Out of all of the rooms in my flat, I’ve long found the bedroom to be the least satisfactory. Something about the way I’d lined the majority of the furniture against one wall (this being the only feasible configuration) and the huge expanses of bare wall gave it a slightly unfinished feel. My solution was of course to acquire yet more design store tat, including some new String shelving, a wooden picture hanger (from the Artek store in Helsinki), a Stendig calendar and a Northern light lamp and affix it all to the walls. I was a bit concerned that this might take the room from unfinished to uncomfortably cluttered but I think it’s an improvement overall.
Having recently upgraded my dining table to a Saarinen tulip table with a marble top, I thought it was time to do the same with my dining chairs (a cheap and cheerful mismatching collection of Eames knock-offs and Habitat), which were starting to look a little shabby in comparison.
One of the things I like about the Saarinen tulip table is that almost any kind of chair goes with it, not just the Saarinen tulip chairs it was intended to be paired with. While I quite like tulip chairs, I thought that a whole set of them would be a bit too space age for my liking. I decided instead to go for a set of white Bertoia side chairs, which I’ve always wanted despite being fully aware that they are not at all comfortable and resemble patio furniture (they’re actually used as outdoor seating in the courtyard at the V&A museum).
Tracking down affordable Bertoia side chairs that weren’t blatant knock-offs (I discovered that there are a lot of decidedly unconvincing knock-offs of this particular chair floating about) or extortionately priced (Skandium charges £766 for one chair, unupholstered) took patience. After a couple of months of checking eBay daily, I finally managed to get hold of a slightly shabby, rusty set of four for £270. The chairs were a vintage set, possibly decades old, and weren’t branded with an official manufacturer’s logo. Comparing them against the real thing and numerous unconvincing knock-offs, however, they looked like the genuine article with all of their proportions correct and everything in the right place. In terms of condition, the chairs were a bit rusty and there were bits where the nylon white coating had come loose, exposing the metal frame underneath.
At this point I really should have consulted an online tutorial on how to restore Bertoia chairs properly (this article, which I read long after the event, recommends specific nylon-specific products and taking the chairs to a specialist company to sandblast off the existing finish and then repaint through a powder-coat process). Instead, I thought I’d just glue any bits of nylon coating that were hanging off back onto the frame, sand down any rough patches, cover any metal hardware with masking tape and then touch up with a primer, white spray paint and a glossy top coat and hope for the best.
Halfway through this amateurish process, however, I discovered that spraying the nylon coating with spray paint was making the surface of the chairs unpleasantly powdery to the touch (and that no amount of glossy topcoat would rectify this). Rather than stop and source an alternative product more suited for use on nylon surfaces, I chose instead to only spray the really damaged bits of the remaining chairs (as a result, only parts of these chairs are powdery to the touch than the whole thing).
To finish them off, I bought some wool-covered seat pads specifically designed for Bertoia side chairs from this German online retailer (Knoll also produces official versions of these pads but they’re ridiculously expensive), which means that the chairs are now almost comfortable – as opposed to quite painful – to sit on.
Given the amateurish and slapdash nature of my restoration job, you can see all of the paint runs, uneven patches and bits of metal that I’ve effectively coloured in with spray paint when you look up close and when you touch two of the chairs, it feels like paint is going to rub off onto your hands. That said, I don’t think they look too bad (from a distance) and I do feel a sense of achievement that I would not have felt if I’d bought a full price set from Skandium for several thousand pounds.
Updated November 2017
When it comes to interiors, there’s nothing I like more than a good mid century-inspired wall-mounted shelving system.
I’m a bit obsessed – even though I already have that overbearing Poul Cadovius royal system and various other bits and pieces hanging up in the flat, I’m constantly on the lookout for more and have amassed a useless collection of random String brackets and shelves from sample sales over the years as a result (this will all of course go up in the mid century house that I will probably never live in).
