mid centurt modern room

What is Mid-Century Modern Style?

Mid-Century Modern is a term that is used to describe dominant furnishings of the mid-20th century. It is based on interior design that was popular between the years of 1933 and 1965. Homes were clean, almost minimalistic, and designed for the family unit.   The furniture typically featured clean lines, dedicated functionality, and a simplistic design.

Time Period

 

The Mid-Century Modern style has its roots in the post-World War II environment. The war put immense financial strain on entire nations and their citizens, and the war effort consumed resources endlessly. People could no longer afford or acquire the luxuries available to them in the past.

Within this context, a new design aesthetic emerged based on simplicity, functionality, and affordability. Mass manufacturing was a big part of production as the nation entered a massive construction boom.

Almost in the blink of an eye, super modern homes sprung up in the thousands, hugging the major US metropolises, expanding city limits and blurring the once distinct boundaries between the wild and urban.

Philosophy

In the age of the nuclear family, homes were smaller, more linear, and uniform in design. People wanted more practical things in the wake of the Second World War.

Gone were the extravagant styles of the pre-war period, which were influenced by the English Victorian era. Ornate and decadent furnishings, like the Chesterfield sofa’s lavish detailing and delicate upholstery, were no longer in vogue.

Designers got to work reimagining furniture that fit into the new aesthetic.

This emerging style was seen as a token of progress, a departure from or even rebellion against the decadence of the past.

In its place, designers drew simple, bold silhouettes with clean lines and an emphasis on ample sweeping curves, and these Hulala Home range sofas are a prime example.

Functionality

The mid-century modern aesthetic valued functionality over flash, as well as Sleek lines and clean styles

For example, Charles Eames’s fiberglass shell chairs were stackable, easily cleaned, and had interchangeable legs, yet they remained stylish and streamlined.

Wooden or metal frames with soft fabrics and bold prints became more prevalent.

Key Characteristics

Colors

Bright colors were very fashionable in this era, in contrast to the muted colors of the war period.

Popular colors included beige, tan, gray, orange, brown, olive, red and teal.

These colors would be used as accents to highlight specific portions of sofas or stools.

fin juhl
Finn Juhl Glove Cabinet
Finnjuhl.com
mid century bookcase
Mexique Bookcase
Harvard Art Museum
mid century palette
Benjamin Moore palette

Shapes

Mid-Century Modern Era designs preferred stark, geometric lines and defined shapes that sometimes came together to create exciting pieces.  For example, the Demure Armchair is all straight lines, but the whole thing is angled to create a comfortable reclining chair that looks great.

Consider the contrasts of the polished oak wood frame with the bright and bold colors.

consider the shape of the Demure chair
Demure Armchair
image from SLF24.co.uk

Another critical characteristic of Mid-Century Modern design was that furniture was made into curved shapes and other unique forms. Sofas were almost round, coffee tables were oddly shaped, and lots of furniture was very geometric. Plenty of coffee tables from this era have a round wooden frame with frosted glass in the center.

famous mid century stool example
Mezzadro Stool
Art Institute of Chicago
mid century coffee table example
curved glass coffee table

Materials

Industrial advancements gave designers a greater range of materials; modernist designers took full advantage of this.

Mid-century modern furniture, though simple in design, may be quite adventurous in composition. Wood was still heavily relied upon, but metal, glass, vinyl, and plywood also played crucial roles in the movement.

Teak

Many modernist designers typically chose teak because of its rich hue and incredible durability. Oak and rosewood were also quite popular, especially for case pieces such as storage cabinets and tables, as were ebony and zebra wood to a lesser degree.

Teak was especially popular because of its rich color and impressive durability. Furniture made of teak would last longer and fit into the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic.

Other popular woods included rosewood and oak wood.

teak coffee table example
Teak Coffee Table in Mid-Century Style
source: 1stDibs.com

Patterns

In reality, many interiors in the 1940s and ’50s were dull and uninspiring. So why are we still so interested in these patterns today?

From atomic design to the flora and fauna of 1960s flower power, the designs encompass an element of Modernism that continues to capture our imagination.

The approach to patterning wasn’t just confined to interiors, graphic design or fashion but extended to architecture. Designs boldly used contrasting, sometimes clashing, colors and themes such as cutlery, fruit and animals. Something is pleasing about the simplicity and repetition of these motifs.

The total commitment to pattern in this era is both breathtaking and refreshing.

dandelion clocks pattern
‘Dandelion Clocks,” 

Orla Kiely’s mid-century-inspired stem print, created in 2000, has been released every season since in varying palettes due to demand – a future classic in the making! Likewise, in 2008, quintessentially English brand Sanderson launched their mid-century-influenced design, which immediately became a best-seller.

Do we find it easier to relate to pattern and color than to other aspects of mid-century design? Is it that we can all inject these elements into our homes for little cost?

