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Interview with I Like Mike’s Mid Century Modern

January 23, 2012

Boy, do I have a treat for ya’ll – a super, delux interview with Mike of I Like Mike’s Mid Century Modern. I’ve written about Mike’s work before, and he so graciously agreed to answer my marathon of questions. Mike’s work is absolutely exquisite and his passion for midcentury modern design is infectious! Read all the way to the end, I promise it’s worth it. 

Welcome, Mike! How did you get into this business of refurbishing and selling furniture?

I started working with wood and making furniture when I was in high school. We had an amazing shop program and I took advantage of it to the fullest extent. The shop teacher really appreciated that I wanted to make stuff and wasn’t just there to sneak out back and smoke, so he spent a lot of time mentoring me – I learned so much in my four years there. When most kids who took shop were just going through the motions, I was busy learning to make furniture.

I also have woodworking and carpentry in my blood going back to my great grandfathers on both sides, both of which built their own homes from the ground up, including all of the finish carpentry. My grandfather as well was an accomplished wood and metal worker and we used to spend a lot of time tinkering and building together. He taught me so much about constructing and deconstructing. I actually still use some of the tools that belonged to him, which were given to him by his father. And my father was very handy with mechanics as well – in fact there was very little he couldn’t fix himself. I’m sure I picked up tons of common sense from watching and helping him through the years.

I got into this business because we bought a brownstone in Bed Stuy Brooklyn seven years ago and all of my latent building talents (latent because I spent my first ten years in New York in show biz concentrating on being a comedian, but that’s a different interview) were again called upon and quite necessary to make this real estate venture fly. No kitchens, no bathrooms, top dollar, and we were thrilled to get in. Needles to say, this was before the housing bubble burst. Anyway, we have a full basement so the first thing I did was to set up my dream wood shop and once the major projects were finished on the house, I once again started repairing and restoring antique furniture. 

What’s it like to be a shop owner?

I’m quite surprised by the fact that I really enjoy it. We’re by appointment only, so it’s not like I sit here all day long every day waiting for customers to drop in. So there’s no ‘mundane’ aspect to our formula. Most of my days are spent working on multiple projects, all in different stages of progress. I derive so much satisfaction from the restoration process that it never seems like work to me.

It’s also important (and I’m very happy to) acknowledge the help and support of Leecia, my partner in life as well as a full partner in the business. In an amazing stroke of luck, a few years ago she was laid off right when I needed her expertise to help make this business graduate from being a hobby to a full-time pursuit. In her prior life, she helped develop a whole new wing of a major organization and now she’s bringing her wealth of experience to our endeavor. I couldn’t be happier that she’s on the case. Or is it my case. Okay, I’m sure I need the extra push once in a while. Anyway she’s now in charge of most of the front end, including marketing, internet development, copy writing, product listing, website maintenance and development and much more. Tons of responsibility and I’m thrilled to pawn it all off on her.

My 5-year-old daughter Stella is such a joy to have in the shop too. Whenever we have open browsing hours, she loves to greet the customers with a tray of refreshments.

The bottom line is that I’m absolutely thrilled and incredibly lucky to have a studio and shop in my home. One flight of steps is just about the best commute a guy could ever ask for!

What it is about mid century modern furniture that interests you?

The optimism. The experimental nature of the time. The shedding of centuries-old expectations regarding the use and purpose of furniture and objects in the Home. There were many new materials and building techniques coming into play and designers, architects and craftsmen were scrambling to utilize them in every way possible. Again, some designs worked, some didn’t. But that’s half the fun – not knowing for sure how it would all pan out.

How would you describe mid century style to someone who’s not familiar?

SHORT ANSWER: Looks great, more practical, less frills.

LONGER ANSWER: Function dictating form. Clean, colorful, sharp and floating – an effect achieved mainly by putting thin legs on large objects thus lifting them from the floor and allowing SPACE underneath, which results in that object literally taking up less PSYCHIC space in the mind of the occupant. Very man-made – in other words a celebration of human engineering, i.e., to achieve the aforementioned ‘floating’ effect, man had to outsmart the physics that dictated the furniture designs from the prior millennium or two.

What’s the most dramatic piece you revived?

