BOOMERANG AND BACK
Photographs by Erica Freudenstein
The list of names in Bruce Nichols's furniture and glass collection reads like a who's who of mid-century modern design. In his less-than-1,000-square-foot apartment in Sterling, a Bird chair by Harry Bertoia sits catty-corner to a sofa by Charles Eames, which sends its compliments across the room to a George Nelson day bed, which in turn is arranged next to an Arne Jacobsen Egg chair. And that's barely the beginning.
A welder of sheet metal for an electrical contracting firm during the week, Nichols spends weekends and all his spare time on his true passionthe pursuit of furniture, lighting, glass and sculpture from the 1950s. He laughingly admits to being obsessed: One corner of the apartment is stacked with pieces he has bought but has no room to display. Although he wasn't even born until the mid-'60s, the postwar decade appeals to him as a kinder, simpler era. The sculptural qualities of the pieces, the craftsmanship and the playfulness of the designs are also part and parcel of the attraction. "I look at it, and I know it's art," he says.
For the past five years (Nichols says he's been slightly ahead of the hot mid-century modern market curve), he has been a man on a mission, going to thrift shops, yard and estate sales and flea markets, as well as negotiating and trading with dealers and their middlemen. He started out collecting the kidney-shaped furniture of what he calls the "boomerang" part of the '50s, but now prefers the sparer lines that characterized the beginning of the decade.
"You never know what you're going to find or where you're going to find it," he says, which is why he spends so much time treasure-hunting. Fonda Bloom, the former owner of a Leesburg consignment store, is both his fiancee and collaborator. The two joke that "tag-team thrifting" allows them to go in different directions and cover more territory. Their first joint effort resulted in the acquisition of a leather-and-wood George Nelson desk.
In the best of all possible worlds, Nichols's collection would be entirely '50s vintage. But he's not a purist. The cost of an original Eames storage unit he coveted was prohibitive, so he settled for a reproduction. The foam had turned hard as a rock and the upholstery was hanging off his Jacobsen Egg chair, so he simply had it reupholstered. Nichols admired the contours of George Nelson's Coconut chair, but he didn't hesitate to have the mint-green vinyl replaced with red leather. The painting above his Eames sofa was actually done in the '60s, but, says Nichols, "it had the right look." The same goes for a cubist-looking black metal mesh sculpture that he found under a pile of junk at an estate sale.
Still, when it came to George Nelson's platform bench, Nichols wouldn't settle for anything but an original. Although the bench is available in reproduction, the wood on a new piece is blond; what he wanted was the honey-blond patina an older piece acquires over the years.
A confessed sucker for red and black, he uses the colors skillfully to coordinate and unify his furniture collection. "Blue, too, is creeping in," he says. But not haphazardly. The blue in a painting is echoed by an Italian bottle on the stereo cabinet.
Nichols may find "bits and pieces" in all different directions—a sofa from Millennium Decorative Arts, a piece of glass from the Georgetown Flea Market, a desk from Daniel Donnelly Modern Design. But he has created a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts by collecting objects he loves and orchestrating them into the harmonious environment he calls home.
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