Mid-Century Marvel

Written By Kelly Roberson
Styled by Hal Davis
Photos by Duane Tinkey

For Steve Mumma, childhood visits with his grandmother would prove to be a portent of things to come, both personally and professionally. “I loved being around her, and I loved everything in her house,” says Mumma, with a quiet chuckle. “My favorite line was ‘Grandma, can I have this?’”

Admiring and in turns coveting other people’s stuff—some of it ephemera, some of it more imperishable—would prove to be a passion that Mumma didn’t need to shake. In 1985, he opened what has become an enduring Valley Junction institution: A Okay Antiques. At first, the store’s wares focused less on traditional antiques, such as the heavy furniture that likely filled his grandmother’s house, and more on signs, jukeboxes and coin-operated machines.

But then one day in 1987, a friend pointed out Heywood-Wakefield furniture. Its color—blonde, wheat, light-colored—and lack of ornamentation are two signature design statements of mid-20th-century furniture, and the vintage brand was surging in popularity in Los Angeles.

“I was traveling there to do shows, and I found a lot of it,” Mumma says. “The thing about the shows is that you really get an idea of what is going on in the collecting world, and I was exposed to a lot of really cool stuff.”

At the time, Mumma was living in an Arts and Crafts bungalow in Des Moines, and he slowly began filling it—and the store—with ceramics, Italian glass, sculpture, furniture and lighting from the mid-century period. In 2003, he began looking for a house with structural bones that were more in tune with his collection—a long, low-slung ranch with the hallmarks, including a sunken living room, of 1950s residences. He found it on Des Moines’ near north side, and he’s been adding to, rotating and fine-tuning his treasures ever since.

A tour through Mumma’s house is akin to a mid-century modern lover’s dream world come true, with a parade of names and sought-after pieces in every room. There are Eames bookshelves, a Nelson clock and Acton benches, delightfully mixed with nostalgic signs, clocks and machines. Mumma displays a hefty dose of the type of items featured in high-end national magazines such as Dwell—the iconic Breuer lounge chair, for example—but there’s an ample measure of just the very cool and groovy.

Take, for example, the giant cutaway model of a KLM airliner. At about six feet in length, probably from the 1950s, and mounted on a stainless steel stand, it is the focal point of Mumma’s living space. He found it at a show in San Francisco and “just had to have it.” But he is equally smitten with a turn-of-the-last-century red porcelain lollipop-style penny scale, tucked into a bathroom.

“Part of the passion of collecting is finding stuff in great condition,” Mumma says. “I really keep the scope of what I collect wide open. That’s one of the benefits of having a store: You realize you have no idea what you’ll be buying next.”

Or, as it turns out, what living legends you’ll meet. Mumma has become friends with artist and designer Hugh Acton, one of the few mid-century furniture designers still living and producing original works. Acton first designed his signature slat bench in 1955 while a student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Mumma commissioned Acton to design crushed copper sculptures for insets around his front door, and an Acton slat bench is among Mumma’s most treasured pieces.

“Becoming friends with him has been one of the highlights of my career; he was there with Eames and Nelson, and they were all doing the same things,” Mumma says. “To be able to visit his house and spend time with him, see his passions and his amazing collection—it’s really fantastic.”

Mumma still gets inspired by the hunt, but mostly his house is a study in loving what you live with, no matter its provenance or distinction—or lack thereof. “I would rather buy a great sofa than redo a bathroom,” he says, adding that he never knows when he gets a phone call or walks into someone’s house “what will inspire me to veer off onto a different path. I feel lucky every day.”

On the Hunt
Steve Mumma’s A Okay Antiques is a hot spot in Central Iowa for vintage mid-century finds. But if you’re a traveler, you can seek out shows that Mumma both attends and stages exhibits at. Here are a few and when they’re held:

  • Palm Springs Modernism Show & Sale, February
  • 20th Century Cincinnati, February
  • Los Angeles Modernism Show & Sale, April/early May
  • Michigan Modernism Exposition (Detroit), May
  • Denver Modernism Show, August
  • San Francisco Modernism Show & Sale, September

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