Machine Age–Inspired Design

Institutional design, from safes to jets.

The Machine Age—that golden moment from World War I to the forties, when factories churned out well-built, heavy-duty objects made of steel and chrome—is long gone. The Cold War, when military devices were designed to fall out of planes, shoot out of cannons, or fly to the moon (or just look as if they could), is over, too. But from the recent Cold War design show at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to Manhattan boutiques like Ralph Lauren, where model jets and silver artillery-shell cocktail sets add atmosphere to the tweed suits, the anonymously designed artifacts of the once-booming military-industrial complex are everywhere. One could be forgiven for thinking that the great machines were still going full blast.

This aesthetic encompasses everything from mass-produced steel shelves to objects that are more or less unique, like a chrome model plane produced for an executive boardroom. What they all have in common, though, is a distinctly masculine—if not macho—vibe and an oddly evocative, almost poetic, quality. They summon a moment when things were built to last, a time when it really did seem like better technology would deliver us to a brighter tomorrow.

So if the elegantly curving shape of a propeller manufactured in fifties Britain or the strange, chunky beauty of an early-20th-century iron safe covered with immense hobnails seduces you, too, where do you go to get your own? Picking through sales of the contents of defunct Rust Belt factories is one solution. Another is to frequent small local auctions in Europe. Making friends with the guy at the local Army Navy store might work as well, assuming he has some serious connections.

Another option is to go to two Manhattan galleries, Nicholas Brawer and the aptly named Mantiques Modern. The shops couldn’t be more different, but taken together they practically define the military-industrial aesthetic.

Nicholas Brawer’s Upper East Side gallery is a jewel box of a space, a room in a converted 19th-century town house, complete with the original domed ceiling. The contents are similarly gleaming: All the metal objects have been stripped, shined, and polished. That includes a Martin-Baker Mk. 2 fully automatic rocket-powered ejection seat ($32,000)—sadly, the fuel is no longer available, but Brawer says that the seat is otherwise ready to go—and massive World War II–era binoculars ($100,000) built for the Imperial Japanese Navy. These items share the space with cocktail shakers of various shapes and vintages.

Brawer began his career by following a somewhat more conventional range of interests: He worked as a researcher at the V&A Museum and as a cataloguer in Sotheby’s American art department before writing the book British Campaign Furniture: Elegance Under Canvas, 1740–1914, a history of the knockdown tables, desks, and chairs that helped make the empire what it was. Brawer only started collecting what he refers to as extreme pieces a few years back, when a client claiming to own “everything” challenged Brawer to surprise him. “He bet me that if I could bring in something he didn’t have, he’d buy it,” Brawer says. When he learned through one of his British sources, a former Royal Air Force man, that two Canberra bomber planes were being decommissioned and sold, Brawer knew he had found a way to win the bet. A few months later his client became the new owner of an ejection seat. And Brawer is still debating whether to turn a tail fin from one of the bombers into a bar.

The Chelsea gallery Mantiques Modern, by contrast, is a series of concrete-floored rooms linked by colored concrete slabs that seem to float on the walls. It’s bursting with a mix of objects that are at once hard-edged and almost always worn. You’ll find the aforementioned hobnailed safe ($12,500) alongside a giant cast-glass lens ($3,200) next to a terracotta bust of Charles de Gaulle ($8,500) on top of a well-traveled Goyard steamer trunk ($8,800) from the thirties. Every object in the place clearly has a story to tell, but not many of them have a pedigree, which is how the owners like it. “I really love found objects,” co-owner Cory Margolis says. “We had a console made by some machinist out of stainless-steel girders and scrap wood, and it was absolutely beautiful.”

The business—and something of its sensibility—was started in the seventies by a mother-and-daughter team whose specialty was macho collectibles. Margolis (the other two owners are Steven Perelman and Kenneth Felberbaum) was a picker for them, having spent his childhood working in the antiques trade with his parents and his twenties hunting down obscure collectibles like commemorative bronze sports sculptures and alligator humidors. When Margolis eventually took over, he kept the gallery’s name and wunderkammer aesthetic, updating it slightly to reflect the new owners’ interests. That translated to less sports memorabilia and more Depression-era operating-theater lamps (one occupied the window for a time). Most recently Mantiques Modern opened a second boutique, in the home department at Bergdorf Goodman, carrying a smaller selection of the gallery’s objects, like robots and skull bookends.

For fans like artist Tom Sachs, who has spent much of his career doing elaborate re-creations of modernist design objects—including his latest, of the Apollo 11 lunar module, which he calls the ultimate in form-follows-function engineering—the anonymity of objects like these is a big part of their appeal. “Many of the best designers worked for the military”—Charles Eames, for instance, designed plywood stretchers and splints during World War II—“but they were totally subjugated to the working of the project,” Sachs says. And that, he explains, is the reason he finds something like an ejection seat more beautiful than most artworks. “It looks the way it looks because it has to,” notes Sachs, adding, “It’s completely true to itself.”


Can one item epitomize an entire aesthetic? When asked, the owners of both Nicholas Brawer and Mantiques Modern looked through their inventories to find an archetypal artifact. Each came back to us with that one perfect thing.

The Model Rifle

The Browning gleams on its stand, almost too huge to be menacing, so large that it could be from a video game. It is, however, entirely real, or at least an entirely genuine fake. To be more precise, it is an actual model of the Browning .30-caliber automatic rifle, twice as large as life and cut away for instructional purposes. In the days before computer simulations, it was used to teach cold warriors how to field-strip and assemble their guns. Built between 1951 and 1953, the steel-and-aluminum model had been in the possession of a retired Army ordnance instructor. “He’d kept it in working order since 1955,” Brawer says. “He loved it, but I loved it more.” The gun still works, and it comes complete with the eight original dummy rounds. $45,000. At 28 E. 72nd St., New York; 212-772-2664;

A Campaign Desk

Napoléon famously observed that an army travels on its stomach. That may have been true in the emperor’s time, but the modern military really runs on paperwork. As a result, portable office furniture has been a battlefield necessity for years—the British Raj was notable for its stylish campaign kit. The U.S. Army began making this folding aluminum desk during World War II and continued to produce it into the sixties. There’s not an ounce of aluminum wasted on ornaments or extras; it was built to be easily mass-produced and transported. The roots of modernism are visible in the clean, spare, ultrafunctional design. And when folded up into something about the size of a steamer trunk, it takes on the air of sculpture. $3,600. At 146 W. 22nd St., New York; 212-206-1494;

On the Market

Collecting in this field, which includes both the massively mass-produced and the utterly unique, isn’t the same as collecting, say, Ming ceramics or samurai swords. While the historical period has been defined (early to mid-20th century), the range of objects is huge and their values are not easily determined.

According to design consultant Jim Walrod, the man responsible for outfitting, among others, Steven Alan shops and Wall Street’s Gild Hall hotel, one issue is that “none of these things have come up for auction, so there’s no way of making comparisons.” Also, he says, there’s no way of knowing, for instance, how many steel industrial shelves are out there. “When people moved into lofts in the seventies and eighties, a lot of this stuff was already there. That’s how the look became popular.” Rarer items, like ejection seats, are easier to figure in terms of quantity—there aren’t many, although now that the original stealth fighter has been decommissioned, a few more may start turning up. Still, comparison pricing remains difficult, if not impossible.

That hasn’t stopped collectors from buying. Miami native Mickey Wolfson amassed so many pieces that he started his own museum, the Wolfsonian-FIU, in South Beach, to house them. And New Yorker John C. Waddell has built such an important collection that in 2000 it was featured in a show, “American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.