The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Mid Century Style & Design
With mid-century-modern furniture seeing something of a renaissance at the moment, you’ve no doubt been around a lot of this style of decor, perhaps without even noticing.
When it comes to designing an interior, there are so many different styles you can choose from. From art deco to Bohemian, there are no shortages of design options for you to experiment with.
One such interior design option that is available is of course Mid-Century Modern. But if you are new to interior design and the many different styles, you might be wondering what Mid-Century Modern is.
Well, if that’s the case, then you have come to the right place! We are going to go over everything about what Mid-Century Modern actually is, as well as a bit of the history behind it and the key characteristics you need to bring this style to life.
What Is Mid-Century Modern Design?
Mid-Century Modern Decor 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.
Background & Context
Post War Mass Production
Mid-Century Modern Decor is inspired by a post-World War II environment, and it heavily relies on mass production and technology that was invented during the first half of the 20th Century. It aims to inspire a more optimistic outlook of the future after such foreboding times.
Many Mid-Century sofas and other furnishings reflected not only the style preferences of the time but also the modes of manufacturing.
This was the era of mass production, which means that thousands of the same designs of sofa could be manufactured. This was the age of the nuclear family, which was roughly specified as 2.4 children (2 adults and 2 children), which meant smaller, more uniform houses.
These dwellings were unable to really accommodate frillier designs. Also, in the wake of the Second World War, people wanted things that were more practical. These earlier extravagances were relegated to the time before the war and a fresh start was required.
Cutting Costs In A World At War
The war put immense financial strain on entire nations and the people residing within them. As the war effort consumed resources endlessly, people could no longer afford or acquire the luxuries available to them in the past.
This meant there was more than just an aesthetic yearning to move on from overindulgent historical designs; there was a financial imperative too!
Creating a more economic style that could be executed well as part of mass production operations meant that people could budget for furniture while the world recuperated from the drain on lives and resources that was the war.
Pre WWII, interior design was still very much entwined with the styles of the past, particularly the English Victorian era. Popular furniture was ornate, and in certain instances, unabashedly decadent.
Take the Chesterfield style sofa, for instance, a classic staple of the living room aesthetic in the Victorian era. They’re defined by oodles of lavish detailing and fine upholstery embellished from arm to arm.
There’s a touch of what would become the highly intricate stylings of art nouveau in the Chesterfield design. But leading up to and certainly during and after the Second World War, Priorities were shifting in big ways both in the home and the factory, and such indulgence was considered egregious.
In its place, designers drew out simple, bold silhouettes with clean lines and an emphasis on large sweeping curves, our Hulala Home range sofas being a prime example.
In essence, the mid-century modern aesthetic valued functionality over flash. It mirrored the sentiment of the time that above all else, furniture should be practical.
Not only to suit the needs and wants of the mid-century population but to suit the aspects of life that had already seen significant change.
Housing, for example, had become far more linear, built around the notion of the nuclear family and the modern lifestyle, and the frillier designs of yesteryear no longer seemed to fit in with the full picture of a home.
Plus, post-war, there was a huge construction boom as the nation prepared to welcome surviving troops home. As such, an element of modularity reliant on simple, expandable design was introduced in order to expedite the process.
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.
So, instead of trying to shoehorn classical designs into peoples’ homes, designers got to work reimagining furniture that fell seamlessly into the aesthetic of the new normal.
This emerging style was seen as a token of progress, a departure from or perhaps even rebellion against the cloying richness of the past in order to live more organically, and of course, more in the now.
Functionality is also an important aspect of mid century modern designs with a target of the modernism movement mainly being the average American families of the post war era. Thus, the designers of this era not only created a sleek and clean style, but also focused on keeping functionality in their minds to fulfill the needs of the average American families.
For example, the fiberglass shell chairs designed by Charles Eames were stackable, easily cleaned, and their legs were interchangeable yet they remained stylish and streamlined.
The furniture shapes for Mid-Century Modern decor are generally made up of clean lines and organic shapes, with wooden or metal frames. Soft fabrics and bold prints are also quite prevalent in Mid-Century Modern design and decor. The decoration itself is meant to be kept to a minimum to keep a simple and stylish look in the room.
What’s So Modern About A Mid-20th-Century Style?
We’re hurtling towards another century after the emergence of the mid-century furniture style, so it may seem weird to some that we refer to it as modern. But there are a couple of good reasons why it’s a fitting label.
First and foremost, we need to understand that modern isn’t just a common word, but an aesthetic label in of itself. Developed by the Bauhaus movement of the early 1900s, modernism was a means of unifying all arts into a singular form of expression.
An emphasis on minimalism was key to accomplishing this, which is where the focus on clean lines, smooth surfaces, and diverse materials in the mid-century modern style is derived.
There are so many different takes on core modernist principles that, these days, modernism is actually more of an umbrella term encompassing a myriad of different aesthetic branches — The mid-century modern style is but one of them.
Secondly, we can more or less trace the roots of newer modern styles back to the mid-century aesthetic. Most of the same design tropes are still in use today and are still thought of as cutting-edge and decidedly modern in the truest sense of the word.
