At home with Daniela Niemeyer from MidMod20C

The Art of Modernist Living

By Gretta Louw

“Style is a representation of who we are; what we think,” explains Daniela Niemeyer, sitting at her elegant Peter Hvidt and Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen dining table, surrounded by stunning examples of original modernist furniture. This Stuttgart-native has style in spades—so much so that she has parlayed her innate talents into a thriving business called MidMod20C, which specializes in sourcing and consulting on midcentury modernist design.

Daniela developed MidMod20C organically from her personal interest in design collecting and research. The path that she took toward reaching this milestone was more “road less travelled” than “as the crow flies.” We sat down with the young design buff in her brand new showroom in Basel to discuss the unexpected twists and turns that her passion has lead her through—including fruitful exchanges between art and design—and why she’s dedicated her life to midcentury modernism.

After living, studying, and working in Zurich for a decade, Daniela accompanied her partner, art dealer Timo Niemeyer, to London where he was pursuing a career opportunity. Moving halfway across Europe meant that the pair needed to furnish their new apartment from scratch, and so Daniela set to work. “We always had vintage pieces because we couldn’t afford new [designer] pieces,” she explains. This was before the rediscovery of midcentury furniture in recent years had driven the prices up, and she found that she could fill her new abode with wonderfully crafted furniture that was full of character and history from vintage shops and flea markets. Daniela was hooked.

After completing her own apartment, the recent modernist-convert began to look for further opportunities to explore her new-found passion. In 2012, when her partner was preparing an exhibition of Picasso lithographs, silk prints, posters, and ceramics—Picasso Affiche at Mayfair’s Gallery Symbolic Collection—Daniela suggested that they eschew the customary, white-cube environment and present the art alongside furniture and design objects from Picasso’s era. Daniela explains, “The pieces [in the exhibition] were more or less the same price as a handbag in our New Bond Street neighborhood, and we thought people should buy more art and design than handbags.” It was a massive hit. The furniture collection sold out, even though it had not been the focal point of the exhibition. Thus the couple began a journey through more complementary collaborations and distinct endeavors in midcentury art and design in London, Berlin, and Zurich, before landing in what seems like a natural fit for such a design and art-obsessed couple: Basel.

“I see myself as a collector rather than a dealer,” Daniela explains, and the distinction is manifest in the cohesive furniture collections that she assembles—each piece sourced individually, restored by hand herself or in collaboration with her network of trusted craftspeople—every single item representing something that she herself would happily live with and adore. This is not someone who follows market trends or profit margins. She is a true connoisseur who derives real pleasure from her work.

Teak is a material that’s very sensitive. It needs a certain amount of attention. It is a way of living more consciously. Inside the home of art and design dealers Daniela and Timo Niemeyer Photo © Gretta Louw
“I love to work with wood; it’s so meditative,” she says, adding that she has a particular love for teak and palisander (a.k.a. Brazilian rosewood). She speaks about the materials as though they are familiar friends, going off on tangents when discussing specific pieces. “Teak is a material that’s very sensitive,” she says, for example. “It needs a certain amount of attention; [living with teak] is a way of living more consciously.” And she does live with it. MidMod20C’s Basel showrooms are incorporated into Daniela’s own living space; a space that she shares with her husband and toddler. She is clear that “it is not a museum”—and there’s an understanding that an interior, no matter how precious the pieces, must work for the occupants. It’s an approach that is both liberating and heartening; good design should be durable, realistic, attainable, and still beautiful. And if anything goes wrong? “I can always repair it,” she says. That is the true testament to midcentury quality.

Back in the midcentury, of course, modernist furniture represented the first steps towards industrializing furniture production. And yet, says Daniela, the public was still well educated about craft and quality. Today, she asserts, the quality of the workmanship is just not there, even at higher price points. The midcentury pieces survived, to a large extent, because of the quality. Spending decades in ordinary family homes, often full of smoke in the 50s and 60s, withstanding the rough and tumble of everyday life, the vintage pieces can still be returned to near perfect condition due to the quality of the materials, joinery, and so on.

Daniela applies a critical, yet restrained, eye to assessing each piece that she acquires; determining how the piece can be restored to its full glory without losing the priceless patina. This process begins with a deep respect and appreciation for the original form. “It’s such a pity to buy furniture that you don’t attach any value to,” Daniela laments. The creativity of restoring and re-contextualizing these classic pieces is a huge motivation, but she’s also driven by thoughts of sustainability, explaining, “anti-consumption is a big influence on the vintage market.”

Daniela reveals that many of her clients will initially want just one piece—a sideboard, perhaps, or a dining suite—then they come back a couple of years later looking to refurbish their entire interior in the modernist style. For Daniela, the addictive quality lies in the combination of clean minimalism, but without the harshness of more “masculine” genres like Bauhaus; “Scandinavian modernism combines masculine lines with feminine materials, tones, fabrics, and curves,” she muses.

During this year’s Art Basel, the Niemeyers showed off their passion for mid-20th-century art and design together in their showrooms. They showed a selection of artist print editions from the 1930s to the 1970s; Daniela explains, “the idea was to show a tranquil installation of universal modernism and how one could be inspired to create a living space nowadays.” Their exhibition combined Italian Stilnovo lighting with Scandinavian furniture—from the likes of Arne Vodder, Ib Kofod Larsen, Grete Jalk, Kai Kristiansen, and of course the dynamic Danish duo Hvidt & Mølgaard—surrounded by limited-edition prints from midcentury avant-garde artists on the walls. For the Niemeyers this approach of exhibiting modernist art and design reflects the conceptual hybridization of the movement across the disciplines.

“It is a decorative and affordable way to collect art," Daniela says, "and our clients are happy to get some meaningful inspiration for their walls.” All told, as the divide between art and design continues to melt among today’s creatives, we certainly look forward to seeing a lot more attention being given to the way that art and design pieces speak to each other within a space; and to seeing interiors that come alive through the narratives that these objects tell.

  • Text by

    • Gretta Louw

      Gretta Louw

      A South-African born Australian currently based in Germany, Gretta is a globetrotting multi-disciplinary artist and language lover. She holds a degree in Psychology, and has seriously avant garde leanings.