Not content with clogging up my own flat with this rubbish, I have taken to persuading any friend who asks me for interior decorating/furniture advice that their living room/study/bedroom/kitchen would greatly benefit from installing a wall mounted shelving system somewhere. Happily, there’s loads of choice these days – from Vitsoe to Ikea, there’s an option to suit every budget.
Here are some of my picks:
1. DK3 Royal System (from £160 for a rail to £2,200 for a workstation unit)
While I prefer the original, chunkier version of the Cado royal system, the modern slimline version reissued by dk3 is also pretty gorgeous, if eye-waveringly expensive. It comes in oak and walnut but unfortunately not rosewood.
2. String shelving system (from £40 for a rail to £330 for a drawer unit)
Ok it’s totally ubiquitous and a bit of a Scandi cliche these days but I still think a bit of string shelving elevates any room. Having put some up in my study, I would say it looks great but it’s a little flimsy – I don’t think I would rely on the wall-mounted version to bear the weight of anything heavier than a few ornaments and paperback books.
3. Vitsoe 606 system (prices unclear on website so I assume very expensive)
These are a tad officey-looking but I’ve seen them in various high-end homes and they always look great. If I ever decide to downsize to a studio flat in the Barbican, I would totally use a Vitsoe system to divide up the room like this guy has.
4. La Redoute Taktik system (from £10 for the brackets to £500 for a large cupboard unit)
I have no idea what this system looks like in person but based on the photos on the website, it looks really high end and sophisticated-looking for the price. Something about it, perhaps the finish or the fact that the rails are made of metal rather than wood, gives it more of a modern than mid century appearance, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
5. Maisons du Monde Sheffield tv and shelving unit (£804)
This isn’t quite like the others as it isn’t modular/configurable and instead all comes in one piece but I do like the rails and the cabinetry going on at the bottom. It’s been styled horribly (very “show-flat-in-a-new-build-development”) in the in situ photo on the website though I’m sure it’d look alright surrounded by the right stuff.
6. Ikea Svalnas system (from £20 for a shelf to £60 for a cabinet)
I’m actually surprised it has taken Ikea so long to bring out something like this. For the price, I think it looks amazing. I particularly like the range of accessories (desk, sliding cabinet, drawers), which are definitely String-inspired. I’m not entirely sure about the colour and grain of the wood – it’s a little orange-looking in some pictures – but I will reserve judgment until I see it in person.
7. LaRedoute Watford system (£329 – 599 per piece)
LaRedoute has now brought out a second mid century-style shelving system alongside the TakTik system it brought out last year. The new Watford system is only made up of three constituent parts: a walnut desk with shelves, a narrow shelving unit and two large shelving units with cupboard storage. These parts can be used individually or combined in modular fashion to build a larger wall unit. It’s much less customisable than the TakTik system (which pretty much allowed you to build a system to meet your own specification) and the Ladderax-style rails don’t connect to adjoining rails or other parts of the system. At £329 – £599 per piece, it’s not cheap either. It does, however, look nice and must be much less of a faff to assemble than the TakTik system and most of the other systems in this blog entry.
8. Made Jory system (£149 – 499)
Made’s new Jory shelving system is blatantly “inspired by” the modern version of the Cado system: everything from the use of oak and walnut, the width of the rails and those metal bits which attach units and shelves to the rails look suspiciously familiar. Everything is a little less refined and blocky than the Cado system though – more Duplo than Lego, if you will. Price-wise, it’s £149 – £499, depending on how much you buy.
Photos courtesy of brand websites
Artek flagship store
Launched in 1935, Artek (an abbreviated portmanteau of the Finnish words for “art” and “technology”) remains the official licensor for Alvar Aalto’s steam-bent beech pieces seen everywhere across the city but also sells a range of furniture and design items from other Finnish and international designers.
The large flagship store on the South Esplanade was almost a museum of beautiful mid-century modern pieces, which at full price were mostly out of my price range but I did manage to buy some pointless but pretty accessories such as a fluffy round seat cushion for my Aalto chair at home and a rather natty multi-picture display hanger.
