What’s Driving Demand for Mid-Century Modern Design?
Thanks to wildly popular television shows like “Mad Men” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” mid-century modern design is back in style (although in truth, it never really left).
The shapely furnishings in bold, bright colors pair beautifully with a renewed interest in open floor plans, often found in ranch-style homes built in the middle of last century, boasting towering brick or stone fireplaces, sunken living rooms, and walls of windows. After all, one of the style’s mantras is to bring the outdoors in, as a nod to the Prairie and organic designs styles that preceded it. While this type of home (true to the period) is the perfect vessel to showcase a love for mid-century modern furniture, nearly any type of housing unit will work.
Of course, none of this is completely new: the design style is merely reinvigorated from its mid-1940s to late-1960s roots, with a few small tweaks. Knowing what those tweaks are prevents your nod to the style from appearing outdated. For starters: no shag carpeting.
What is Mid-Century Modern?
This design period emerged in response to the German Bauhaus movement, but with a nod to more organic shapes and a casual vibe more suited for residential living than, say, abstract glass cubes.
Whereas the Bauhaus artists were just exiting World War I, this clean slate inspired crisp, right angles and whimsy, but mid-century modern adopted a soothing nature-inspired palette, leaned into natural materials, and embraced minimalism. Scandinavian elements are also prominent, such as teak woods, ceramics, and lighting or glassware accessories rooted in those countries.
One pottery company that parlayed its designs into dinnerware — and is still in business today — is California-based Heath Ceramics, founded in 1948 by Edith Heath. Having fewer adornments and patterns in a home easily allowed “the bones” of the furnishings—and the structure itself—to further stand out. Optimism in the post-World War II period was reflected in a housing-construction boom of ranch-style homes across the U.S. In many ways, today’s Desert Modern design trend is a fresh riff off mid-century modern with lots of neutrals and textures—as well as nature-based minimalism.
A resurgence of the design movement erupted when Don Draper and his advertising-agency friends on “Mad Men” (aired on AMC from 2007 to 2015), fueled by martini lunches, retired back to their 1960s-era homes each night. Viewers spotted mid-century modern furniture and design — and even elements of the period fashion, such as rompers and vivid-print party dresses, began to re-emerge in the commercial market.
Quintessential Mid-Century Modern Furniture
What defines mid-century modern furniture? To better understand broad examples of pieces that can be categorized as mid-century modern, let’s start with a few iconic pieces you may have already seen in magazines or in films. You’ll notice that they all have a few things in common: curvy lines, a soothing aesthetic, and a nod to nature, whether it’s inspired by the shape of a flower or a ray of sunshine. Some of these are furnishings, while others are decorative art, but they all define key tenets of mid-century modern furniture.
Sunburst Clock (or Mirror)
Just like it sounds, this wall-mounted clock features “rays” of wood (often teak) or metal in two different heights branching out from the enamel clock face. A more modern spin is the sunburst mirror, which helps brighten a space by reflecting light around the room.
Designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957, also the designer for St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, the chair features a white tulip-shaped aluminum base and fiberglass framed, topped with red fabric seat cushions.
This chair and ottoman set designed by Charles and Ray Eames (a married couple)—in its most classic itineration—features black leather upholstery and a molded-plywood swiveling base on both pieces.
Originally crafted from fiberglass during the 1950s, contemporary versions of Charles Eames’ and Saarinen’s design are more apt to employ recycled plastic or molded wood—with the chairs’ hairpin legs and characteristic bright hues.
With its bucket-seat design, these polished-chrome side chairs—designed by artist Harry Bertoia in 1952—can be used for additional living-room seating or serve as an entire set for dining.
Arc Floor Lamp
The boomerang-shape side table is a staple in mid-century modern design, but this glass-topped version by artist Isamu Noguchi, designed in 1948, injects more glam. A thick plate of glass is supported by two pieces of solid wood.
Where to Buy Mid-Century Modern Furniture
Design Within Reach and Herman Miller both sell Mid-Century Modern furnishings that are newly made reproductions (but based on original designs) while IKEA’s furnishings (particularly the Vedbo armchair, akin to Saarinen’s wildly popular Womb Chair) have proven to be popular for their accessible price points.
For antiques or truly vintage pieces, heading to a destination where this style rules, such as Palm Springs, California, or areas of Miami, is often fruitful when scouring local shops. eBay continues to be a vast marketplace for finding vintage furnishings as well.
Mid-Century Modern: Design Ideas by Room
Another way to understand mid-century modern design is to envision how pieces look in each room of a home (because bar-height seating at the kitchen island, of course, may sport different materials than what you select for a living room). How to design a mid-century modern living room is a common question posed to designers. Do you need to have a sunken living room? What if you lack a brick or stone wall-height fireplace? With these questions in mind here are some ideas to bear in mind when envisioning individual spaces.
- Dressers and Bookshelves
Open-backed bookshelves—often stretching across an entire wall—help showcase a mix of books, pottery (or other sculptural art) and plants. A common dresser style of the mid-century era is more horizontal than it is vertical, sporting clean lines and simple legs for support that slant slightly outwards.
- Living Room Seating
Sectional seating helps fill out a sunken living room and create a “conversation pit.” Low-to-the floor lounge chairs are another staple, with slender wood arms.
- Coffee Table
Organically-shaped coffee tables like Noguchi’s are common, particularly in a smaller, cocktail-table size than a mammoth piece. Similarly, the Platner Style is also low to the ground with a glass top and you can see through the spiraled, metal base. Frames might also be rattan or bent bamboo with a glass top for a boho-chic effect, or crafted entirely from molded wood.
- Bed Frame
Platform beds (again, look to walnut or teak woods) rule with mid-century modern design, but so do rattan-crafted options as well as tapered dowels comprising the headboard.
- Dining Table Set
Social parties and family dinners were reasons to crowd around the dinner table during the mid-20th century, and one common design for such use was a simple wood rectangle with a thin top, and Eames-style chairs arranged around it. Teak or walnut is a common material and this is the one piece in the home where Scandinavian style is typically most prominent.
- Desk Chair
While the aforementioned Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman is often seen in home offices, for a more upright option more conducive to desk work, Herman Miller has many task chairs, including one that emulates the famed Eames Shell Chair, but on wheels.
Incorporating Mid-Century Modern at Home
It’s much easier, of course, to decorate with select, intentional mid-century modern elements than it is to go all-in or even scoop up a home built during this era. Working with what you have is often most practical.
Knowing how to mix mid century modern with traditional design elements may be the key to a successful look. One way is to keep a close eye on the color palette and furnishings: overall, is it relatively minimal, neutral and not at all ornate? Good, if so. By inserting a few mid-century modern furnishings or works of art made during the period—think a sunburst clock on the wall or set of Eames Shell or Knoll Bertoia chairs around the dining table—the look will appear seamless, precisely the effect you want, while also balancing an eclectic feel with a minimalist, restrained aesthetic.
Ready to start incorporating mid-century modern design into your home? If you’re stuck on where to begin, keep a hidden aspect of the style in mind, which is whimsy: think plants draping down an open-backed bookshelf or an eye-catching chair in a room packed with neutrals.
By starting to think of your home as a work of art, you’re halfway there.
About Kristine Hansen
Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Kristine Hansen also writes about interior design for ArchitecturalDigest.com, Invaluable.com and Milwaukee Magazine. She is the author of Wisconsin Cheese Cookbook: Creamy, Cheesy, Sweet, and Savory Recipes from the State’s Best Creameries, which profiles some of the country’s most acclaimed artisan cheesemakers.