Midcentury modern style is a distinctive design movement that emerged in the decades following World War II. Characterized by clean lines, geometric shapes, and minimal ornamentation, midcentury modern style made a dramatic break from the heavily ornamented styles that preceded it. This guide provides an in-depth look at the history, design aesthetics, iconic designers, and key elements that define midcentury modern style.
A Brief History of Midcentury Modern Style
Midcentury modern style originated as part of the International Style that arose in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Pioneered by famed architects like Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the International Style rejected historical references and favored a stripped-down, functionalist aesthetic.
As European architects immigrated to the United States before and after World War II, they brought the ideals of the International Style with them. American designers began integrating these modernist principles with influences from local traditions, popular culture, and their own creative visions. The result was a distinctly American spin on modernism that came to be known as midcentury modern.
Some key factors that contributed to the emergence and popularity of midcentury modern style included:
- Postwar optimism and economic growth: The massive economic expansion in the years following WWII, fueled by pent-up consumer demand and new industries like aerospace and electronics, created an eager market for modern design in homes and consumer goods. There was an enthusiasm for the future and a rejection of prewar traditions.
- Mass production: New manufacturing processes made it possible to mass produce furniture and household goods at lower costs. This allowed more Americans than ever before to afford stylish and modern design elements in their homes.
- Influence of the Bauhaus: Many prominent midcentury designers in America, including Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen, had studied at the Bauhaus School in Germany during the 1930s. The Bauhaus philosophy of functional, affordable, and mass-producible design had a major impact.
- California modernism: California emerged as a hub of innovation in architecture, furniture, and graphic design, influenced by its sunny climate, casual lifestyle, and its distance from traditional design centers on the East Coast. California modernism placed emphasis on indoor-outdoor living and connections to nature.
By the 1950s, midcentury modern style was being embraced across America as the embodiment of fashion, innovation, and progressive values. It remained popular through the 1960s and 1970s before eventually falling out of fashion in the 1980s. However, midcentury modern has seen a strong resurgence of interest starting in the 1990s, remaining influential today.
Characteristics and Design Elements
Midcentury modern style is defined by several key characteristics:
Clean Lines and Shapes
Rather than decorative curves and patterns, midcentury pieces use simple and angular lines and geometric shapes – triangles, circles, rectangles, and so on. This gives midcentury furniture and architecture a distinctly clean and spare appearance.
Emphasis is placed on only the most essential elements needed for the function and structure of a piece. Extraneous decoration is rejected in favor of elegant simplicity.
Natural and often local materials are favored, including wood, stone, palm fiber, rattan, and later on, plastic. Utility is prioritized over lavish appearances.
While favoring angular shapes, midcentury designers also integrated soft and biomorphic forms inspired by nature, such as kidney bean shapes or amoeba-like outlines. This creates a sense of fluidity and irregularity.
New materials and production methods, like molded plywood and plastics, were eagerly embraced. The goal was to exploit materials and technologies in innovative ways, not be bound by tradition.
The lines between indoors and outdoors, furniture types, and styles were intentionally blurred. Multifunctional and modifiable designs were common.
Midcentury palettes veered away from subtle neutrals in favor of bright, saturated bursts of color – citrus orange, grassy greens, electric blues, and vivid reds. Colors were often used as accents against neutral backgrounds.
Textures and Patterns
Natural wood grains, rattan cane textures, woven fabrics, and small-scale patterns and textures added tactile interest and visual depth to simple forms.
Iconic Midcentury Modern Designers
A number of pioneering designers emerged as leaders in shaping and spreading midcentury sensibilities. Here are some of the most iconic:
Charles and Ray Eames
Husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames had an outsized influence on industrial and furniture design. They made major contributions to the development of modern manufacturing techniques for molding plywood and plastics, allowing them to produce Eames molded plywood chairs and fiberglass chairs that became iconic across America. Their elegant, affordable, and functional creations embodied the spirit of midcentury ideals.
Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who immigrated to the United States in the 1930s, designed some of the most recognizable American modernist buildings and furniture. This included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Dulles International Airport, and ubiquitous pieces like the Tulip chair. His fluid, sculptural forms incorporated modern materials like reinforced concrete and fiberglass.
As design director for Herman Miller furniture company, George Nelson cultivateed close relationships with architects and designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi. He helped make Herman Miller one of the most influential supporters and producers of outstanding modernist design. Nelson also designed popular furniture pieces like the Coconut Chair and Marshmallow Sofa.
As design director for the Knoll furniture company, Florence Knoll propelled the rise of the influential “Knoll Look” which defined stylish, modernist interiors in the postwar decades. Knoll commissioned and produced furniture from renowned designers like Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. She also designed several iconic pieces herself including the Florence Knoll Sofa.
Known as the master of chairs, Danish designer Hans Wegner created over 500 chairs and other furniture pieces characterized by refined elegance and natural materials like wood, rattan, and cane. His iconic Y Chair and Shell Chair exemplified the Danish modern look which echoed midcentury simplicity and functionality.
These innovative and creative designers all contributed to the growth and popularity of midcentury ideals in America and overseas, introducing novel techniques, forms, and materials that transformed modern design.
