An Intimate Interview with Midcentury-Modern Design Expert Tom Gibbs

Midcentury-Moden Design Expert Tim Gibbs and NEXT:SPACE Founder Isabelle Weiss

Alice Garbarini Hurley | Why do we still love midcentury modern after all these years?
Tom Gibbs | We love it, but “we” does not mean everybody. Part of it is that it puts a smile on your face. It reminds you of the fifties – that post-war, pre-Vietnam time in America. And it has a fresh, clean look.

Is there a black-and-white formula for using midcentury modern? Does a room have to be all midcentury or none at all?
You can absolutely blend – you can drop something from the late 1950s into a traditional room. The hard-edge design takes away the stuffiness and the traditional stuff takes the hard edge away. If you go strictly hard-edge mid-century design, it could feel cold and have a spare, minimalist look – although some of it got a little warmer, like the Klismos Chair by Robsjohn-Gibbings.

What drove you to build a vintage-only business in furnishings and accessories?
I come from a background of restoring vintage cars in New York starting at age 15. I bought my first, a Studebaker Golden Hawk (made between 1956 and 1958) from a friend of my auto shop teacher at Freeport High School on Long Island. I took the whole thing apart and put it back together. You learn. It gives you an eye for symmetry, lines, color, detail. Then I did the same thing with furniture – I started buying it at tag sales and restoring it. I’m interested in how it’s made and everything about it. It’s really a passion and a love.

Are you still into classic cars?
Now I have four – a supercharged 1963 Studebaker Avanti, 1972 Karmann Ghia, 1927 Model T roadster and, of course, a Chevy van. Two are stored in the studio. I’m a car hobbyist and a furniture dealer. Most car designers are also enthralled with furniture design.

Do you restore the furnishings yourself?
I do some things myself. But I have a refinisher, a sandblaster and an upholsterer. If I’m covering a piece of furniture, I will try to match the original. It could be a wool blend, bouclé, chenille, mohair, leather – or vinyl, which was all the rage after the war because it was a new textile. But a Womb, Coconut, Egg or Swan chair must be done in a fabric without a print so that the chair speaks to you and it’s not about the print or the fabric.

The inventory on tomgibbsstudio.com includes a George Nelson-Herman Miller thin-edge rosewood dresser for $9,500, a pair of Hourglass brass table lamps by Stewart Ross James for $6,500 and even a vivid blue California modern planter pot by Gainey Ceramics for $1,100. Where do you find your wares?
In the United States, from homeowners, tag sales, estate sales and auctions; 1950s and 1960s houses are disappearing but occasionally still turn up. I have shipped to places including Dubai, Paris, England, L.A., New York City, Dallas, Sun Valley and Colorado. Smaller items go by UPS. I use blanket wrap, truck-delivery service for larger items and crates to ship overseas.

How has the marketplace changed for you?
You don’t have people collecting, who want to buy every George Nelson clock. It’s more like a home decoration now. I deal more with designers. They have to want it. They should love it. It’s a funny thing. You’re either selling a lot or you’re not selling anything. I can get a little gun shy about buying things.Early production Eero Saarinen for Knoll Womb Chair with Ottoman, available on tomgibbsstudio.com


Personal midcentury faves?
I live with a few. A long-time favorite is my Eero Saarinen Knoll Grasshopper chair. In my opinion, underappreciated and undervalued.

Pieces that were hard to let go?
So many. Happy to have owned them and passed them on. An Arne Jacobsen Horn chair with ottoman in original leather comes to mind.

Dreamboat car?
There’s a new car on my wishlist every week; 2004 Ford GT, 1932 Ford three-window coupe and 1965 Buick Riviera are at the top.

Your classic coffee?
Hot black coffee. I grind whole beans at home. If I’m out, Atomic Coffee in Royal Oak or Astro in Corktown.

Work uniform?
Having been self-employed my whole life, Levi’s blue jeans. I like Made & Crafted when I can find them. White cotton button-down shirt.

Drink order?
I will sit down with a dry gin martini (shaken, not stirred) or bourbon rocks. So many old and new establishments to enjoy a cocktail in Detroit: Rattlesnake Club, Buhl Bar, London Chop House, Two James, La Dolce Vita, Detroit Distillery.

Retro wristwatch or Apple Watch?
On special occasions, I wear my Bauhaus-inspired Patek Philippe Calatrava – what a round wristwatch should be.

Sunday drive?
In the ’27 roadster to the lake for a Bloody Mary.

Color to refinish a dresser?
Blonde finish brings out the warmth of the wood so much better.

Go-to online auction source?
Liveauctioneers.com, by far. Easy to navigate, great resource.

Top-shelf book?
Just one? “The Call of the Wild” – love Jack London. More recently, James Lee Burke, Lee Child.

Best movie?
So many, including “Casablanca,” “High Noon” and “The Godfather.” I love TCM.

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