Artek second cycle
Tucked away in a basement level space in the Design District of the city was Artek’s second hand branch. The store was full of beautiful vintage Aalto pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in Aalto’s studio and/or villa.
This was a strictly window shopping trip – I wasn’t going to attempt to fit anything into my hold luggage (even an artfully battered Stool 60) and the setup, whilst slightly haphazard, suggested that the stock was being sold at antique-level prices.
Marimekko factory store
This factory store was located on the outskirts of the city in an unglamorous Purley Way-esque area made up of busy roads and hypermarkets but proved to be well worth the trek.
The large store sold a broad range of Marimekko’s instantly recognisable 1960s-style printed clothing and homewares at decent discounts (I like their stuff but can’t justify buying it full price): I was primarily interested in picking up printed duvet sets and cushions but the glassware and crockery were decent as well. The building was also home to a full priced store, textiles factory and busy staff cafeteria which also appeared to be open to the public, judging by the number of buggies in there.
Arabia is a Finnish ceramics company, founded in 1873 which appeared to specialise in tableware (a Finnish, much cooler Royal Doulton, if you will). The flagship, which was adjoined to the equally fancy Iittalla store, housed all of the brand’s retro pieces, including a section dedicated to one of Finland’s most recognisable exports, the Moomins.
Hietalahti flea market
I don’t know if we just came on the wrong day or too late in the morning (a Saturday at about 11am) but as you can see from the photos, this flea market was disappointingly sparse. The vendors who had bothered to show up were peddling decent stock, however. One stall was loaded up with vintage Iittala and Arabia pieces (I managed to pick up an unusually shaped vintage Arabia salt shaker for 15 euros) and there was a decent selection of mid century tat hidden amongst the rubbish on the other stalls.
After ten years of daily use, the faux-tulip Docksta table in my living room was starting to resemble a slightly grubby and scuffed piece of garden furniture (Ikea furniture isn’t generally built to last) so I thought it was time to invest in a replacement.
I’d long admired and lusted over that Hans Olsen dining set with the triangular-shaped chairs that slot neatly under the table, especially after having seen a beautiful white topped version in a flat in Stoneleigh Terrace on an Open House tour. However, I recall sitting on one of the chairs at a furniture fair and finding it really uncomfortable, especially across the back. I also thought that the combination of wooden Royal system and wooden dining set in my living room might be a bit much.
The other option was to upgrade my faux-tulip table to the genuine article in Arabescato marble, another design item that I’ve been lusting after for a long time, which would allow me to keep my hotch potch of dining chairs.
It so happened that a really nice example of both a white-topped Hans Olsen dining set and a genuine Knoll marble-topped tulip table in exactly the right size appeared on eBay at the same time.
After a bit of pondering, I decided to maintain my current living room aesthetic and went for the tulip table, which as luck would have it, ended up being a bit of a bargain. As you can see, it looks almost exactly the same as the old one, just a bit nicer.
At the time of writing, the Hans Olsen set is still available to buy on eBay.
Photos of Hans Olsen table above courtesy of retroliving.co.uk
More than eight months after posting this blog entry about my plan to give the living room in my friend’s flat a makeover, it’s finally done! I’m pleased with the finished result but then I would be: it looks like a slightly more muted and less cluttered version of my own living room. The only thing missing is some kind of wall-mounted retro shelving unit, which I would totally have snuck in if I could have.
As I mentioned in my original post, the room is a bit of a restrictive L-shape with a very narrow section due to the way that the flat was converted (this is exactly why I prefer modernist purpose built flats to higgledy piggledy period conversions!).
This made it a bit of a challenge to accommodate a sofa, dining table and tv in a way that made sense. The way it was arranged before didn’t work, with that massive rectangular dining table and four high backed dining chairs squashed into the narrow section of the room, the tv on a stand in the corner and not one but two humongous cuboid-shaped sofas taking up the rest of the space.