In this respect, mid-century pattern design can be applied to many everyday items as it was first conceived. At their best, those simple, bright pops of color and pattern bring unexpected positivity and stimulation to our lives – and who doesn’t fancy a piece of that?

Famous Mid-Century Modern Designers

George Nelson

marshmallow sofa from nelson
src: Herman Miller

The creator of the infamous “Marshmallow Sofa”, George Nelson was a legendary industrial designer and architect who served as the lead designer at Herman Miller. He’s considered one of the founders of the mid-century modernist style.

Unlike many other mid century modern designers, George Nelson (1904 – 1986) started out his career as a writer. After studying architecture at Yale University, Nelson spent a few years in Europe to learn about modern European architecture. He interviewed many leading European architects and brought his knowledge home to write about his experience. Nelson successfully introduced the concept of modern European architecture into the American design community. He also introduced many innovative design ideas in his articles while he was an editor at “Architectural Forum.”

By 1940, Nelson’s innovative design ideas began to draw attention from the design community. One of those ideas, the first modular storage system called “Storagewall” caught the attention of D.J. DePree, President of Herman Miller, Inc. In 1945, Nelson accepted a position of director of design at Herman Miller and held this position until 1972. While at Herman Miller, Inc., Nelson was involved in furniture design and communication for the company, such as marketing and signage. He also recruited other designers like Charles Eames and Isamu Noguchi. Nelson also created his own products such as the first L-shaped desk, the Marshmallow sofa, the platform bench, the Coconut chair, a series of wall and desk clocks, and a series of bubble lamps.  See George Nelson Case Study Inspired Diy Bed.

george nelson clock
Nelson Ball Clock

Alexandra Girard

a mid century girard pattern
click to enlarge

Much like Nelson, Italian-American Alexander Girard was an industrial designer and architect, but he became more notorious for his innovative work as a textile designer.

In fact, he and George would work together on a number of projects after being appointed as the head of the fabric and textile division of Herman Miller.

Charles Eames said of his friend and collaborator Alexander Girard, “There is perhaps no designer of our time more concerned with the selection of beautiful things and their relation to their environment than Alexander Girard.”

 

Edward Wormley

Unlike the previous two modernists, Wormley was never really considered to be at the forefront of the modern furniture movement, but he was one of its greatest innovators.

Taking elements of classical, European, and Scandinavian furniture design, he created pieces that were distinct in their sophistication and elegance.

He was thought of as a “translator” of the design world, capable of examining historical styles and stripping them for parts in order to improve the modern furniture produced by the company he worked for, Dunbar.

wormley chairs
src: incollect.com

Jens Risom

risom side chair from knoll
src: knoll.com

Risom was a Danish-American designer and exemplar of mid-century modern interior design. Along with Wormley, he’s considered one of the first to introduce Scandinavian designs to the American furniture market.

Many of his designs are now considered modern classics. You can see them on display in a number of prestigious museums around the world, including MoMA, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum.

Eero Saarinen

tulip chair from saarinen
tulip chair
src: B2H

The Finnish-American industrial designer and architect Eero Saarinen is considered the king of the mid-century modern chair.

He was also responsible for designing a number of amazing buildings throughout his career, including a General Motors technical center, the Birch Hall at Antioch College,  Noyes dormitory of Vassar, and the St Louis Gateway Arch.

Eero was a member of the jury on the Sydney Opera House commission and played a crucial role in getting Jørn Utzon’s iconic design chosen for the structure.

Verner Panton

verner panton red heart chair
red heart chair
src: 1stdibs.com

Considered one of Denmark’s most influential furniture designers, Verner Panton is renowned for his utilization of plastic, a material that had previously only really been used to emulate wood in cheap furniture.

He wasn’t afraid of color either! Bold and bright shades are a staple of his work, placing his style firmly in the early 60s.

Harry Bertoiia

Bertoia Chair midcentury modern
Bertoia Chair

Harry Bertoia (1915 – 1978), an Italian-born furniture designer and sculptor, attended Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he later taught painting and metal crafts between 1937 and 1943. He then worked with Charles Eames in California to assist in developing Eames’s molded plywood chairs.

In 1950, he joined Knoll Associates and developed his signature piece, the Diamond chair. Often referred to as the Bertoia chair, the Diamond chair was innovative and unique.

Bertoia used the new material, industrial wire rods – polished or vinyl coated, for the main body and covered it with cotton or Naugahyde upholstery.

 

Bertoia was also well known for his talent in sculpture. He created many monumental architectural pieces in public places such as the large copper and bronze fountain for the Philadelphia Civic Center in Pennsylvania, the bronze sculpture at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C, and decorative metal sculptured screens for major companies and educational institutions.