Midcentury Modern Architecture
Beyond furniture and decorative objects, midcentury modern principles profoundly shaped the evolution of American architecture in the postwar decades.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Homes
Frank Lloyd Wright was enormously influential on the organic architecture emerging in the 1950s, having developed the forerunners of midcentury style in the previous decades. His modest Usonian homes embodied sustainable, practical design with small footprints and open floor plans optimized for family living.
Case Study Houses
Arts & Architecture magazine’s groundbreaking Case Study House program (1945-1966) commissioned major architects like Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen to design model homes showcasing contemporary materials and techniques. The airy, modular, glass-walled homes embodied California midcentury style.
Also called Populuxe or Doo-Wop architecture, Googie style emerged in Los Angeles coffee shops and motels with its space-age themes, geometric shapes, and exaggerated rooflines. It merged midcentury modernism with Southern California car culture.
Prolific real estate developer Joseph Eichler built more than eleven thousand affordable midcentury modern tract houses, mostly around San Francisco and Los Angeles between 1949-1974. The single-story homes featured open floor plans, large windows, atrium gardens and clean geometric lines.
Philip Johnson’s Glass House
Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut perfectly expressed minimalist ideals by reducing a house to an elemental glass box set within the landscape. This 1949 experiment influenced residential architecture for generations.
Eero Saarinen designed MIT’s non-denominational Kresge Chapel in 1955 featuring soaring, skylight-topped reinforced arches. The simple yet dramatic cement structure became an iconic example of midcentury modern church architecture.
Dulles International Airport
Eero Saarinen designed this landmark 1962 jet-age airport to be a dramatic gateway to the United States. The soaring terminal features suspended concrete shells that reference flight. Dulles set the tone for other modernist airports around the country.
These groundbreaking projects introduced open, multifunctional spaces, passive solar principles, and modern sculptural forms to residential architecture, institutions, and public spaces across America.
Midcentury Modern Home Interior Design
Beyond architecture and furniture, midcentury enthusiasts also embraced modern sensibilities in home decorating:
- Open floor plans with multifunctional living spaces instead of closed-off rooms
- Floor-to-ceiling windows and glass doors for indoor-outdoor living
- Bright, colorful fabrics like vinyl, linen, or acrylic on furniture and as accents
- Natural fiber rugs like jute in muted tones
- Textured wall decor – wood slats, concrete blocks, or even real stone
- Nelson bubble lamps and other lighting suspended by cables
- Novel storage like wall-mounted modular units or wheeled carts
- Eclectic style mixing, say, Danish teak with retro-inspired plastic and metal materials
- Lively and slightly abstract art, sculpture, mirrors, and wall hangings
- Accessible high-tech electronics like bright orange telephones and TVs
- Vintage travel souvenirs and global cultural artifacts
This youthful, casual aesthetic encapsulated the optimistic spirit of midcentury style, and allowed both simplicity and playful characters. Decor integrated seamlessly with the architecture.
Midcentury Modern Style Today
While midcentury fell out of fashion for a time, it has come roaring back starting in the 1990s, with a widespread renewal of interest in “retro modern” among younger generations. Some key factors in its resurgence include:
- Appreciation for well-crafted pieces: The decades have shown that midcentury designers truly created timeless, enduring objects of remarkable quality and utility.
- Nostalgia and vintage appeal: Younger generations are enamored with 1950s and 60s aesthetics they consider “vintage”, “retro”, or “kitsch”. The colors, textures, and humility of midcentury pieces provoke nostalgia.
- Backlash against excess: After decades of extravagance and over-the-top design, midcentury restraint and functionality again seem refreshing.
- Environmental values: Sustainable midcentury priorities like small footprints, natural materials, and indoor-outdoor living resonate with eco-conscious modern tastes.
- Ease of coordination: Midcentury’s versatility and transgenerational appeal make it easy to integrate into both traditional and contemporary spaces.
Midcentury design shows up today in everything from Ikea furniture to designer goods to whole neighborhoods of rejuvenated midcentury homes. This workshops, blogs, Etsy crafters, and museums all pay homage to midcentury style. From flea market finds to meticulously curated collections, midcentury’s clean and casual aesthetic continues to feel fresh, thoughtful, and livable for 21st century life.
Tips for Incorporating Midcentury Elements into Modern Spaces
Midcentury modern’s timeless qualities make it a popular choice when adding vintage flair to contemporary spaces. Here are some top tips for successfully working it in:
- Choose one or two statement pieces, like a Saarinen Tulip Table, Eames lounge chair, or colorful floor lamp to anchor a space – no need to overhaul everything for a cohesive midcentury look.
- Mix and match materials, combining wood, metal, fiberglass, and plastic across both modern and midcentury pieces for an eclectic feel.
- Use midcentury-inspired geometric patterns on pillows, rugs, or other accents to nod to retro motifs.
- Paint walls in pale neutrals like cream, light gray, or aqua to allow bold midcentury furniture to pop.
- Select midcentury-style fabric in black, white, or saturated brights when upholstering chairs, stools, or headboards to continue the aesthetic.
