What are the Origins of Mid-Century Modern Design?

Design History


It seems like everyone (including us) is obsessed with Mid-Century Modern design, and it’s not hard to imagine why. The style shows up everywhere; whether you’ve seen it on a well-curated Instagram feed or in a trendy furniture catalogue, MCM is pervasive. Characterized by its gentle, organic curves, clean lines, and use of natural materials, Mid-Century Modern design boasts many famous designers and is often summarized by the phrase “form follows function.”

People naturally gravitate to this style of design like they do to Idris Elba, and for the same reasons too: they’re both chic, practical, and interesting. Let’s take a look at the origins of Mid-Century Modern design, and how exactly it became so popular. 

Mid-Century Modern: Origins In A Post-War Europe

The term Mid-Century Modern is now used frequently to describe a range of home goods, especially furniture, that fit the vibe or aesthetic but it originated as a term to refer to the golden age of design and architecture. This period is generally thought to have spanned 1933-1965, though some design historians insist that it only encompasses the ten years after WWII ended (1947-1957). 

This golden age’s post-war timing had a heavy influence on Mid-Century Modernism’s aesthetic; some might say it was the whole reason that it existed in the first place. The aesthetic itself is attributed to the Bauhaus architects and designers who moved from Germany to America after WWII due to economic changes and instability. 

The end of the Second World War also saw an expansion of cities coupled with suburbanization in the U.S., which meant that there was a serious demand for modern, often modular, furnishings to match the modern, often modular, homes springing up en masse around U.S. metropolises. 

The word for ‘furniture’ in other languages often refers to a sense of mobility — the French meuble or the German möbil — and Mid-Century Modern furniture designers created furniture that offered organization and multipurpose function. As society emerged from the harrowing times of war, it was almost shameful to many middle-class Americans and Europeans to own items of furniture that served only a single purpose. People simply didn’t have the time, money, or need for what was viewed by many as both wasteful and elitist. Instead, furniture became multipurpose; it could be stacked, bent, rearranged or interchanged. 

MCM chairs could be put to many different uses, like eating, writing, and playing cards. Tables had drop-leaves, or nested neatly within one another. A Mid-Century Modern bed might fold away into a couch. Following a philosophy that emerged from the Bauhaus, design was about solving a problem in the most elegant and honest way possible rather than creating a piece of art that existed for art’s sake. 

The technological advances at that time also meant that there was a whole range of new materials in production and development, which made it possible to experiment with textures, colors, effects, and forms that had never been seen before. 

There was a liberal use of materials that were commonplace like wood, but designers began to use metal, vinyl, glass, plywood, Lucite, and Plexiglass. Plastic was even used for its own unique qualities, and not just to imitate wooden furniture. 

Mid-Century Modernism allowed for a huge variety of colors to be incorporated; neutrals, bolds, and even black and white when used in graphic ways. 

The Distinguishing Features of Mid-Century Modernism Design

Now that you've had your history lesson, let’s get to the fun part – the distinguishing features of Mid-Century Modernism: 

  • Functionality – MCM forms can be appealing, but that isn't usually their core purpose. There’s a heavy emphasis on functionality and especially multi-functionality.
  • Uncluttered, sleek lines that feature both geometric and organic forms – There's a beautiful mix of sharp, geometric shapes, and softer, more organic shapes that you might see in a wildlife documentary. Ornamentation is minimal.
  • Exploration of materials – Materials that are both traditional as well as more exploratory and novel are used, to both captivate and inspire. 
  • Juxtaposition – Often materials, colors, or shapes are juxtaposed in ways that catch the eye or add more life to the room. 
  • Accessibility and affordability – Mid-Century Modernism blew up the way it did in large part because it was so accessible. Since it came around as a response to the aftermath of the Second World War, it was everyone and anyone’s décor. 

Meet the Designers: Who Were The Mid-Century Modernists?

While by no means an exhaustive list, here are some of the better-known Mid-Century Modernist designers. Their pieces weren’t just wildly popular when they first came out, but still endure today. Many designers who came after were deeply inspired by their work, and furniture inspired by (or straight-up copied from) their work is still greatly desired. 

George Nelson, American, known for the Marshmallow Sofa

Marshmallow Sofa by George Nelson

Alexander Girard, American-Italian, known for his textiles work at Herman Miller

Girard’s Color Wheel Ottoman for Herman Miller

Edward Wormley, American, known for his blend of classicism and modernism

Precedent Lounge Chair by Edward Wormley for Drexel

Jens Risom, Danish, known for co-founding the Hans Knoll Furniture Company

Risom Lounge Chair, designed for Knoll

Eero Saarinen, Finnish, known for designing several iconic chairs

Eero Saarinen’s aluminum and fiberglass Tulip Chair

Verner Panton, Danish, known for his use of plastics and bold colors

The Panton Chair, made out of a single piece of plastic

Harry Bertoia, Italian, known for the Diamond Chair

Bertoia’s Diamond Chair, built of an all-steel frame, this one clad in a peach fabric

Isamu Noguchi, Japanese-American, known for his Akari Light Sculptures

Noguchi’s Akari Light Sculptures blended traditional technique with modern technology.

Arne Jacobsen, Danish, known for the Egg Chair

Jacobsen’s Egg Chair, designed for the SAS Royal Copenhagen Hotel

Eileen Gray, Irish, known for her e1027 House in the South of France

The Bibendum Chair, designed for Grey’s e1027 House

Charles and Ray Eames, French, known for their significant impact on MCM design

The Eames Lounger, arguably the most popular piece of Mid-Century Modern furniture

The Lasting Impact of Mid-Century Modernism

Although Mid-Century Modernism was born out of the dark aftermath of WWII, it’s a popular style that continues to impress with its visually pleasing forms and adaptable designs. 

Now that we’ve finished our deep dive into all things Mid-Century Modern, what do you think: Is this aesthetic something you find beautiful, or is everything just a bit too oddly-shaped and minimal for you? 

Photo by Mint Home


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