Like most hoarders, Allan Martin didn’t intend to collect copious amounts of anything. He simply needed a dining room set.
Returning home after a six-year stint in the Army, he went to the Trading Post where he found a midcentury modern china cabinet, tables and chairs. His family used them for years.
It was only after the furniture was replaced and the old set was relegated to inadequate outdoor storage that it began to disintegrate. Searching for replacements, Martin soon discovered that he had no idea how valuable his set had been.
“I didn’t know what I’d had,” the former Henrico County police detective says from his booth at West End Antiques Mall. “Since I’d bought it, people here had gotten educated about midcentury modern furniture and prices were way up.”
So were inventories of the sleek furniture with clean lines. At midcentury, Richmond’s flourishing industries such as tobacco created a booming middle class that could afford to furnish homes in the latest style — and much of that remained in the intervening years.
“Now there’s a Richmond pipeline to D.C., New York and even Dubai,” Martin says. “I’m not sure Richmond is aware of it leaving, but it’s kind of like when we let a lot of great Tredegar cast ironwork get away. We need to maintain our history right here where it belongs.”
To that end, Martin’s business, Allan’s Atomic Furniture, sells midcentury modern furniture restored locally by U.S. combat veterans, and handcrafted furniture made of reclaimed or salvaged woods and metals made by Martin and other veterans.
In addition to his West End location, he has a showroom on Davis Avenue in the Fan and storage in Ashland to house his restored and handcrafted furniture.
The design period from about 1940-1960 was known as the atomic age and the furniture referred to as such for decades — at least until the ’80s, when author Cara Greenburg wrote “Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s” and named the organic and simplistic furniture.
“I feel like we’re preserving history because this furniture is an expression of what those decades were, how important they were in the development of our country,” Martin says. “The nuclear age, exploration of space, advancements in the civil rights movement — they were all reflected in the furniture. The furniture was made to last but also made affordable for everyone.”
When Steve Hedrick signed on as vice president of operations at the expansive West End Antiques mall six years ago, midcentury modern furniture was barely represented among the 350 booths. But research into other markets indicated what was happening nationally and he set out to bring more of it in to address growing interest.
“Now we’re seeing a shift in how people are buying it,” Hedrick says. “When we first got it in, people were doing their whole house in midcentury modern, but now they’re becoming more discerning. Now people are realizing that midcentury modern furniture can be mixed with any other period.”
That’s where Martin’s furniture-making chops come in. He’s partial to creating industrial-style furniture with a combination of metal and salvaged wood from old Church Hill houses and reclaimed trees, pieces that would be right at home in one of Richmond’s many industrial buildings-turned-lofts. A steam-punk table that ratchets up and down for various uses combines a piece of walnut on a vintage black Bausch and Lomb optical stand, a piece as handsome as it is clever.
Such artistry had no outlet when Martin was young, and his father discouraged it, channeling him into more traditional careers. Now after a lifetime in military and police service, Martin has found a way to use the creativity not particularly relevant to his former professions.
“This is a great way for me to express myself and serve the community in a new way while preserving history,” he says. “That I get to see the end result of my work and get closure of a job well done, especially when I’ve been denied that for a lifetime? It’s an adrenaline rush for me.” S
Allan’s Atomic Furniture is in the West End Antiques Mall at 2004 Staples Mill Road and the showroom at 207 N. Davis Ave.