Industrial Revolution

Sometimes the mid-century modernist in me finds himself in a quarrel with the antiquarian in me. One appreciates clean lines with futuristic flair, the other is drawn to history—but both seem to be pacified when it comes to vintage industrial design. A clean, utilitarian look paired with a little rust and age appeals to both spectrums and lately I’ve been dragging in quite a few finds with gritty panache.


I snatched up these two steel beauties at a surplus sale. The barrister bookcase is a crowd favorite, so it wasn’t exactly cheap, but this two drawer laboratory desk was only $10 and I think that more than makes up the difference. The desk’s original top has been replaced with a terrible hunk of Formica countertop and it won’t be sticking around long. Although I’m not sure what I want to replace it with yet, I’d love it to be something with a well worn look to it. Perhaps a repurposed table top? Maybe some reclaimed flooring? We’ll have to see what the thrifting gods throw at me this spring.


Industrial furniture, originally built for schools, factories and hospitals, is usually sparing in form and the smallest details can really set off a piece. As small as it is, this desk has a lot of neat little features. I love the art deco bakelite pulls on the drawers and the oddity of a small desk with two top drawers also makes it feel a little unusual and special. The rubber feet act almost as moldings and make it look refined.

Toe_Cap         Rust

Normally rust would be a deal breaker for me, but on this piece I think it adds something. Here it’s just the right amount of rust to give it a little age and character. But to protect the desk and anything that comes in contact with it, the rust will have to be sealed. I’m researching the best way to do this, but doing so will make the rust seem less like damage and make the paint feel richer too.


As a collector, barrister bookcases, sometimes called stacking bookcases, are among my favorite pieces of furniture. Sure they’re good for books—but they are great for displaying collections. It’s like a stack of little dioramas to showcase all of the small things I collect but can never seem to find a place for. Although wooden bookcases are the standard, steel ones like this Globe Wernicke bookcase, offer the unique perspective of a classic piece reimagined in metal.


The fact that they are reconfigurable means there’s no limit to what you can do with one. While I have another similar unit that is in slightly more remedial condition, this one will look like a million bucks with just a wash and wax. Stay tuned and we’ll show you exactly how to shine up your painted steel furniture in an upcoming post.

Globe Wernicke

But my industrial strength curiosity hasn’t stopped with the big stuff, these smaller items carry on the trend. Oddities like old electrical equipment and lab glassware pulled from a variety of places sometimes just come together and feel natural. Among the oddest is this Dazor “floating” magnifier lamp. It’s just so weird and it was calling out to me in a thrift store. I told myself I was buying it for a work light, but in reality I just thought it was cool looking—in a mad scientist sort of a way.


Steel furniture was often made with many coordinating pieces and if you’re really lucky you can still find some lurking around. I actually bought this Globe Wernicke letter sorter some time ago and was thrilled to see it matched my bookcase. These sorters are so handy. I use them at work and on my desk at home and they’re great for sorting bills and paperwork with a little style.


These typewriter ribbon tins were just 50 cents each at a local monthly flea market and inject a little color into the scene. They’re great little storage containers for pins, thumbtacks, rubber bands and paperclips.


I’m a sucker for any sort of gadget and if it has a dial on it I’m all about it. I don’t know what these various electrical meters did in a previous life, but for now they’re making my shelves look cool.



This 1930s era GE voltmeter lured me in with its gold face

Furniture and tools that come out of the working world or academia after 50 to 100 years are often a little rough around the edges and are almost always filthy from decades of storage. I’ve got a lot of a cleaning, polishing and waxing ahead of me to get these pieces room ready but I’m going to let some of those battle scars show. None of these things were ever meant to be beautiful, but sometimes the beauty just gets worn in with age.


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  1. Posted February 11, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Can’t wait to see what happens with these guys. Great finds!

  2. Cindy
    Posted February 11, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    hi, great stuff… you wouldn’t be willing to part with your Dazor “floating” magnifier lamp, would you? i make jewelry and haven’t been able to since i had eye surgery?

  3. Victor Van Laar
    Posted February 11, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m a little more than certain I sat at and used a desk exactly like that one in one of my science classes in either Gilman Hall or Physics Hall, but not with the cheap coutertop. It would have originally had a dark grey/black lab-benchtop-resin top. But I do remember that, even back then when in use, those foot guards where pulled up on the legs like that. Odd.

    • Austin
      Posted February 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

      Victor, it could easily have come from Gilman Hall on the Iowa State campus and I imagine many more are still in use. I would love a black lab table top, but I think some slightly aged wood will give it nice contrast too.

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