Midcentury Modern Design
A look at one of the most influential design movements of the 20th century
At the end of the two world wars, global resources were limited yet new technologies made manufacturing easier and more innovative. In Europe, the International and Bauhaus styles had taken hold, stripping the flamboyance of earlier days down to the bare basics. In Brazil, brise soleils sun-shading techniques opened up buildings to nature. Everywhere, function was as important as form, and in architecture from Finland to Florida the structure of a building was proudly undressed in public, revealing its core.
Many credit Ludwig Mies van de Rohe‘s German Pavilion, built for the 1929 International Expo in Barcelona, with launching minimalism in design. By the 1950s, we had his Seagram Building on Park Avenue and the “less is more” attitude that defines midcentury modernism to this day.
Other architects followed, but what truly captured America was the design used to fill these airy spaces. Elemental to midcentury was movement — in structure, in fabrication, in light. Objects were shaped for the human body, giving us elegant, usable art in the form of the Eero Saarinen Womb Chair and the Eames Lounge Chair.
Tubular steel, a new invention, allowed seating solutions to bend without breaking. Marcel Breuer’s iconic Wassily Chair exemplifies this, with its sexy curves and sturdy structure. Its use of leather typified the exhaltation of natural materials.
Bentwood, a kind of organic take on tubular steel, became part of the midcentury modern lexicon. Isamu Noguchi’s Coffee Table combined wood and a glob of glass, creating a clearly manufactured piece that appeared to be plucked straight from nature. Charles and Ray Eames’ Molded Plywood Dining Chairs were as comfortable as they were inventive and organic-looking. And George Nelson’s Case Study Day Bed, made from slabs of maple, incorporated plywood shaped into curvilinear legs that seems to drip from the plane of the sofa.
Those floating legs could be seen throughout midcentury design. The idea was to minimize the visual footprint in modern living rooms that were small-scale or spacious but spare in style. Saarinen’s Tulip Tables have smaller bases than tops, a streamlined solution to limited floor space. Herman Miller manufactured endless iterations on the “floating” concept, with benches, tables and storage units.
And whimsy wasn’t lost on the iconic midcentury designers. Nelson looked to his childhood and created the Marshmallow Sofa and the Ball Clock, while the Eameses incorporated a true sense of play in their colorful Hang-It-All. Alexander Girard crafted wooden dolls and child-friendly trays along with other accents to bring pops of color and delight to homeowners.
Ultimately, while the furniture and accessories had to be practical and utilitarian, designers also wanted their clients to be enchanted. To this day, they still are.