Isamu Noguchi

iconic glass coffee table
src: finnishdesignshop.com

Isamu Noguchi was an immensely influential Japanese-American sculptor whose skills extended to the worlds of furniture and lighting design, ceramics, architecture, landscapes, and set design.

An internationalist, Noguchi traveled the world in search of impressions, techniques, philosophies, and materials to improve his work. He never claimed to subscribe to any one artistic movement, but he was perhaps most closely associated with the modernists.

One of his mid-century modernist design triumphs is the “Futura Akari” collection, a group of light sculptures based on principles of modularity and customizability.

Arne Jacobsen

jacobsen style egg chair
egg chair
src: modernindesigns.com

We’ve all heard of the “Egg Chair” and it’s Arne Jacobsen we have to thank for this wonderful and whimsical design.

He played a pivotal role in architectural functionalism and was seen as a visionary early on in his career after winning the Danish Architects Association competition for his “House of the Future” design.

A Jewish man, his career was interrupted by the rise of the Nazis and his subsequent fleeing to Sweden during the war, but he kept his creative skills sharp by designing fabrics and wallpaper.

After the war, he was able to return to Denmark and continue his architectural work. His prominence as a furniture designer was almost incidental, a consequence of clients requesting that he also dream up the furnishings of the buildings he was working on.

Eileen Gray

classic midcentury side table
Eileen Gray side table
src: hivemodern.com

Eileen Gray, an architect and furniture designer of Irish descent, is regarded as one of the most important pioneers of the modernist movement.

She was skilled in the art of lacquering, having studied under Seizo Sugawara, but went on to make a name for herself in the world of interior design, furniture design, and subsequently, architecture.

Sadly, during WWII, Eileen was interned as a foreign national, leaving her houses to be looted; her drawings, models, and notes to be destroyed, and the walls of her most famous work, E-1027 (a modernist villa in France) to be used as target practice by Nazi soldiers.

Paul McCobb

Paul McCobb (1917 – 1969), furniture designer and decorator, contributed in bringing modular furniture into American household. Though he did not have any formal training in design, he established a studio in 1945 and worked as a decorator and display designer in retail industry.

By 1950, he began designing furniture and launched his stylish, yet affordable line of furniture collection called Planner Group. The Planner Group collection was one of the best selling 1950’s furniture collections. Although he also designed more luxurious collections such as the Directional, Predictor Linear, and Perimeter Lines, his main target was the average American family of post World War II. His flexible and functional furniture designs successfully met the needs of the middle-class household.

McCobb Credenza
Paul McCobb Planner Group Credenza

 

Paul McCobb also designed a line of dinnerware called “Contempri” for Jackson Internationale, a subsidiary of Franklin China of Falls Creek, Pennsylvania. The Contempri line includes patters such as “Eclipse,” “Sparkler,” “Hopscotch,” and “Frost.” McCobb’s vintage furniture pieces are highly desirable among collectors, partially because there are currently no reproductions of Paul McCobb’s furniture made.

paul mccobb dishes
Contempri Eclipse Dishes

 

Charles & Ray Eames

classic eames chair
src: haysconcept.com

The power couple of the mid-century modernist movement, Charles and Ray Eames ran the Eames Office, which was a bastion of the modernist design philosophy.

A husband and wife team, Charles (1907 – 1978) and Ray (1912 – 1988) Eames are among the most influential designers of American design history. Together, they contributed in furniture design, architecture, film, art, exhibits, and graphic design.

 

Charles Eames studied architecture at Washington University for two years. Many sources claim that he was dismissed from the University for supporting Frank Lloyd Wright and modern architecture. In 1930, he started his own architectural office in his hometown St. Louis, Missouri. In 1938, he and his family (wife Catherine and daughter Lucia, they divorced in 1941) moved to Michigan, to study at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he later became head of the industrial design department. Ray studied abstract painting with Hanns Hofmann in New York before beginning her studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art. At Cranbrook, Ray assisted Charles and Eero Saarinen’s design project for “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition at the Museum of Modern Art.

Eames Fiberglass Chair

Charles and Ray married in 1941 and settled in California where they continued to develop many innovative products using molding plywood. During World War II, they developed designs for splints and stretchers for the U.S. Navy. The production of their molded plywood furniture collection, featuring dining tables, dining chairs, lounge chairs, occasional tables, and a screen began shortly after the war ended in 1946, first by Evans Products Company and then by Herman Miller, Inc.. Various designs of their molded plywood furniture have remained in production to this day. They also designed furniture with other materials such as chairs using molded fiberglass, cast aluminum, and bent/welded wire mesh. Regardless of the style and material, their furniture was always sophisticated, yet simple and functional. Their design focused on improving ordinary people’s quality of life by fulfilling their needs.