- Repeat circular, oval, or amoeba shapes from iconic designs in decorative accessories like mirrors, wall hangings, and tableware.
- Install a Nelson Asterisk Clock, Sasawaka paper globe pendant, or colorful era-appropriate vintage poster to show off your midcentury streak.
- For lighting, use sculptural midcentury torchiere lamps or globe pendants to contrast with sleek track lighting or modern chandeliers.
The right balance of midcentury elements will lend rooms a hip, curated feel. Don’t be afraid to mix eras and styles – the eclecticism is part of the appeal of incorporating vintage chic. Display your coveted finds in fresh ways that make sense for how you live today.
Restoring and Maintaining Midcentury Furniture
For those lucky enough to own authentic midcentury pieces, keeping them in good condition requires some care and diligence. Here are some tips:
- Inspect items regularly for any new scratches, water marks, or signs of structural damage. Address minor issues promptly to avoid worsening.
- Clean wood frequently with a soft, lint-free cloth and mild soap and water to remove dust and dirt buildup from the grain. Avoid abrasive cleaners.
- Re-oil wood pieces annually with approved products to nourish the finish – especially important for well-used areas like armrests. Consult an expert on proper oiling procedures.
- Upholstery may need cleaning or replacement every 5-10 years. Match original fabrics whenever possible or use period-appropriate patterns and materials.
- Replace broken rattan, caning, leather, or rubber details like stool seats with handwoven replacements that match the original.
- Remove small scratches or markings in plastic, fiberglass, laminate, or metal using approved automotive buffing products. Avoid abrasives.
- If necessary, carefully refinish affected areas – don’t strip the whole finish. Match stains and finishes exactly.
- For valuable restorations, hire a specialist in midcentury furnishings. Refinishing mistakes can permanently damage value.
- For family heirlooms or rare pieces, ensure climate control and take extra care to protect from sunlight, spills, humidity, and wear.
Proper care preserves these well-designed items for generations to come. Teach children to value and handle midcentury furnishings gently so they can one day inherit these classic pieces themselves.
Where to Find Midcentury Modern Furniture and Decor
For those looking to add some midcentury flair to their space, many options exist to find quality vintage or vintage-inspired design:
Flea Markets and Estate Sales
Search flea markets, estate sales, and garage sales – you never know what treasures a discerning eye can uncover. Look under surfaces and in drawers to assess conditions. Bring a furniture expert if appraising big-ticket items.
Well-curated consignment shops offer midcentury goods at often reasonable prices. Look for shops that specialize in the era. Carefully examine condition and inquire about any restoration.
Auction houses like Wright host regular sales dedicated exclusively to modern design where you can find museum-quality midcentury furnishings from renowned designers. Be prepared to pay premium prices for rarities and pristine condition.
Online Vintage Sites
A number of reputable online vintage sites like Chairish and 1stDibs offer buyers a broad selection of design periods and styles. Midcentury pieces get vetted for authenticity and condition. Expect high markups.
Most bigger antique malls will have a section dedicated to midcentury finds. While selection is hit or miss, this allows you to browse a range of smaller vendors in one place. Perfect for discovering oddball decorative items on a budget.
For budget buyers or those wanting brand new condition, high quality reproductions let you buy new versions of iconic midcentury designs from authorized manufacturers. This includes brands like Herman Miller and Design Within Reach.
With a bit of elbow grease, neglected midcentury finds can get revived into gems. Head to midcentury-focused blogs or YouTube tutorials to learn how to spot items with potential and restore them to their former glory.
The hunt for that perfect vintage piece adds to the thrill of decorating with midcentury style. Do research to become familiar with iconic designs, quality construction, and authentic markings before purchasing to ensure you get a sound investment.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are some other key terms related to midcentury style?
Some other terms commonly associated with midcentury modern design include Atomic Age, Jet Age, Space Age, Populuxe, Googie, Danish modern, and Retro.
What’s the difference between midcentury modern and Scandinavian design?
While midcentury modern originated in Europe and was influenced by principles of Scandinavian simplicity and functionality, midcentury incorporates more colors, textures, and whimsy compared to the very sparse, blond-wood aesthetic of minimalist Scandinavian design.
What makes a furniture piece truly midcentury modern versus “inspired by” midcentury?
Authentic midcentury modern furniture comes from the 1940s-1960s and exhibits design qualities like spare geometric forms, natural materials, fluid shapes, and references to science and technology motifs. “Midcentury-inspired” means the piece mimics classic styles but may be of newer construction.
Were all midcentury furniture designs originals or were some mass-produced copies?
While designers like Charles & Ray Eames and George Nelson introduced new forms and production methods that became iconic, more mass-market brands like Broyhill also made less expensive furniture with similar styling meant for middle-class buyers.
What’s a key indicator of valuable, investment-grade midcentury pieces?
Having a label from an influential designer or manufacturer like Knoll, Herman Miller, or Westnofa generally indicates collectible status. Other factors are quality materials, condition, and appearance in major museum exhibitions.
Does midcentury style work in more traditional rooms or is it best on its own?
Midcentury flexibility and simple