Mid-Century Modern Design and How To Use it in Your Home

 Mid-century modern design has surged again in popularity for the past decade thanks to its clean lines and an eminently cool vibe.

Mid-Century Modern

The comfortable and stylish designs fit with today’s more casual lifestyle and open floor plans. In fact, mid-century modern pieces have made their way into many mass market furniture retailers.

This means it is easier than ever to find items for your own living loom. But, what does mid-century modern mean when we talk about this type of décor?

What Is Mid-Century Modern?

Midcentury modern is an overused buzzword that has come to mean a lot of different things. More importantly, not all of them are accurate.

It’s really a reference to developments from the middle of the 20th century – mainly after World War II.

This includes architecture, furniture and technologies that become popular after the end of the war. Currently, it mostly refers to midcentury modern furniture and décor.

What Is Mid-Century Modern?View in gallery
Color, open space and a light and airy feel are elements of mid-century modern design.

Origins

While there’s much debate on the actual years that encompass the mid-century modern era, most sources generally accept that the heyday was roughly 1945-1969. Writer and art historian Cara Greenberg originally dreamt up the term mid-century modern in 1984 as the title for her book about this design era.

According to Modernous, mid-century modern has many roots in Germany’s Bauhaus style. This type of interior décor came to the United States thanks to the migration from Europe after World War II. The rise of new materials and shapes came from the scarcity of traditional building supplies during the war. This style of décor is artisan-driven, diverse and creative, notes Curbed.  In addition, it was fueled by a great many pioneering designers active in the period, especially in Palm Springs, California.

Clean lines and wood accents are common.View in gallery
Clean lines and wood accents are common.

Explosive Popularity

After World War II, cities in the US were expanding and suburbs growing. This creates the need for quickly built housing and the furniture go in it. From there the mid-century modern movement grew. Moreover, it brought modernism into the post-war suburbs with furnishings crafted for the modern American living room: It was functional, comfortable and practical.

New Trends

Mid-century modern homes were also the source of today’s open floor plans, thanks to the introduction of large open spaces, plentiful windows and natural light, and an easy indoor/outdoor flow, notes Curbed. These characteristics are common in the Palm Springs midcentury modern homes of the era.

Wood accents and a nod to nature are part of the design era.View in gallery
Wood accents and a nod to nature are part of the design era.

Although midcentury modern furniture was artisan-driven, the pieces were also modernist designs that could be mass-produced at a reasonable cost. Hence, the clean silhouettes, curves and geometric shapes lent themselves to the new lifestyle demands.

Ray Eames and Charles Eames, whose names are synonymous with mid-century modern, felt the philosophy was simple and powerful: “Getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least amount of money.”

Why Mid-Century Modern Is It Still Popular?

Mid-century-modern design is still popular today for myriad reasons.

  • First, its characteristics make it a perfect fit for today’s contemporary, modern and eclectic home décor styles.
  • A connection to Scandinavian minimalism is a core feature.
  • The incorporation of natural materials also fuels its following.
Many pieces mixed materials, both natural and man-made.View in gallery
Many pieces mixed materials, both natural and man-made.

The Test of Time

While many may attribute the surge in popularity of this style to the show “Mad Men,” some of the iconic pieces from the era never really fell out of favor, writes the RedBeacon Blog. True mid-century modern style is considered a timeless look, fresh and au courant. As Sotheby’s Joshua Holdeman notes: “[Midcentury modern designs] sit very well in contemporary homes and interiors. They still feel fresh today, they still feel modern. A lot of those pieces haven’t been bettered. They still stand the test of time.”

New shapes were a big part of the mod-century modern era.View in gallery
New shapes were a big part of the mid-century modern era.

Among baby boomers, the design style harks back to their youth, which makes it appealing for many. Among younger generations – Generation X and Millennials – a lifetime of exposure to television shows and movies engendered an attraction to midcentury modern pieces. This is why so many retailers now include it in their living room offerings.