To make it feel less crowded and free up more floor space, I decided to position the sofa and tv facing each other at each end of the room and a drop-leaf circular table in between them, to be pulled out and extended as needed.
Of the options available, I chose the Suki table from Habitat with the laminate top (it comes in black or white) as it vaguely reminded me of those Aalto 90 Series tables, which I would totally buy for my own living room if it weren’t for the fact they are only made in pale birch which would clash horribly with the rest of my furniture. As for the dining chairs, we probably could have been a bit more adventurous but we ended up going for a set of cheap and cheerful Eames DSW knock-offs.
The sofa was a bit of a headache. We originally chose a grey version of the Mistral sofa from Heals (the same one as mine – as I said, this definitely was a case of recreating my own living room somewhere else due to my limited interior design ideas) but this wouldn’t fit up the incredibly narrow staircase leading to the flat (another reason that I prefer logically proportioned practical purpose built modernist purpose built flats to period conversions!) and neither did the hardly enormous Kotka from Made.com. We didn’t want to go for anything modular so we ended up getting the rather petite Peggy two-seater from West Elm, which the delivery men were only just about able to squeeze up those dratted stairs. Despite its size, it’s pretty comfortable especially when paired with the Strandmon footstool from Ikea though I concede it’s not quite as comfortable as the humongous blue cuboid that it replaced. The armchair is the ubiquitous but well-designed (and cheap) Ekenaset from Ikea.
The rest of the furniture and accessories are mostly high street and internet finds: the Dansette-style record player is from Aldi of all places (credit to retrotogo.com for drawing my attention to it) and the Eames LTR side table and Poulsen Panthella lamp are pretty good knock offs from replica online stores that have now shut down due to the annoying but sort of understandable change in legislation.
Is there anything else I would change? Probably those floating shelves in the corner – I would have replaced them with some string-style shelving but they’re actually sealed onto the wall on one side which would have created a bit of a mess of we’d tried to remove it. The walls could also do with being repainted to get rid of that slightly pinkish hue and I would ideally reposition the pendant lamp so that it hangs in the centre of the room rather than over where the old dining table used to be. These small niggles aside, I think that the newly configured room both looks and functions better than it did before and I’m grateful to my friend for indulging my amateur interior design project, which I’ve really enjoyed working on. I have my sights on the bedroom and hallway of the flat next…
- Belid Felix Rise and Fall Ceiling Light, John Lewis
- Louis Poulsen Panthella lamp, replica bought from now defunct Voga.com but original available from Skandium
- Cushions, H&M Home
- Vince walnut sideboard, Habitat
- Suki round drop-leaf table, Habitat
- Eames DSW dining chairs, replicas bought from now defunct Vitainteriors.com but original available from Skandium
- Flashback coffee table, La Redoute
- Yves black tripod lamp, Habitat
- Peggy sofa, West Elm at John Lewis
- Strandmon footstool, IKEA
- Eames LTR side table, replica bought from now defunct Vitainteriors.com but original available from Skandium
- Ekenaset armchair, IKEA
- Kelim rug, Ferm Living
SCP is known for stocking eames chairs manufactured by Modernica rather than the official licensors Vitra and Herman Miller. Although this means that Modernica chairs are not the official licensed versions, the build quality is generally considered to be better (their shell chairs are made of fibreglass rather than mounded plastic – image below courtesy of the Modernica blog) and there is more of a variety of shell and base combinations, including the combination of wire chair shell on a rolling base that I bought.
I really liked the way my new wire chair looked uncovered but after two days of actually sitting on that unforgiving wiry seat, it became apparent that I’d need some kind of cushion. I considered various options but decided nothing would look as good as an eames-designed bikini seat pad. I found this US website which sells bikini seat pads in a variety of fabrics (I particularly liked this retro Eames pattern) but at USD$150 plus $30 shipping, it would have cost more than the price I paid for chair itself.
