Mid-century modern: Timeless design that developed from the 1930s to the mid-1960s

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Katerina Bulovska
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Mid-century modern style is an architectural, interior, and industrial design that developed roughly from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. The term is used as a style descriptor by Cara Greenberg in the title of her book, Midcentury Modern: Furniture of the 1950s (Random House, 1984). The design is specific for its great diversity, influenced by Scandinavian minimalism. It features simplicity, integration with nature and many key figures borrowed from Nordic countries.

The houses built in mid-century modern style are comfortable, with emphasis on affordability, and characterized by large glass windows and open space. Various color palettes were used to create the look of a mid-century modern home. The warm, earthy tones inspired by nature such as pumpkin, olive green, burnt umber, and mustard yellow, were opposed by trendy colors like pink, turquoise, black, gray and yellow. Traditional colors like burgundy, blue and emerald green were also popular.

In the United States, the buildings were designed by Brazilian and Scandinavian architects and a generation of modern architects who fled the rise of Nazi Germany. Among them were Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who then taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was head of the department of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Mid-century modern; living room. Author: Joe Wolf. CC BY-ND 2.0

The modernist designers used wood for furniture, doors, ceilings, and storage, following the example of the Scandinavians, who were very fond of natural materials. But with the experimental technologies in World War II, new materials like steel and plywood were introduced, which were used for building in the post-war era. In 1945, the publisher of the influential California Arts & Architecture magazine, John Entenza, started The Case Study House Program, that would result in creating a model for postwar housing.

Mid-century modern; living room. Author: Randy Heinitz. CC BY 2.0

Many examples of mid-century residential architecture are noted in California. The real estate developer Joseph Eichler brought mid-century modern style to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The Austrian-American architect Richard Neutra is considered one the most important modernist architects, designing striking, geometric residences in Southern California, from San Diego to Palm Springs, Beverly Hills and beyond.

Miller House, by Richard Neutra. Author: Ilpo’s Sojourn. CC BY 2.0

Furnishings of the era were part of the creative experiment of the American designers. Traditional materials were mixed with plastics, resin, metal composites, laminates, and fiberglass. The most recognizable characteristic of mid-century modern furniture is the clean, smooth, and lovely lines. The simplicity of the line design is what makes mid-century modern furniture relevant in today’s homes, as it suits almost all interiors, no matter the style of architecture. White furniture and accents were also very popular, to create the effect of a clean and smooth look.

Eichler Homes — Foster Residence, Granada Hills. Author: Los Angeles. CC BY-SA 3.0

Some of the best-known furniture designers of this period were Charles Eames, Euro Saarinen, and Miles van der Rone. Representatives of the mixture of colors and textures are the two most popular mid-century modern furniture pieces: the Eero Saarinen womb chair and the Eames fiberglass chairs.

Eames Lounge Chair by Charles and Ray Eames

A mid-century modern home was decorated with atomic, starburst, and boomerang patterns, as well as with ethnic prints. Especially important were the lamps, that varied from tripod lamps, to floor lamps with bendable arms and white balloon pendant lamps. Almost every living room had one of George Nelson’s iconic sunburst and atomic clock designs made from metal and wood.

Egg chair by Arne Jacobsen. Author: Scott Anderson. CC BY-SA 2.0

Mid-century modern was also very popular in Scandinavia, particularly in Denmark and Sweden, where some of the most famous architects and designers, including Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, and Finn Juhl contributed to the development of the movement. After World War II, the style started spreading in Australia, led by designers such as Grant Featherston, Clement Meadmore, and Lester Bunbury.

Mid-century modern lamp. Author: fiverlocker. CC BY 2.0

Today, Mid-Century Modern enjoys a tremendous popularity in home decor. The timeless design is reproduced by brands and designers and has been adopted by mass-market companies. Many original pieces can still be found in auction houses, retro, vintage, and antique stores or op shops, but, as the competition is big, the prices are also high, which doesn’t stop people from buying them. Authentic or replica mid-century modern furniture pieces are still very desired in pretty much every household and are easily paired with just about any other item in the interior design.