Tom Gibbs can't quite explain why exactly he's drawn to mid-century modern design. The art movement, known for its clean, geometric shapes and Space Age aspirations, is the focus of his antiques collection, Tom Gibbs Studio, which opens to the public this week in Ferndale.
"Maybe it's part of the car culture. It's one of the reasons I like Detroit so much — there's a car culture and there's a lot of design, architecture as well as furniture," he says. "I just think it's sexy, this period, this look."
It's nothing exotic to Gibbs — he grew up in the '50s and '60s, the movement's heyday. Fortunately, he didn't react to it the way many do. "You hear that a lot, 'Oh, I grew up with it, I hated it, my mother had it, we threw that out,'" he says. "It's like, 15 years ago, it was OK to throw this stuff out. I mean, it wasn't OK — but it was just old furniture."
But in the past decade or so, Gibbs says mid-century modern design is enjoying a renaissance. Thank the stylish sets of Mad Men, perhaps, or just the cyclical nature of fashion.
"As long as I've been doing this, people have been saying, 'Wow, that stuff's starting to get popular,'" he says. "Now, all my friends who used to be antique dealers want to buy mid-century. They're not necessarily buying the name stuff, but they're buying the look. They're finding they can't sell Victorian antiques, they can't sell '30s and '40s reproduction mahogany like they used to. Modern design, it sells right away."
There's another factor at play, though. In many ways, the mid-century design is pure Michigan. The state has made numerous contributions to the design movement, from companies like Grand Rapids' Herman Miller to the Cranbrook Academy of Art, whose alumni include the famous Saarinen family of designers as well as Charles and Ray Eames, among others.
"The mid-century, hard-edged modern look was really kind of born in Michigan," he says. "I mean, Eames came from California — so there's also California modernists, which is kind of a whole other thing — but California and Detroit, right after the war, they had a kind of energy."
And that legacy of appreciation lives on. Gibbs says many of the pieces featured in his studio come from Michigan collectors. His collection features a number of items from prominent Michigan designers, refinished with period-appropriate fabrics or materials.
"For me, it doesn't have to be a name thing, it just has to be a well-made thing," he says. "A lot of times if it's a well-made thing, it's going to wind up being a name thing. At this point I'll usually know, because I've been doing this for so long. But sometimes I get surprised. It's just a cool thing to have the name, that's an extra cache."
It's a decidedly upscale collection. (Gibbs estimates he has more than 1,000 pieces in his inventory. "I'm trying to be more regimented and more disciplined and not just buying stuff," he says.) A refurbished chair by
Eero Saarinen sells for $4,000, while a Herman Miller-produced display case, originally recovered from a Detroit department store, has a $13,000 price tag.
But Gibbs thinks the furniture is poised to become appreciated by a whole new generation, as millennials begin buying houses of their own. "They've started to buy houses, and they're starting to be interested in design and more value," he says. "You buy Ikea, you have to leave it where you build it. You can't really move that stuff. This stuff is gonna hold some value, if not all of its value, and appreciate. [It's not] just used furniture."