Bright colors were very fashionable when it came to this era, as it was a marked contrast to the muted colors that came at the turn of the century before the war.
These colors include beige, tan, gray, orange, brown, olive, red and teal.
A lot of these colors were preferred because of their simplicity. There were also accent colors that were used to highlight certain portions of sofas or stools. For furnishings such as a front door, the Mid-Century modern design went for similarly bold colors.
Mid-Century Modern Era designs had a preference for stark, geometric lines, and defined shapes that sometimes came together to create interesting pieces.
For example, the Demure Armchair is pretty much all straight lines, but the whole thing is angled in a way that creates a reclining chair that is not only comfortable, but it looks great. It is made from polished oak wood on the frame, which is contrasted with a bright and bold color.
However, that’s not to say that Mid-Century modern wasn’t without any style or interesting designs.
These lined sofas without frills suggested much more cleanliness. This was in keeping with most modern homes that had vacuums that would allow you to clean up your home quicker and more thoroughly.
Another key characteristic of Mid-Century Modern design was that the furniture was made into curved shapes and other unique forms. Sofas were almost round, coffee tables were oddly shaped, and lots of furniture had a very geometric shape to it. There are plenty of coffee tables from this era that have a round wooden frame with frosted glass in the center.
Mid-century pattern: the spirit of Modernism
The endurance of mid-century color and pattern is testament to its allure. From atomic design to the organic flora and fauna of 1960s flower power, there are many inspirations to take from the mid-century period, and plenty of offerings today
The reality is that many interiors in the 1940s and ’50s were dull and uninspiring. But the designs that did encompass this spirit of Modernism continue to capture our imagination. So why are we still so interested in these patterns today?
There are many factors at play: the intrinsic quality of some mid-century design is certainly one, but also involved are nostalgia, the collectability of these designs, as well as the quantity of designs from the 1950s and ’60s available as baby boomers of this era downsize and new designers come to light.
Perhaps also a factor is the all-encompassing way in which pattern was applied. It wasn’t just confined to interiors, graphic design or fashion but extended to architecture. Designs made bold use of contrasting, sometimes clashing, colours and popular themes such as cutlery, fruit and animals. The apparent simplicity and pleasing repetition, together with the impact and scalability of these motifs ensure that these patterns still flourish.
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 ‘Dandelion Clocks’, which immediately became a best-seller.
The total commitment to pattern in this era is both breathtaking and refreshing. 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 so many everyday items, as it was first conceived to be. 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?
Certain traditional resources were either not readily available or were simply no longer an option, but thankfully, industrial advancements meant there was a greater range of materials to work with, and modernist designers took full advantage of them.
Mid-century modern furniture, though simple in design, may be quite adventurous in terms of composition. Wood of course was still heavily relied upon, but metal, glass, vinyl, and plywood also played crucial roles in the movement.
Teak was typically the wood of choice for many modernist designers, preferred for its rich hue and incredible durability. Oak and rosewood were quite popular too, especially for case pieces such as storage cabinets and tables, as was ebony and zebra wood to a lesser degree.
Teak was especially popular because of its rich color and its impressive durability. Furniture made out of teak would last for longer and it fit into the whole Mid-Century Modern aesthetic. Other woods that were popular included rosewood and oak wood.
Though wood was a very popular material used in Mid-Century Modern design, plenty of other materials were also considered to be prominent. Some of the other materials include metal, glass, and vinyl.
Famous Mid-Century Modern Designers
When discussing things as grand as movements and philosophies, it’s easy to forget the innovative individuals responsible for driving change and creating a new mode of thinking.
So, let’s pump the brakes on our mid-century modern furniture deep dive and focus up for a moment on the mid-century modernists responsible for it!
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.
Despite not having a background in furniture design, Herman Miller chairman D.J. Dupree decided Nelson was the man to head up the design department after reading his post-war book Tomorrow’s House.
In Dupree’s opinion, there was no individual more suited to making furniture more useful, and he was right!
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.”
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.
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.
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, and the Noyes dormitory of Vassar.
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.
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 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 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.
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, 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.
Charles & Ray Eames
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.
They and their diverse creative staff were instigators of significant developments in architectural and furniture design.
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.
What Kind Of Furniture Is Used In Mid-Century Modern Decor?
When it comes to the kind of furniture you would find being used in a Mid-Century Modern design, there are lots of key types you can refer to.
Typically, rosewood desks, long low sideboards, and wooden armed chairs can be found in almost every room that is designed in the Mid-Century Modern way. Any curved or geometrically shaped furniture is also likely to make an appearance.
The color of the furniture is also typically muted, and popular colors for Mid-Century Modern include neutral tones such as white or gray, sometimes cool blue, or earthy tones such as green, brown, or oranges.
The furniture is meant to be incredibly functional and can be used multi-purposefully as well, so this is an important characteristic to look out for if you are trying to emulate the Mid-Century Modern decor for yourself.