Many of the designs that originated in the mid-century have stood the test of time.View in gallery
Many of the designs that originated in the mid-century have stood the test of time.

Mid-century Modern Characteristics 

While the mid-century modern design era actually encompasses a number of styles, there are elements that are characteristic of the period, says Iris Abbey.

Architect Mies van der Rohe also design furniture, such as the classic Barcelona chair.View in gallery
Architect Mies van der Rohe also design furniture, such as the classic Barcelona chair.

Clean Lines

The understated and versatile look of mid-century modern comes from its lines, curves and smooth surfaces. It is more about geometric minimalism. Excess is not to be found in Mid-century modern design.

The design philosophy is about focusing on the basic elements and the function of the piece. It’s about as far away as you can get from the embellished and heavily ornamented pieces of the past: Baroque, Victorian, Colonial, etc.

Big and heavy furniture was replaced with light and airy spaces like those in Palm Springs homes. They boasted neat proportions and new functional shapes, using both organic and geometric forms. Midcentury furniture essentially launched the quest for a clean, uncluttered living room look. It is a natural extension of the midcentury architecture that was so popular in Palm Springs.

Geometric shapes are a staple of mid-century modern design, and this sofa is a good example.View in gallery
Geometric shapes are a staple of mid-century modern design, and this sofa is a good example.
Another example of different geometries at play is this sofa and tables from Petite Friture.View in gallery
Another example of different geometries at play is this sofa and tables from Petite Friture.

American industrial designer George Nelson said that there were three ‘mid-century’ categories: the biomorphic, the machine, and the handcrafted.

The pieces that are Bio-morphic are organic, curved, smooth surfaces, shaped like kidneys and boomerangs, in direct contrast to more angular modern styles of the machine category.

Another example of different geometries at play is this sofa and tables from Petite Friture.View in gallery
Another example of different geometries at play is this sofa and tables from Petite Friture.
The new shapes were different but also comfortable.View in gallery
The new shapes were different but also comfortable.

New, Mixed Materials

The post-war surge of new types of material, especially plastics, was the playground of Mid-century modern designers, especially those prominent in Palm Springs.

  • Designers freely combined natural material with manmade types and technical innovation.
  • Consequently, many pieces were really an exploration. This work led to furnishings that combined different or even contrasting materials.
  • Plywood, metal, glass, vinyl, Plexiglass and Lucite all appeared in furnishings of this era.
  • Unlike recent times when plastic was (and still is) used to resemble wood or other materials, mid-century modern design used it for its own qualities, writes Curbed.
  • Midcentury furniture was affordable because many of the new materials were inexpensive. Chiefly, molded fiberglass became one of the most popular for producing new biomorphic shapes.
Glass became more commonly used during the mid-century modern design era.View in gallery
Glass was more commonly used during the mid-century modern design era.
Wood was still widely used, especially plywood in combination with new techniques in forming it.View in gallery
Plywood,  in combination with new techniques for forming it, is used with wood.

Wood

Wood details are still a unifying element throughout the mid-century modern design, which springs from the Scandinavian influence. Finished and unfinished wood is used for décor details like doors, knobs, ceilings and storage. On furnishings, a molded plastic chair might have wooden legs, or a modern light fixture may sport wooden elements.

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In this sofa, the wood is more of an accent than a major feature.View in gallery
In this sofa, the wood is more of an accent than a major feature.
The new materials allowed designer to incorporate more color in home decor.View in gallery
The new materials allowed designer to incorporate more color in home decor.

Colors

Simple shapes leave plenty of room for color in midcentury furniture. People even called the era’s pieces “furniture candy” because of the style’s bold pops of color. This isn’t surprising given the optimism of the postwar years and the cheery colors of the time. They also fit the vibe of Palm Springs, where mid-century design grew and thrived.

Plastics, as well as textiles for seating, tables, and accessories of all kinds, used bright, sugary colors. Even a living room cocktail table got the colorful treatment in midcentury furniture designs.

