Australian Mid-Century Modern: Buying, Collecting and Restoration

A few years ago I wrote a post ‘Australian Modern on a Budget’ about buying Australian Mid-Century Modern Furniture. A reader recently asked me to update the post, so I decided to write an update that includes a few tips on getting a bargain and taking care of your treasured mid-century pieces.

When it comes to buying Australian mid-century design there are a few things you need to know about yourself. Are you a serious collector, a fan of good design, or simply want a vintage piece to compliment a room in your home. Is the piece going to be used everyday or do you have space for a rare piece that will only be used on special occasions? Understanding what you want and how it fits into the way you live will help you to find the right vintage pieces.

Buying Mid-Century

Sideboard manufactured by Summertone, Sydney, c.1950s. 

Knowledge is the key to getting a bargain, so it’s essential that you to do some research before you buy anything.  Do a google search, check eBay or auction websites to get an idea of what prices you can expect to pay. Trove is an online database set up by the National Gallery of Australia and is a great place to search through newspapers and magazines of the post-war period. Searching through old articles and advertisements is a great way to build knowledge and learn more about the post-war period.

Price all depends on the condition, popularity of the designer and the provenance. Knowing the market will help you to find the right piece at the right price. If you are really passionate about mid-century design I suggest you never waste money on cheap replica pieces. Always buy what you love, but if you can’t afford that expensive Featherston chair, don’t be fooled into thinking an ugly overstuffed replica will give you the same look or feel as the original. At the end of the day, you could have spent that money on one of the many high quality and affordable vintage pieces produced by lesser known designers and furniture manufacturers.

Modernist coffee table with marble top by Framac, Sydney, c.1960s.

There were many furniture and lighting companies operating in the post-war period in Australia. Companies such as Moderntone, Summertone, Decro, Doube and Framac may not be household names but they made some great furniture which you can pick-up at a bargain price. And if it’s a low cost Grant Featherston chair you yearn for, then it’s hard to go past one of his many chairs and tables manufactured by Aristoc industries, Melbourne.

Mitzi Chair designed by Grant Featherston for Aristoc Industries, c. 1957.

Emigre designers and/or crafts people such as Zoureff, Rosando Bros, and Rudowski present excellent value for those looking for quality pieces that reflect a European mid-century style.

Lounge chairs designed by Dario Zoureff, c.1950s.

When buying a mid-century piece it’s a good idea to ask the seller what he/she knows about the item’s history. Where did the item come from, who owned it, etc. The provenance can not only help you to identify a piece, it can also add considerable value. The stories behind your favourite chair, table or lamp are a wonderful way to engage with the history of your pieces.

If you are paying big bucks for a mid-century piece you need to know what your getting for your money and if it’s the genuine article. Some sellers, including auction houses, may make incorrect claims and it’s up to you to insist on proof of those claims. I have been caught out a few times by unscrupulous sellers who have told me stories about an items provenance that later turned out to be false. On one occasion, when I contacted the seller to explain my concerns, I got a completely different story and was refused a full refund. I learnt a lot from that encounter and now I always ask for evidence that an item is authentic.

Always insist on proof, you need to see documentation in the form of period advertising, an old receipt with the designer’s name/company, or a description of the item in a respected publication or public gallery collection. A good mid-century dealer will work through any of your concerns and support their attribution with evidence.

Let there be lights

Mandarin lamp designed by Joyce and Selwyn Coffey for Kempthorne Lighting,
c. 1959.

If it’s Australian Mid-Century lighting that you desire, then check out maufacturers like Rite-Lite, Kempthorne, Daydream, Arrow, Newton and Gray, Beecher and Beco. Australian mid-century lighting is a fraction of the cost of European designs, and even though prices are on the rise, there are still plenty of bargains out there.

It’s important to consider the condition of the piece and factor in any additional restoration costs. Most lighting can be repaired, and though hiring a professional to do the job can be expensive, the results are well worth the expenditure. Never try DIY with electricals, always get  rewiring done by a qualified electrician. If you’re unsure how to find a  restorer, ask a mid-century store if they can put you in touch with a  restoration expert.

Caring for your mid-century furniture

Collecting vintage pieces comes with responsibility, and that means taking good care of your treasured pieces. Whether it’s timber furniture  or lighting, always research the best method of preserving the original finish. If restoration is required, do your homework first and don’t attempt any repairs unless you know exactly what to do.

There are many online video tutorials on basic restoration, polishing and re-upholstery of vintage furniture. If the piece you’re restoring is mass produced, then perhaps a DIY challenge may be suitable for such an item. Never use cheap spray polishes, always seek professional restoration products. The name of the game is gentle restoration, not making the piece look brand new, so always try to maintain the original character of your treasured vintage pieces.

If you have a rare and valuable piece requiring restoration always seek a specialist. A good place to start is speaking to the conservation team at The Grinwade Centre for Cultural Materials at Melbourne University. Professional restoration is expensive, but amateur repairs can result in costly mistakes that may require extensive restoration.

Mid-Century Trends

Unit Range Lounge chair, designed by Fred Ward for Myer Emporium Ltd, c.1932. 

Design trends come and go, but there is one mid-century Australian designer who’s name is on everybody’s lips at auction houses in Melbourne and Sydney.  Don’t be surprised to see prices for early pieces designed by Fred Ward go through the roof as collectors scurry to get their hands on beautifully crafted pieces designed by Ward in the 1930’s. Pieces such as Ward’s ‘Unit Range’ armchair (1932) are amongst the earliest modern furniture designed and manufactured in Australia, so it’s no surprise that public galleries across Australia are building collections of furniture designed by Fred Ward.

Fred Ward was highly innovative and his designs for ‘Timber Pack Furniture’, a company he set up to manufacture pre-fabricated timber furniture in the post-war period, are steadily increasing in demand and price. To learn more about Fred Ward get yourself a copy of Derek Wrigley’s limited release book ‘Fred Ward – Australian Pioneer Designer 1900 – 1990’. You can also check out my earlier post about the Fred Ward: A Life in Design exhibition, held 4 years ago at the Gallery of Australian Design in Canberra.

The Australian post-war period was a time of innovation and social change. Modernism transformed our culture and created new creative industries. Collecting Australian mid-century design is a great way to fill your home with beautiful recycled pieces and connect with our design history.

Happy bargain hunting.


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