Eames Hang It All

 

Though Charles and Ray Eames are well known for their furniture design, they also devoted their time in other areas such as architecture, films, and exhibits. In 1949, they participated in the Case Study House Program sponsored by a magazine called “Arts and Architecture” and designed and built their own house known as the “Eames House.” They have also produced more than 100 short films, such as “Powers of Ten.” They also designed showrooms and toys for children. Regardless the form of design, Charles and Ray Eames successfully proved that good design can make the world more interesting and improve people’s quality of life as well.

The “Eames Chair” is a famous hallmark of the modernist movement, utilizing molded and bent plywood.

Interestingly, the final iteration of this groundbreaking chair was the result of watching their friend, Hollywood director Billy Wilder, trying and failing to relax between long hours of filming.

 

Incorporate Mid-Century Modern Furniture Today

Functionality Is Key

Functionality is the heart and soul of mid-century modernism, but since these designs are old now, some may not be quite as cutting-edge in a contemporary context.

For instance, using an MCM credenza as a TV unit might look cool, but it will need more space for your game consoles, sound system, Blu-rays, etc.

Moreover, it may not be strong enough to support large modern televisions over a long period, so be sure to factor in structural integrity when choosing your furniture.

Blend With Contemporary Styles

Unless you’re going for an overwhelmingly stylized look, using mid-century modern pieces amongst more understated contemporary designs is best. Leaning too hard into the 20th-century aesthetic may leave your home looking museum-esque.

Match Woods

Research the popular woods of the era and determine which will work best in your home. You can mix and match if you like, which helps if you’re buying original and don’t have much choice, but try to incorporate vaguely similar woods.

We wouldn’t recommend pairing classic teak pieces with zebra wood pieces, as the contrast will be too jarring. However, rosewood and ebony can be similar if the rosewood is on the darker side of the spectrum, so that could work.

Is Mid-Century Modern Decor Still Popular?

Though Mid-Century Modern decor and style are a bit old now, they have seen quite a boost in popularity in the 21st century. The functionality and convenience of multipurpose furniture are some of the big reasons modern humans enjoy this style, as is the warm and cozy feeling it emulates. 

Mid-Century Modern decor and design boast the perfect balance between classic style and modern aesthetics, which is very appealing to people today. Vintage styles always return to popularity at some point because people love what feels familiar to them. 

List of Mid-Century Modern Furniture Brands

Are Mid-Century Modern And Retro The Same?

Retro and Mid-Century design and furnishings are incredibly similar, and you wouldn’t be the first to think they are the same. Mid-Century Modern and Retro were produced and became popular between the 1940s and 1970s, and they are similar in look and feel. 

Mid-Century Modern has more modern shapes and sleek curves, made with nostalgic minimalistic materials. Retro does seem to have some elements of Mid-Century Modern, but the colors are a lot brighter and more out there, and eclectic patterns are much more common. 

Retro has an almost chaotic look, whereas Mid-Century Modern is much simpler and more uniform. 

Are Mid-Century Modern And Scandinavian The Same?

Another style that is similar to Mid-Century Modern is Scandinavian. Again, both share similarities, but they are, in fact, two different designs and concepts. 

Mid-Century Modern and Scandinavian designs originated in Europe, but they have different characteristics that set them apart. 

As we have already established, Mid-Century Modern refers to furniture and architecture made between 1945 and 1965. On the other hand, Scandinavian is a style that originated in Denmark during the 20th century. 

Scandinavian design and furniture were heavily influenced by the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark during the 1950s to 1970s. Mid-Century Modern was heavily influenced by the geometric shapes and natural wood and metal materials of the Bauhaus art movement. 

They look similar when separated, but if you put them together, you will see that the differences are much more noticeable than you might have initially thought. 

Mid-Century Modern Vs. Contemporary

We can trace some contemporary design elements back to the early to mid-1900s, but it’s very much its own thing, distinct from mid-century modernism.

The bold use of color and the broad shaping of the mid-century style gave many pieces a decidedly retro feel, and thus, can’t be considered all that contemporary.

Although contemporary and retro styles blend particularly well, which is part of the reason mid-century modern is such a hot topic right now, we digress…

Contemporary modern styles lean further into the minimalism established by the Bauhaus philosophy of the early 1900s, preferring an overtly practical, understated, and sometimes even industrial approach.

There’s a coldness to contemporary modernism, whereas mid-century modernist furniture offered great warmth even with all those clean, straight lines.

It’s not that the new modern is sterile, as such; much of what appears sanitized about it is merely that it’s new, and we don’t have the pleasure of viewing it through the tinted lens of history. 

However, its relentless, near-grotesque sleekness will always be apparent, whereas mid-century designs are more whimsical in shape and color.

Coming Soon:

Mid Century Modern Paint Colors By Sherwin Williams

Wonderful Mid Century Modern Graphic Art

Mid Century Modern House Numbers

Mid Century Magazine