Bright colors are hallmark of mid-century modern design, especially on furniture.View in gallery
Bright colors are the hallmark of mid-century modern design, especially on furniture.

Pattern, Texture

Textures are also important in midcentury modern design. Of course, this is true in any space that is modern and full of minimalist shapes. Elements like shag rugs, rough stone fireplaces, smooth glass table, sleek ceramics, and textured upholstery come together for a more interesting living room. Patterns emerge in abstract paintings, pillows, and other accessories, writes Iris Abbey. Also, graphic design in printed textiles is another hallmark of the midcentury modern design era.

Today's open floorpans stem from mid-century modern's open spaces.View in gallery
Mid-century modern’s open spaces gave rise to today’s open floorplans.

Functionality & Comfort

For mid-century modern pieces, form definitely follows function. The new drive to furnish the postwar American living room shifted the focus to the lifestyle needs of the average American family.

According to RedBeacon Blog, a lot of the furniture was built with the aim of being stackable, foldable and interchangeable. These changes also pushed home décor in a more casual direction, reflecting new household sensibilities. This also meant living room furniture had to be comfortable.

Furniture for the new American family had to be comfortable as well as functional.View in gallery
Furniture for the new American family had to be comfortable as well as functional.

Mid-Century Modern Iconic Pieces

A number of mid-century modern designers and their creations have stood the test of time and are still popular today. In fact, the vintage pieces they produced fetch stellar prices while reissues and copies have a large market too. Over the years since they were made, some of these have become iconic in the design field. Here are a few of the most loved pieces from the top designers of the day:

Womb Chair, Eero Saarinen, 1947Saarinen’s design was an outgrowth of his collaboration with Charles Eames. Moreover, it was also the result of a challenge by Frances Knoll to create a chair that was stylish, modernist and eminently comfortable. It was the perfect addition to the new style living room.

Womb Chair, Eero SaarinenView in gallery

Dax Molded Fiberglass Chair, Ray Eames and Charles Eames, 1948Made from one of the newest types of material for the first time, this one is an enduring favorite piece of midcentury furniture. It was originally produced by Herman Miller.

Dax Molded Fiberglass Chair by Ray and Charles Eames’s, 1948View in gallery
Dax Molded Fiberglass Chair by Ray and Charles Eames’s, 1948

Egg Chair, Arne Jacobsen, 1958 —This is one of the most recognizable and popular pieces from the 1950s. Jacobsen designed the fabric-upholstered, curvy model for the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. It’s an easily recognizable piece of midcentury modern design.

Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen, 1958View in gallery
Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen, 1958

Marshmallow Sofa, George Nelson, 1956—Nelson’s famous piece of furniture is a funky sofa design that has 18 comfortable round cushions floating on a frame. The Marshallow Sofa was a colorful, eclectic piece for a 1950s living room.

Today's open floorpans stem from mid-century modern's open spaces.View in gallery

Diamond Chairs, Henry Bertoia, 1952 – While wood was still popular, Bertoia designed this welded wire grid version that has an airy feel. This was part of a full midcentury modern design series that included lounge chairs in the same shape that were upholstered in fabric.

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This room uses mid-century pieces judiciously so it still looks fresh and modern.View in gallery
This room uses mid-century pieces judiciously so it still looks fresh and modern.

Lifestyle Considerations

Interior design should fit your lifestyle – it’s your home and not a set out of Mad Men!  This rings especially true when trying to achieve a certain feel or décor era. You don’t want a carbon copy of a room from the mid-century modern period in Palm Springs, you want a livable space that features the essence and the characteristics you love about it. For instance, this tulip cocktail table may not be the best choice for a house with small children.

Vintage mid-century modern chairs command high prices today.View in gallery
Vintage mid-century modern chairs command high prices today.

Planning

Planning is key. Take a good look at the space you have to work with and choose a focal point. This is where you can conjure up the midcentury design style you want.