I’d imagine that your home is super cool. Is your personal style also mid century modern? If not, how would you describe how your home is decorated? 

We do have many MCM pieces incorporated into our own décor – I mean it’s tough when you live over the shop not to borrow once in a while. Okay, steal. The clean aesthetic actually coexists quite nicely with the older design (C. 1896) of the brownstone. They seem to compliment each other and bring out their respective strengths. How’s that for a general answer?

Tell me about a piece in your home that is an heirloom, whether it was passed down to you or its something that you’d want to continue along your family line.

I do have a table that belonged to my great grandmother, which my mother refinished some years ago. I’m sure we’ll always find a way to keep that in play. And as I mentioned, all of my earlier pieces are in my mother’s home and it would be nice to think that they won’t someday end up in the Sarasota Salvation army. Hopefully my daughter will have some of my work when she’s old enough to realize that it’s not great for the finish to drag a fork over it numerous times, then write on it with a permanent marker that she’s not even allowed to have, which she found in my desk drawer that she’s not allowed to open, but we somehow always allow her to anyway. We are definitely not MCM-era parents. She is seen and heard.

Who’s your favorite mid century designer or manufacturer?

I do like Paul McCobb’s work – he was practically a rock star for most of the fifties and sixties. He also liked the angles. Definitely George Nelson and Harvey Probber pieces have made up a large part of my restoration projects as well.

It was quite a nice exchange where he wrote of, as a child, helping his father with the design of that same chair in his home studio. I was touched that he shared those moments with me as it was obvious that his father was very dear to him. 

Many think of Mad Men when they think of mid century modern (at least I do), are there any other current pop references that nail the look well? 

There are a few other shows – Pan Am being the most relevant to the period – that capture the overall MCM aesthetic. I have to say that since becoming involved in the designs of this era, I’ve become hyper aware and see bits and pieces reminiscent of the time in many movies and TV shows which went unnoticed to me when I’d seen these shows earlier in my life. It’s interesting to now be able to specifically identify the designer of a table in the background of a scene in a movie from the sixties. An example would be great here, but unfortunately I can’t think of one at the moment. But I swear it happens…

What are your favorite spots in the neighborhood where your store is located?

My neighborhood has its own unique historic character and it’s actually becoming a destination for artists the way Soho once was and then more recently Williamsburg. As those places become co-opted by wealth, the innovators and risk-takers venture further out and now it happens to be here where they are landing. As such, there are more and more 30-somethings on skateboards. And these ‘boarders’ need their places to go so there have been some great new businesses that have opened in the last few years. They are, in order of proximity to us,

We just can’t figure out their resistance to opening an establishment where people come to spend two dollars and then subsequently sit there for eight hours using your cream, sugar, napkins, electricity, bandwidth and bathroom. Guess these guys don’t know a good investment when it’s staring them in the face.

And I want to give a shout-out to Josie at The Little Red Boutique, on Lewis, because she’s got a great buyer’s eye and had the entrepreneurial spunk to open such a chic place in this neighborhood years ago. It’s a great thing to be able to walk a few short blocks with my 5-year-old to buy a gift for her mom.

What are your 4 favorite products in the store right now?

The truth is that I love pretty much everything in the shop – that’s why it’s all here. I consider this more of a collection than just plain old inventory. But I don’t mind highlighting a piece or two…

Custom Media Center

Lamps, Clock

Parsons Desk

I also have to mention two of the latest pieces that designed and custom built for private clients. The first  was an eleven foot long, three piece sectional sofa in the floating Danish style. It was a real challenge to make this thing sturdy and I will never underestimate the shear power of strategically placed steel. 

WOW. I hope you guys enjoyed Mike’s Interview as much as I did. Thanks so much, Mike!

Images via I Like Mike’s MidCentury Modern

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gleason Johnston permalink
    January 23, 2012 12:05 pm

    I’m drooling!!! I definitely will make an appointment next time I head to the Big Apple! It is all very inspiring.

  2. January 23, 2012 6:49 pm

    wow. what an excellent interview with an amazing craftsman.

    obviously Mike operates at a high level:

    knowledge, skill, humor, standards … and every piece is just beautiful.

    thank you !!

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