Mid-century decor on a budget, Part 1


Left: Oval Shade lamp by Design Classics Lighting.
Right: A George Nelson knockoff clock purchased on eBay.

Mid-century modern! It’s sleek, it’s stylish, it’s retro, and it’s all the rage. A few MCM pieces such as a sofa, a credenza, a lamp, or a clock can give your place just the distinctive “space-age bachelor pad” character that you were looking for.

But it can also get prohibitively and dishearteningly expensive, especially if you are looking at the higher-profile items such as vintage Danish pieces or those from the well-known American designers. This is quite unfortunate, and I would dare say that such elitist pricing is also contrary to the original spirit of mid-century modernism. Part of the appeal of modernist design was that stylish and functional items could be put together fairly quickly and easily, sometimes using lower-cost materials such as plywood and laminate surfacing, and were therefore widely accessible to the general public at affordable prices.

So what are some alternatives to shelling out $4,000-9,000 for a designer sofa or $500 for a wall clock? Let’s start this three-part series with smaller decor items, and work our way up to furniture later on in Parts 2 and 3.

Vintage or vintage-inspired small decor

Sometimes smaller pieces of decor such as wall art, lighting, or functional everyday accessories like curtains and towels are enough to create a vintage atmosphere. Since this type of interior design aesthetic has made a comeback in recent years, it’s fairly easy to find such items in retro/modernist-inspired designs, even in places where you may not have expected to find chic decor. Believe it or not, a few of the product lines sold at Target are quite retro or “mod” looking.

Perhaps you would like to give a retro touch to your plants. Is $200 for a vintage planter a bit much for you? You may find something useful at the places you normally shop at. For example, the succulent in a cylindrical modernist pot pictured below cost only $10 at Whole Foods. While it may not have the striking appearance of a “bullet” style planter, a couple of these will certainly give your place a bit of that good old Palm Springs “desert modernism” feel.


A succulent in a modernist pot, from Whole Foods

You can find some interesting vintage pieces by perusing thrift stores, antique malls, and vintage specialty shops in your area, and of course searching on eBay. Paintings, prints, and various bric-a-brac such as small sculptures or vases can augment your pad’s stylish retro quality. Kitchen appliances and cookware such as blenders and fondue pots add a nice touch to your food prep and dining areas. You might also think a little outside the box by steering away from conventional artwork for your walls; instead, decorate with old postcards, record album covers, and vintage advertising. You can often find such items dirt-cheap, and it’s also easy to get inexpensive frames in neutral, streamlined designs that go well with a mid-century-inspired room.

Also be on the lookout for cheaper alternatives to higher-profile designer pieces that you may have seen. George Nelson bubble lamps run into the several hundreds of dollars. So instead, look up the “Contemporary Floor Lamp with Oval Shade” by Design Classics Lighting (pictured up top), available for a very reasonable $70, as opposed to $450 for an actual Nelson floor lamp.

While some readers may scoff at the idea of outright knockoffs, I would argue that they are a valid option, especially if you are on a budget. Searching on Google or eBay will reveal clocks very similar to George Nelson designs (an example is pictured up top). The level of craftsmanship won’t be the same, but the designer-“inspired” products can be had at only $60, instead of $400 to $1,300 for an actual designer piece. Similarly, an authentic Herman Miller Eames “Hang it All” wall hanger costs about $200. But if you search on Amazon for something Eames-“inspired” instead of going for an official branded piece, you can find something very similar in the range of only $35 to $65. Believe me, your guests will never know the difference between copies and originals. And you may be surprised how many complements you get!

Smaller items can make a big difference in creating the vintage atmosphere you want, but the prominent standout in any room is the furniture. So what are some more affordable options? Stay tuned for Part 2!

Edit: click here for Part 2.


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