Everything You Need To Know About Mid-Century Modern Design

Reprinted from www.housebeautiful.com

Saying mid-century modern’s had a revival would be one serious understatement. It’s hit such a mainstream appeal that it’s been deemed the “Pumpkin Spice Latte of design,” with the style sold everywhere from Design Within Reach to Target. It’s everywhere, and for that very reason, the term’s meaning can get a little diluted. What even is mid-century modern these days?! And what truly makes it so? Let’s investigate.

It Looks Back To The Future.

At its most basic level, mid-century modern designs are known for juxtaposing sleek lines (think: skinny, peg legs on dressers and tables) with organic shapes, using new materials and methods to reimagine traditional pieces. The looks were futuristic, but they weren’t a total departure from the past. In fact, Frances Ambler, author of Mid-Century Modern: Icons of Design, cites a few examples: the hefty English club chair was transformed into the sleek leather-and-plywood Eames Lounger, while Poul Henningsen’s Artichoke Lamp was a reconfiguration of a chandelier.

Danish Museum of Art and Design, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Poul Henningsen’s designs at the Danish Museum Of Art And Design in Denmark

GETTY IMAGESMYLOUPE

It Turned Designers Into Icons.

Mid-century modern, like any era of design, evolved. The 1939 World’s Fair in New York City had brought the geometric forms and clean lines of the Bauhaus and Danish Modernist movements into the American consciousness, but the style didn’t really take shape until the late 1940s, lasting well through the 1960s. At the time, American style was all about embracing the future. It was the era of Sputnik, of astronauts hurtling into space, of the Eisenhower Administration giving way to the Kennedys of Camelot, of the Twilight Zone and the Jetsons.

Design should not only be beautifully constructed, functional, and efficient, but attainable.

Studies in nuclear physics, molecular chemistry, as well as a growing obsession with science fiction all played into the futuristic shapes and materials seen in everything from furniture to suburban homes and skyscrapers. And a booming postwar economy meant a rapid rise in homeownership, leading to a surge in the construction of smaller-scale homes and apartments. With the American Dream becoming more of a reality to the middle class, designers and architects honed in on their populist message: Design should not only be beautifully constructed, functional, and efficient, but attainable.

And, during that time, a crew of brilliant sculptors and architects became design icons, shaping the style with the furniture they created for brands like Herman Miller and Knoll: Eero Saarinen, George Nelson, Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, and Isamu Noguchi.

New Materials Shaped New Designs.

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Saarinen Round Dining Table
dwr.com$2,135.00

Because bent plywood, fiberglass, foam, aluminum, steel, and plastic laminates were all malleable, Eero Saarinen was able to mold the rounded contours and pedestal for the Tulip chair and table he designed in 1956, and Eero Aarnio to sculpt his futuristic-looking Ball chair in 1965. But rather than cover up the industrial materials with layers of batting and fabrics, “they never tried to disguise it as something else,” Frances notes. “A plywood chair, for example, celebrated the shapes that could be created with the material, and Warren Platner’s elegant dining chair makes no secret of the fact that it’s made from steel rods.”

At times, designers also played with colors—the earthy hues of the 1950s eventually giving way to brighter, more saturated colors, as the Space Age and Pop Art came into the picture.

Two Approaches Cemented It In Pop-Culture History.

While some people argue that mid-century modern has become more of a term for modern design in general than a specific look, part of the struggle to define it may come from how wide-ranging the style is. Part of that is due to the two diverging (yet complementary) directions things took.