Bassett tended to mark their items with a company identifier, but not the particular line. Doing web searches for “Bassett Astra” yields very thin results. I was able to dig up one relevant result about Astra in Google’s newspaper archive, but not much else. From the photos I’ve seen, it looks pretty cool and Bassett mid-century furniture is well-made. Likely, this would show up deep under a Bassett coffee table search, but little else. It might even appear as just a “mid-century coffee table.” Either way, the Bassett Astra line is doomed to non-popularity.

Popularity into practice

I’m an analytical person and when I was considering the popularity of vintage items I thought to myself — “How could I measure what’s popular and does the popularity change?” I think a range of people would find this information useful- buyers and sellers, collectors, researchers, new product developers, and those who are just curious. So, I decided to start collecting data about mid-century items.

The first, and most obvious, is to see what’s in the marketplace. I’m collecting data on the number of items for sale in three marketplaces: eBay, craigslist and Etsy. So, for example, searching eBay or Etsy for “Broyhill Brasilia” and getting the number of active items for sale becomes a data point. This is a clear-cut, quantifiable measure. Craigslist is a bit trickier as it is really about local searches — for craiglist, I did searches in the top five metro areas in the US: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC, and the SF bay area and counting the resulting number of items in each locality.

Measuring the mind-share is a little more complex. Google provides information about the trajectory of keywords through their Trends service. Taking this into account, we can see the search volume — how many people are actively looking for an item through the ubiquitous Google search. Unlike measuring this marketplace availability, Trends tell us more about the interest in the item rather than availability. This functions as a balance to the marketplace availability.

I’ve taken the data sources above, balanced them and produced a ranked list of popularity of mid-century lines, I call it the Mid-century Daily Popularity Index (MCDPI). I’ve been collecting data for over a month now and I’m surprised by the volatility in the MCDPI — my original assumption is that we’d have a few items stuck at the top and other languishing in obscurity at the bottom. While you rarely see an item jump from the bottom of the list to the top, items definitely move around and trend in different directions. I hope that this index is the first step towards a more data-driven look at how we [monetarily and emotionally] value mid-century items.

You can take a look at the MCDPI over on midcenturyspot.com.

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