  • Start with statement midcentury pieces like a sofa, set of chairs, or cocktail table that will set the mood for the room.
  • From there, move on to choosing the other mid century modern furniture and accessories for the space. You can buy these or edit them from what you currently own.
  • Remember that midcentury modern design is built on the concepts of open, airy and uncluttered space. It was inspired by the landscape and open spaces of Palm Springs.
  • Choose items that are geometric, clean-lined and functional – and use patterned pieces sparingly!
This dining room is good example of mid-century modern style done well.View in gallery
This dining room is a good example of mid-century modern style done well.
Pieces like this chair and ottoman will be classic for generations.View in gallery
Pieces like this chair and ottoman will be classic for generations.

Shopping Takes Patience

Searching for pieces to include in your living room can be much of the fun in creating a mid-century modern living space. Of course, this means that it might take longer to complete your décor, however including touches of vintage can create more character and interest than using all new items.

Vintage lighting is an easy way to inject mid-century modern style into any space.View in gallery
Vintage lighting is an easy way to inject mid-century modern style into any space.

Focus on Second-Hand 

Speaking of vintage, you can find affordable second-hand midcentury design pieces because companies made so many copies.  If you want authentic mid-century-modern furnishings, however, you will have to have a hefty budget.

Long and lean cabinets were commonly used in this design period.View in gallery
This design period commonly used long and lean cabinets.
Family friendly shapes and styles were key to the style.View in gallery
Family-friendly shapes and styles are key to the style.

Their popularity has created a very high-ticket market with prices reaching the tens of thousands of dollars. One alternative is to purchase a bold, new focal piece like a cocktail table and concentrate on finding some vintage accessories that are more budget-friendly.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)FAQ

What is midcentury modern design style?

Mid-century modern interior design has a distinctive look that leans toward the minimalist end of the spectrum. The lines are clean, any pattern is a graphic design and the materials are a mix of natural and man-made. The open spaces and big windows were the beginning of the way a living room connected with the outdoors.

What are characteristics of midcentury modern?

In addition to the streamlined silhouettes, there are a number of characteristics that define midcentury modern style decor:

Organic and geometric shapes. 
Function first, form second
A lack of embellishment
Contrasting textures and materials
A neutral palette with bold accents colors
Nature indoors

How do I get a midcentury look?

It’s not difficult to add midcentury modern style to your home. For the overall space, you might need to consider a little remodeling. Midcentury modern design typically has large windows and lots of natural light. The space is also open and airy. 

Otherwise, you can add specific types of pieces to the living room. Furniture made with solid wood or that features solid wood elements, as well as vintage pieces and a midcentury mirror, will add presence to a room. When it comes to lighting look for period styles and be sure to add a bar to the room. For upholstery and patterns, go colorful or graphically oriented for a true midcentury modern look.

Is midcentury modern out of style?

Some publications have declared that run in all things midcentury modern is over, but others say not so fast. There are lots of reasons that this style has endured the decades since it popped up in Palm Springs.

Midcentury modern’s minimal looks and pops of color are ideal for small spaces and large contemporary rooms alike. Overall, it may come and go as a trend but it’s always in vogue when it comes to being stylish.

Is mid century furniture a good investment?

Midcentury modern furniture has always been a good investment because it remains popular, whether or not it is trending. When investing in genuine midcentury modern pieces, it’s critical to do your homework. Manufacturers have made lots of reproductions and knock-offs of mid century modern furniture. However, only originals are worthy investments. You have to learn a decent amount about the piece you are considering to be sure you’re making a smart buy.

Conclusions

As with any interior decoration, there are multiple ways to achieve the look you want with midcentury design. Thanks to the current mania for all things mid-century modern, it’s possible to create your own unique living space thanks to all of the options available.

Today’s acceptance of mixing and matching is the perfect opportunity for acquiring vintage midcentury pieces. You can also buy new items created in the mid-century modern style, and search out small maker artisan works that can become new family heirlooms. It’s always the right time to embrace the iconic style that emerged from Palm Springs in the 1950s: midcentury design.