I eventually bought a blue vinyl bikini pad from a very helpful eBay vendor who sells official Vitra bikini pads at a slightly less extortionate price (where he gets them from I do not know). It was a bit of a struggle to get the bikini pad on but I actually really like how it looks and the fact that the chair no longer leaves imprints on my thighs is a bonus.
Whilst San Francisco is known for being design-oriented and architecturally characterful, it’s not a exactly a place resplendent with mid century/modernist places of interest. That said, the modernist sights that I did come across in between visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, the Painted Ladies and other decidedly un-modernist attractions were great and more than worth documenting for the purposes of this blog.
Marin County Civic Centre
Without doubt one of the strangest buildings that I’ve ever visited, the Marin County Civic Center is situated about half an hour north of San Francisco and contains the area’s government administration offices, law courts and library. Its striking, other-worldly appearance means that it has been used as a filming location for many a sci-fi film, including 90s Ethan Hawke/Uma Thurman vehicle Gattaca (one of my favourite films of all time, mostly due to its futuristic mid century aesthetic).
The building was architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s last project before his death in 1959 and bears a number of his hallmarks: an earthy colour palette punctuated with garish pops of colour (that shade of blue and gold against the terracotta was certainly a choice), arches, domes, cut-outs and lots of rounded corners (inside, the rounded corridors make you feel like you’re walking around a continuous circular space).
Slap bang in the middle of everything is a 52.4 meter gold anodised tower, separating the hall of justice and Administration wings together with what appears to be a circular plunge pool and mini waterfall. It’s definitely worth visiting in person: even on a murky, drizzly day I thought it was just magical.
St Mary’s Cathedral
St Mary’s Cathedral was conceived by Italian modernist architect Pietro Belluschi and consecrated in 1971. A little underwhelming and beige from the outside (though this may have just been the gloomy weather), it had an awe-inspiring, almost science fiction, space station-esque interior.
Inside, stained glass windows and concrete, sculptural pillars ascended on four sides and converged at the apex of the concrete textured ceiling. Like St Mary’s Church of the Angels that I visited in Singapore, the space was dramatic yet entirely fit for purpose: the setting, views and scale gave the place a feeling of serenity.
Alameda Point Antiques Fair
Simply put, this was one of the largest and best flea markets I have ever visited (and I have visited a fair few over the years). Located across the Bay Bridge in Oakland at the derelict former Alameda Point Naval Air Station, this monthly market is apparently Northern California’s largest antiques and collectibles show.
I was a bit concerned that it might be a bit too professional/expensive for my tastes (I read in advance that all items are supposed to be more than 30 years old with reproductions prohibited) but I was pleased to be greeted by endless stalls of the usual tat that I’m usually accustomed to finding at flea markets. There was plenty of fairly priced mid century furniture, including a covetable vintage eames shell on a black cat’s cradle base (which I would have bought if there would have been a way to transport it back to the UK) and various knickknacks (which I could and did buy).
I hadn’t heard of Heath Ceramics before visiting San Francisco but the 66 year-old brand is apparently renowned for its signature mid-century-style pottery, commonly found on restaurant tabletops across California. Their recently opened factory/showroom/store, a former linen supply and laundry, in the trendy-but-still-a-bit-rough north-eastern section of the Mission District sells the brand’s wares and aspirational lifestyle associated with it very effectively: the bright and airy space houses ceramic sets arranged according to the year that they were designed, high-end yet homespun-looking textiles, a tightly curated selection of cookbooks, a wall of handmade wooden clocks by House Industries, colourful tiles and a Blue Bottle coffee lounge.
It was obviously all hideously expensive – I could only justify buying a $20 tea towel – but I thought the trip was worthwhile, if only to see a masterclass in visual merchandising (skip the branch in the Ferry Building, it’s a small kiosk in comparison). The area surrounding the store in the Mission District appeared to be a bit of a creative hub with lots of other interesting independent workshops and stores scattered about.
