They dont make em like they used to

Steven Mogol specializes in American office furniture made between 1862 and 1977. That’s right: 1977. Not the 1970s. Not the mid-70s. 1977.

That’s the year, in his estimation, that the American furniture industry, after a series of large failures and acquisitions, stopped making the high-quality desks, chairs and credenzas that filled office buildings and schools for more than a century.

Mogol, 61, started buying and selling furniture in 1970, specializing in wood office furniture. Then, he says, “all of a sudden, it wasn’t available, except for used, after 1977.”

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, he was always a collector, starting with an “incredible” baseball card collection, as well as model boats, airplanes and cars. Now he collects on a different scale.

He bought a three-story apartment building on Franklin Avenue near 35W in 1992, when the neighborhood was “a war zone.” Today it’s home base for his business, Past Present Future, where he restores and sells vintage furniture — mostly over the Internet as he doesn’t really have a proper storefront — and rents it out to film production companies.

The 1933 FBI office in the recent John Dillinger movie, “Public Enemies”? That’s all Past Present Future stuff. And Mogol takes pride in seeing his pieces used properly in movies. “It’s like a documentary. It preserves it,” he said.

“I’m also trying to save as much as I can for historical purposes,” he added. He has hundreds — if not thousands — of pieces in his 32,000-square-foot building, including about 400 file cabinets.

Where have all the tankers gone?

Gone are the days when disaster preparedness videos advised children and office workers to hide under their desks in case of attack. The flimsy plywood with thin veneer and glued joints filling up today’s offices wouldn’t hold off so much as a thrown shoe.

But Mogol’s stock of vast wood and metal desks belong to the class of desks that furniture dealers actually refer to as “tankers” and “bomb shelters” as terms of art.

“Things were built to standards unheard of today,” Mogol said. “You just don’t find that kind of construction today, unless you pay a lot of money.”

The computer-era brought a change in the way desks are shaped, too. Vast, smooth tops meant for holding stacks of paper, with room for a blotter to keep the imprint of a pen from damaging the top — all that went away when the greatest concern in shopping for a desk became whether there was a hole to drop a computer power cord down and room for the CPU underneath.

Now that more people have switched permanently to laptops, the old style of desk is becoming popular again, Mogul said, along with library tables as workspaces.

He gets a lot of requests for credenzas, too — multi-use items that go from office to dining room, even to the kitchen, or anywhere audiophiles might decide to stash their record collections. And the filing cabinet — remember, Mogul has 400 of them — isn’t going away anytime soon.

“There will always be paper,” he said. “People go to the store and see how much junk ones cost and then they call me.”

What should vintage shoppers look for? “Whatever pleases the eye,” Mogul advised. “Everybody has different taste. You have to have an imagination for what it would look like if it were changed. If you find something that’s in very nice condition, keep it that way. Enjoy it, dents and all.”

But pieces from this era are getting harder to find. “It’s kind of dried up,” he said. “You’ll find things in the least expected places. I find them on the street sometimes. … And when steel prices go up, there’s a few hundred tons less.”

About those people who would dare to scrap a piece of beautiful, historic, high-quality American workmanship, Mogol has this to say: “People who know, know. And people who don’t, well …”

Tricia Cornell can be reached at 436-4386 or [email protected]

Past Present Future
336 Franklin Ave. E.