Midcentury Style Hidden Away in State Capitol

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Midcentury modern chairs sit behind rows of skinny tables in the Capitol press conference room, 1190. (Katie Orr/KQED)

For decades California governors have held important press conferences in a room at the state Capitol annex known simply by its number: 1190. The annex was completed in 1952 and -- along with the drab windowless pressroom -- could eventually get a face-lift with money in the new state budget. The room isn’t much, but there is one stylish thing in there -- the chairs journalists sit in.

At first glance, the bulky yellow, brown and tan chairs just seem impractical. They're heavy and hard to move and really hurt when they smash against your fingers. But, they’re also a classic midcentury design and in pretty good shape.

Mid-century modern chairs sit behind rows of skinny tables in the Capitol press conference room, 1190.
Midcentury modern chairs sit behind rows of skinny tables in the Capitol press conference room, 1190. (Katie Orr/KQED)

At a press conference in the spring, several journalists were discussing how much the chairs might be worth. After all, midcentury furniture is pretty trendy right now.

So I asked Sacramento appraiser Brian Witherell, a frequent expert on PBS’ "Antiques Roadshow," to check them out. On the upside, the fiberglass chairs were manufactured by Herman Miller and created by renowned designers Charles and Ray Eames. But, Witherell said, these particular chairs were some of the Eames' more basic work.

“Even though they were innovators in art and design, the production of the chairs was very much an industry," Witherell said. "They come with two different sets of bases. This is the least desirable base.”

 Sacramento appraiser Brian Witherell holds up a chair in the Capitol press room.
Sacramento appraiser Brian Witherell holds up a chair in the Capitol pressroom. (Katie Orr/KQED)

It’s not entirely clear how the chairs came to be in the pressroom. Vito Sgromo has worked in and around the Capitol since 1984, including stints as the building’s curator and manager. He said the chairs were likely purchased in the 1960s when the governor was either Pat Brown or Ronald Reagan

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“They’ve seen a lot of history made here. But we can’t identify why these particular chairs, this design, was used here," Sgromo said. "My only assumption was this was so commonly used in the '60s that it was a no-brainer. Just typical, let’s order them.”

But these days even basic midcentury furniture can be a big draw. So how much would each of these chairs be worth? Witherell took a look.

“We have a tendency to err on the conservative side of estimates," he said. "But we’d estimate them at $250 to $500 apiece. And they might very well do $750.”

Now that might not seem like a huge amount, but there are 45 chairs in the room. At $500 each, that’s more than $22,000.

It’s not clear what will happen to the chairs as the annex renovation moves forward. The state could repurpose them or eventually auction them off with its other surplus property. Could be something for furniture dealers to keep an eye on.