My last visit to New York in April was a bit of a manic rush so I only had time to visit about 70% of the niche interest places I wanted to see. I made sure that I visited the remaining 30% when I went back in September.
Before visiting New York, I mistakenly (and rather ignorantly) believed that it would be a city full of mid century architecture, which I now know not to be the case. I blame images of the iconic, futuristic Guggenheim Museum for putting these ideas in my head. Nestled in between turn of the century apartment blocks on the Upper East Side, the Guggenheim’s modernist grey curves stick out like a (very beautiful) sore thumb.
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959, the cylindrical building, wider at the top than the bottom, is rightly considered a landmark work of 20th-century architecture and has been used extensively as a filming location for various films and tv shows whenever a dramatic retro/futuristic interior has been required. Inside, the gallery essentially consists of a long ramp (not unlike that of a multi-storey carpark) extending up from ground level in a long, continuous spiral along the outer edges of the building to end just under the ceiling skylight. Even though it seemed familiar (probably from those aforementioned TV shows and films), it was well worth visiting in person.
Brooklyn Flea – Fort Greene
I had high hopes for this flea market in Fort Greene, a gentrified yet still characterful Brooklyn neighbourhood that I stayed in the last time I visited New York. Unfortunately the market was a bit of a disappointment, comparing unfavourably to my favourite junk yards in Berlin and Copenhagen. Whilst there was a good variety and abundance of stands, the setup was a bit too professional (and therefore expensive) for my tastes. Stock consisted of vintage clothes, the odd bit of furniture but primarily kitschy Americana. I didn’t leave with grubby carrier bags full of toot (the only mark of a successful flea market outing in my book).
Glass House, New Canaan
The Glass House is a historic house museum located in the centre of a sprawling estate in New Canaan, Connecticut. Built in 1949, it was designed by modernist architect Philip Johnson and crudely put, consists of a glass walled cuboid.
Visiting the house as part of a meticulously organised and run architectural tour, I was struck by how impractical it must have been to live in (the architect Philip Johnson, who must have had an exhibitionist streak and hardly any possessions, apparently used it as his own residence): the kitchen, living, dining and sleeping areas were all in one open-plan room, which was divided only by low walnut cabinets and no curtains or blinds to speak of. The only concession to practicality/modesty was a brick cylinder in the middle of the room, which contained the bathroom. However, even when plastered in a (temporary) pox of ugly red dots applied by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, its elegance and timelessness as a piece of modernist architecture was undeniable.
The beautiful, wooded estate also contained other architecturally interesting buildings designed by the Philip Johnson at various points in his career. It was a bit of a trek to get to (about an hour and a half from downtown Manhattan) and surprisingly difficult to get hold of tickets but I would wholeheartedly recommend making the effort.
I’m not sure when LaRedoute branched out into selling furniture and home items – I’ve always associated it with downmarket catalogue shopping and cheap clothes – but the new “AM.PM” range on their website contains some really nice mid century-style pieces that are well worth a look.
Highlights include a nest of walnut coffee tables, a wooden framed armchair with a woven seat, a 1950s-looking planter on wooden legs, some attractive textiles and LaRedoute’s very own take on a modular String/Cado shelving system, which I’ve never seen a low/mid-range retailer attempt before (it’s surprisingly classy looking).
- Florian planter
- Nova flat-woven iilim style wool rug
- E.gallina junius desk
- Solon armchair
- Taktik system
- Flashback hevea nest of coffee tables
- Gemma marble clock
- Réglisse Scandinavian sideboard
- Set of Ivy chairs
The catch is that it’s not cheap (back in the day, you could honestly buy an entire outfit from LaRedoute for about £10) and for every great piece, there’s something comically hideous. Who in their right mind would want to decorate their walls with these giant insect decorations?
I ended up buying the (now seemingly discontinued) Doryle runner to replace the Hay paper carpet in my hall, which had become a bit grubby and despite my best efforts, refused to lie flat. Not bad for £35.