While its name may suggest a fixed moment in time, mid-century modern design has proven itself quite adaptable to this century as well as the last. While we could write a book about it (and we certainly aren’t alone), here’s a brief summary to give you some more insight into one of the most influential design movements of the 20th century.
Minimalism + Mies van der Rohe
At the end of the two world wars, global resources were limited. Thankfully, 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 mid-century modernism to this day.
Movement + Materials
Other architects followed–Koenig, Eichler, etc.–but what truly captured America’s imagination were the designs used to fill these airy, stripped-down spaces. Elemental to mid-century modern product design was fluid movement–in structure, in fabrication, in light. Also essential? Perfect functionality (as well as a sculptural form) and, most of all, accessibility. These were pieces designed to appeal to the most people possible and, with more reasonable pricepoints, actually available for them to buy.
Material as well as technological advancements made the production of these designs a reality. Tubular steel allowed seating solutions to bend and flex without breaking. Marcel Breuer‘s iconic Wassily Chair exemplifies this, with its minimalist lines and sturdy structure. Its smart use of leather also typified the exaltation of natural materials.
Plastic was not natural, but its innovation was essential to the mid-century ideals of movement and availability. Charles and Ray Eames definitely got the ball rolling with their array of molded fiberglass and plastic chairs. (You will note that, especially when talking about mid-century innovation, you will hear about the Eameses a lot.)
Bent wood, a kind of organic take on tubular steel, became a huge part of the mid-century modern lexicon. With it, objects could be shaped to comfortably cradle the human body, giving us elegant, usable art in the form of pieces like the Eames Lounge Chair. Other notable sculptural wood pieces?
Isamu Noguchi’s Coffee Table combined wood and a similarly curvy panel of glass, creating a clearly manufactured piece that appeared to be plucked straight from nature. While their lounge chair used leather to up the comfort factor, the Eames’ Molded Plywood Dining Chairs had curves that made them as comfortable as they were inventive and organic-looking. And George Nelson‘s Case Study Day Beds, made from slabs of maple, incorporated plywood shaped into curvilinear legs that seem to drip from the plane of the sofa.
Those floating legs can be seen throughout mid-century design. The idea was to minimize the visual footprint in modern living rooms that either were small-scale or were spacious, but spare in style. In that vein, Saarinen’s Tulip Tables have smaller bases than tops, a streamlined solution to limited floor space. Brands like Vitra, Knoll, Artek and Herman Miller manufactured endless iterations on the “floating” concept (and still do so to this day).
Color + Whimsy
With such focus on form meeting function, material reverence and innovative manufacturing, mid-century modern design sounds like it ran the risk of being a bit humorless. Fortunately, whimsy wasn’t lost on the iconic mid-century designers. Textiles, clocks, lighting and other home accessories captured nuclear age playfulness with bright colors and graphic forms.
Nelson looked to his childhood and created the Marshmallow Sofa and the Ball Clock, while the Eameses incorporated a true sense of play into their colorful Hang-It-All. Alexander Girard, the king of mid-century modern textile design, also crafted other accents like wooden dolls and child-friendly trays to bring pops of color and delight to homeowners.
Ultimately, while mid-century modern furniture and accessories had to be practical and utilitarian, designers also wanted their clients to be enchanted. To this day, they still are.
Team Y is a dedicated group of design devotees. We love everything that has to do with modern design, from products like lighting, furniture and decor all the way to interior design, architecture and city planning. What inspired the design? How does it work? What does it mean? We want to know. And once we know, we are constantly inspired to share what we've discovered with others who love design as well. That's Y.