How To Incorporate Mid-Century Modern Furniture In Your Home
Before we go our separate ways, let’s run through a few design tips to get you started if you’re interested in bringing some mid-century modern furniture into your home.
Functionality Is Key
Functionality is the heart and soul of mid-century modernism, but being that these designs are quite old now, some may not be quite as cutting edge in a contemporary context.
As much as you may love the aesthetics of a piece, the philosophy behind its creation urges you to choose something more practical if such a thing exists.
For instance, it might look cool to use an MCM credenza as a TV unit, but it’s probably not going to have space for your games consoles, sound system, Blu Rays, and so on.
What’s more, it may not even have the strength to support large modern televisions over a long period of time, so be sure to factor in structural integrity when choosing your furniture.
It’s easy to get carried away and pick up every original mid-century modernist specimen you find, but the last thing you (or the modernists) want is to transform your home into an odd curiosity shop of 20th-century relics.
In short, learn when to prioritize the space over the furniture.
Research the popular woods of the era and figure out which you think will work best in your home. You can mix and match if you like, which helps if you’re buying original and don’t get much of a choice, but try to incorporate woods that are vaguely similar.
We’d advise against pairing classic teak pieces with, say, zebra wood pieces, as the contrast will be too jarring. However, rosewood and ebony can be quite similar if the rosewood is on the darker side of the spectrum, so that could work.
We feel that it’s important to learn early on that it’s okay to let certain pieces go if they’re not quite right. Sure, making a compromise here and there is fine if you stumble across a truly beautiful bit of furniture, but don’t allow yourself to get carried away.
You have a vision for your interior decor, and you should honor it by picking up only the most suitable pieces for your home.
Blend With Contemporary Styles
Unless you’re going for an overwhelmingly stylized look, it’s best to use mid-century modern pieces amongst more understated contemporary designs. Again, leaning too hard into the 20th-century aesthetic may leave your home looking a bit museum-esque.
Accommodating Those With Disabilities
For the reasons listed above, mid-century modern furniture is also a fantastic tool if you’re hoping to remodel a space for someone with disabilities.
The aim here is to create as much open space as possible, thus giving a wheelchair user or someone who doesn’t have full mobility plenty of room to live their life comfortably.
The space-saving ethos at the core of all MCM designs is precisely what’s needed to open a living environment up without removing any utilities from the equation.
Is Mid-Century Modern Decor Still Popular?
Though Mid-Century Modern decor and style are incredibly old now, it has seen quite a boost in popularity in the 21st century. The functionality and convenience of multipurpose furniture are one of the big reasons why the modern human enjoys this style, as well as the warm and cozy feeling it emulates.
Mid-Century Modern decor and design boast the perfect balance between classic style and modern aesthetics as well, which is very appealing to people in this day and age. Vintage styles always return to popularity at some point or another, because people love what feels familiar to them.
Is 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 that they are the same. Both Mid-Century Modern and Retro were produced and became popular between the years 1940s to 1970s, and they are quite similar in look and feel.
Mid-Century Modern has more modern shapes and sleek curves, made with minimalistic materials that are somewhat nostalgic. Retro on the other hand 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 to it, whereas Mid-Century Modern is much more simple and uniform in design.
Is 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.
Both Mid-Century Modern and Scandinavian designs originated in Europe, but they do have different characteristics that set them apart from each other.
As we have already established, Mid-Century Modern is used to describe a type of furniture and architecture that existed between the years 1945 to 1965. Scandinavian on the other hand is a style that originated from 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 the differences are a lot more noticeable than you might have originally thought.
Mid-Century Modern Vs. Contemporary
We may be able to trace some elements of contemporary design back to the early to mid-1900s, but it’s very much its own thing, distinct from mid-century modernism.
The brash use of color and the broad shaping of the mid-century style gave many pieces – such as this bold, red sofa – 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, but we digress…
Contemporary modern styles lean even further into the minimalism established by the Bauhaus philosophy of the early 1900s, preferring an overtly utilitarian, understated, and sometimes even industrial approach.
There’s a coldness to contemporary modernism, whereas mid-century modernist furniture offered a great deal of warmth even with all those clean, straight lines.
It’s not that the new modern is sterile as such, as 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 both shape and color.
Mid-century modernism is one of the most beloved and enduring styles in the history of furniture and interior design, and it’s easy to understand why.
The bold, clean aesthetics combined with a functionality-first ethos, in a way, makes mid-century modern artifacts perfect furniture in the now.
Not only do most specimens remain highly practical, but enough time has passed that there’s also a subtle novelty to the style, one that can break up the monotony of contemporary spaces or even move more traditional environments into the future.
Never has an aesthetic been so firmly rooted in a historical context whilst also being utterly timeless. As the years go by, this style seems to only grow in relevance, so why not add a few choice mid-century modernist pieces to your home?
They might just be the time-tested statement pieces that bring everything together in a fashionable and functional manner.
Although Mid-Century Modern is a retro style, it has become increasingly popular with a sudden revival in modern trends. We hope that this article has taught you everything you wanted to know and that you’re now more confident about this unique furniture style.
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