Sit and Stay Awhile *
Los Angeles–based Modernica is breathing a second life into mid-century design
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 2/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
One of the first manufacturers to rediscover and relaunch out-of-production furniture by mid-century designers, Modernica embraces the modernist movement's democratic ethos. "Richard Neutra, George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames—they were all concerned with making design available to the masses," explains Frank Novak, who owns the Los Angeles company with his brother, Jay. "By the 1990's, though, mid-century modernism became elitist. Popular pieces were impossible to find for less than exorbitant prices."
So the Novaks switched emphasis. Having operated an L.A. vintage-furniture shop called Modernica, reproducing a few pieces to sell there, the brothers began focusing on affordable reproductions, ensuring that mid-century design remains accessible to aficionados and hoi polloi alike. It was a canny move: The company now has three showrooms in the U.S. and 100 dealers worldwide, plus an ever expanding headquarters in L.A.'s downtown.
The Modernica production facility, offices, and prop-rental business occupy a 1925 factory, a 25,000-square-foot structure lovingly stripped to its poured-in-place concrete skeleton. Fervent appreciation for things vintage also extends to an adjacent garage, where shipping and storage take place.
"The garage was derelict, but it had a huge amount of integrity that we recycled," says Jay Novak. Besides re-skinning the 10,000-square-foot building's steel facade, the brothers added porthole-style windows, slender columns, and X braces. It's Jean Prouvé meets Philip Johnson, with a nod to the Eameses.
Furnishings are always in flux, whether they're shipments in the garage, vignettes of reproductions in the offices, or vintage pieces in the jumbled prop-rental facility—the latter two split between the factory building's second and third floors. Frank Novak calls the rental facility an "A to Z of mid-century design," and he's not exaggerating. Set decorators can borrow everything from Eero Aarnio Ball chairs to Eames Shell chairs from Zenith Plastics, as well as fabulous finds lacking provenance. "We see a lot of imaginative work by nameless ' designers who just came and went," says Jay Novak.
Oak doors, salvaged from the factory building's facade, now open from the stairwell to the offices, where an old-school linoleum floor follows a complicated design discovered in a 1935 Armstrong pattern book. "Back then, when skilled labor was more available, this sort of installation was no big deal," says Frank Novak. "Now it's considered a luxury. It took our contractors five days to quarter and fit each piece."
A commitment to expertise and authenticity served the brothers well in their efforts to resuscitate obsolete manufacturing methods. Take the Eames fiberglass Shell chair, out of production since the 1980s. "We tracked down the guys who developed the originals," says Frank Novak, who then spent two years getting the process up to speed. It entails placing a fuzzy fiberglass preform in a steel mold, pouring resin from a saucepan, and compressing the stew at high pressure. "There's so much waste—it's an inexact science," he admits. "Sometimes we open the mold and find a big hole in the chair."
Not that the brothers disdain all imperfections. "Every chair is like a snowflake, with a different fiber pattern," he says. "There's a lot of depth and texture, unlike with the uniform reproductions made of injection-molded plastic. They just don't have the same aura."
Though collectors of mid-century modernism may covet vintage models precisely for that high-touch, one-off quality, reproductions do offer the opportunity to improve on success. "We can solve engineering problems we discover in the originals," he points out. Infinitesimal adjustments can preserve form while addressing well known defects, which is why Modernica uses a slightly different steel alloy for Eames Wire chairs, notorious for bending easily. But, Frank Novak insists, "You'd never notice that the wire is a little heavier unless you've got a micrometer. Or you're a diehard." It's fair to say that the detail-obsessed Novaks fall into both categories.
Molded-fiberglass rockers by Charles and Ray Eames await shipment at the garage annex of Modernica, Los Angeles.
An office assembles George Nelson's Pear Bubble lamp, Eames Shell chairs, and an Isamu Noguchi table.
A hooked rug hangs in another office.
An injection-molded plastic screen enlivens the factory building's top landing.
The office's linoleum floor is modeled after one from a 1935 pattern book.
Fabricating armchair shells involves making a fiberglass preform, placing it in a solid steel mold, coating it with resin, and pressing.
Lighting from the 1950's through the 1970's fills the prop-rental facility, a resource for film sets, photo shoots, and events.
New porthole windows puncture the garage's steel facade.
In the prop facility, 1970's chairs await rental. Shelving in prop rental has a 2-ton capacity.
Headquarters handles all aspects of assembly and delivery.