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Is This Vintage Desk Set “Kitsch” Or “Mid-Century Modern”?

This ridiculously large (six inch long) clear plastic clothespin is a vintage office or desk accessory. You can open the clothespin, place mail or papers in the opening, and then close it to hold the paperwork in place. On top, there’s a chrome or shiny silver-tone pen or pencil holder on a swivel base that allows you to set and move the direction of the writing piece. The whole piece is so chunky and heavy that it’s a paperweight too.

It’s made of polymethyl methacrylate, or PMMA, a transparent thermoplastic which can be repeatedly softened and remolded by heat and pressure, or “acrylic glass” which most of us in America call either Lucite or Plexiglass; if you’re from the UK or otherwise across the pond that is the Atlantic Ocean, you likely call it by the more generic name of Perspex. Why all the names? Several companies developed this acrylic glass at the same time. DuPont dubbed it “Lucite” and began selling it in 1931; Rohm & Haas Chemical Company began selling their “Plexiglass” in 1933. But it wasn’t until after WWII that these plastics became the stuff of the average consumers fashion and household dreams.

This vintage piece likely had a sticker containing maker name and location, but it’s long gone. Since I found it here in the US, I’m pronouncing it made of Lucite.

While a lightweight and shatter-resistant alternative to glass, Lucite pieces are quite prone to scratches. Considering that this desk set was kept on a desk (something I, for one, do not keep as tidy as I ought to), near sharp letter openers, pens, metal mechanical pencils, and other items which could easily scratch or mark the piece, it is in remarkable shape. Certainly the clear Lucite pieces are some of the easiest to note marks on too. There aren’t even any cracks or broken corners from the incredibly heavy telephones and clunky handsets of the day. (See here for tips on caring for vintage plastics.)

But none of this really address the question of “Is it kitsch or mid-century modern?”, does it?

In order to get to than answer, one has to know the definitions of both kitsch and mid-century modern. This vintage combination note holder, pen holder, and paperweight desk piece sure seems to fit the time period of mid-century modern, and the mid-century modern movement was absolutely spurred on by the rapid development of plastics. I doubt you could argue the modern design aesthetic of blending simplicity and functionality, either. Oh, how I love the idea of housework being tied or “clipped” to office work! However, that doesn’t remove kitsch from the equation. After all, “kitsch” is a rather subjective (and often negative) label. (It’s not negative for me, of course. I love kitsch!) No matter what your personal taste level, or take on this piece, it being a mid-century modern collectible does not exclude it from also being a piece of vintage kitsch.

Ultimately, the verdict on this clear vintage Lucite clothespin desk accessory is up to you. You can love it for its simple lines and the mod style which punctuates its functionality. You can love it for its plastic chunky camp characteristics. You can love it for all the above and more.  It’s up to the individual collector. And his or her housemates who must also live with it.


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The Antiques Diva Excellent article! Just bought a vintage acrylic desk from the 1980s in Berlin - the store owner called it plexiglass, my husband lucite and a friend Perspex! Mystery solved thanks to your article!! Toma January 5th, 2013 at 10:58 AM

BELLIN68

BELLIN68 there is a difference between the two , kitch is more related to more of the odd of stuff like hair pins etc, now mid century modern is more like the danish ,swedish and some american designers , like knoll etc. February 26th, 2013 at 10:11 AM

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