If you were to hear the words “1950s interiors,” you’d probably see in your mind’s eye an immediate rush of images following a common theme: sleek lines and generous curves, muted colors, industrial materials, and lots of chrome, wood, and leather patterns and textures.
You’re probably imagining Don Draper in his Manhattan office, or maybe glasshouses and molded plywood.
You may not know it, but there’s a name for this aesthetic:
Mid-century Modern, which tells you everything you need to know in two and a half words.
This is the iconic look of the Pax Americana, the United States’ answer to Europe’s Bauhaus, infused with the post-war American ideals of ease, efficiency, fluidity, and mass-production. And while it certainly evokes a past Golden Age, it’s one of the most remarkably persistent styles in furniture ever to be produced.
Take a look at the timeline we put together about the history of the mid-century modern style and the major players involved in paving the way for one of the most steadfast styles of our lifetime.
From 1950s Washington to 2019 California, in offices as far afield as London or Singapore, this style is still going strong.
There’s no real way to pin down the start of mid-century modern (or MCM) because it was only defined as such by Cara Greenberg in her 1984 book Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s. The simplicity and elegance of these designs reflected the attitudes of a people who were sick of war and depression and were prepared for a bold leap forward into the future, in which a house was a space for comfort without indulgence, elegance without extravagance, and simplicity without plainness.
Materials like plywood, chrome, glass, bakelite, plastic, and synthetic fabrics were used in an unashamed acknowledgment of what they were, rather than trying to use them to imitate wood or stone. Mid-century modern was, and is, intended to be affordable to as many people as possible. As iconic designers Ray and Charles Eames put it, the aim of MCM was: “Getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least amount of money.”
While it’s never truly gone away, mid-century modern has undergone something of a revival in recent years, showing up in offices, homes, schools, and government buildings. Here are a few of the advantages of this style and some of its trending applications.
One of the key virtues of mid-century modern is its versatility. Because of its simplicity, low profile, and muted colors, it can be easily combined with other styles to create a lively, complementary mix.
Depending on the ratio of mid-century modern to other styles, you can get some wild variations. More old-fashioned designs spiced with one or two mid-century modern pieces can help create a sense of tradition with an appreciation for change, while an eclectic combination of Bauhaus, International, Danish Modern, and MCM can suggest worldliness, inclusiveness, and openness to new ideas.
Tucked into a corner or under a window, the low-slung, gently swooping designs of MCM sculptural chairs can enliven quiet areas of a room while providing a comfortable and natural place to enjoy a room.
Chairs such as the Eames’ Lounge Chair (ECL) and Lounge Chair Wooden (LCW), Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair, or the Barcelona Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich are each the product of a unique design story, with tons of inspiration and artistry packed into each fabric-lined curve. A common theme with these is the need to not look designed, but rather like something that just came to be almost as a matter of course.
An important feature of MCM chairs is natural functionality. These chairs are designed to be ergonomic and natural-feeling to sit in, enforcing none of the late Victorian ideals of proper, ramrod-straight posture. Sculptural chairs are meant to at once enhance the visual appeal of the space in which they’re placed while making the occupant feel completely, smoothly at ease.
Because mid-century modern works best with, and encourages, more open floor-plans than older styles, it might seem like there’s nowhere to store anything. Living in a showroom is well and good, but where do you put your socks, books, spare sheets, and the kids’ toys?
Luckily, because the original designers in this genre stressed practicality and functionality, successive designers have kept hold of this idea. Many of the storage solutions available for fans of MCM are slim, modular, and made from quiet, attractive materials that neither clash with other furniture or patterns while providing a surprising amount of space.
Designs like George Nelson’s Comprehensive Storage System or Thin-Edge Cases offer a great way to get items out of the way and into tidy, spare storage arrangements with minimal materials and visual distractions.
Not only does MCM furniture emphasize opening up a space while introducing minimal clutter, but its focus on muted ornamentation and unostentatious patterns and colors help maintain a sense of collected calm.
Many of the designers and original purchasers of mid-century modern had grown up during the strife of the Depression only to be tossed into the frantic pace of the Second World War. By 1946, they were ready to slow down and breathe easy. Luckily, that’s a lesson that hasn’t been lost on us today, and we too like to think of our homes, not for stiff-necked presentation, pure labor, or someplace to just store ourselves when we’re not at work.
The soft blues, olive greens, pale creams, and mustard yellows of MCM are naturally calming to the eye, while wood accents and quiet, low-slung designs help you feel relaxed, centered, and firmly rooted. In other words, they soothe a household and make it feel like a place that’s as natural a fit for you as a well-made glove.
Because mid-century modern pieces have leapt back into popularity, and because they’re (intentionally) easy to produce in large numbers, there’s a wide range of different pieces available from countless vendors. With the rise of the online niche furniture manufacturer, nearly any style can be made and shipped with minimal hassle, and mid-century modern is one of the most popular.
Many original designs from ‘50s designers are now in the public domain, but those that don't still serve as an inspiration to original pieces that carry the same beloved qualities of unpretentious simplicity with timeless elegance.
Of course, for the bargain-hunter or the vintage-lover, there’s always the flea market. As with any trend, mid-century modern has flowed in and out of fashion over the years, so every time someone with some old originals has wanted to remodel a frumpy house, or when someone’s clearing out an empty home, chances are sturdy, gorgeous pieces of mid-century modern furniture end up in thrift shops, flea markets, and yard sales. While it takes a keen eye and some patience, a dedicated decorator can, with a little persistence, end up taking a fantastic original piece off the hands of someone who’s only too happy to see it gone.
It might seem paradoxical, but with so many standardized designs available in this trend, it’s actually incredibly easy to put a personal spin on your home with mass-produced designs. A classic feature, characteristic of the era from which it came, is a bar. A small wood-patterned bar with quiet orange or green fabric accents can be just the thing to make a living room the perfect place for a quiet party with friends or the focal point of a giant blowout.
While any paint scheme can work, the relaxed and regal atmosphere granted by mid-century modern furniture is best complimented by eggshell blues, oranges, yellows, and whites, with walls painted in these colors offset by accents and decoration in the others. Minimalist prints with simple geometric shapes in alternating patterns make a great decoration for dull spots on the wall while accentuating favorite photos and posters.
Because these designs were created when the future seemed bright and so were the buildings, they benefit tremendously from natural light. But if you’re interested in this style and your home doesn’t happen to have entire walls made out of glass, not to worry! Authentic and reproduction mirrors edged in rattan, bamboo, or lacquered wood, arranged in leaf, teardrop, or shard patterns, are a perfect way to open up your space while remaining true to this aesthetic. Frequently, round or curved asymmetrical mirrors work best to avoid the domineering feeling you can sometimes get from a giant rectangular mirror looming over the couch. The gentle, offbeat curves in these mirrors can help keep up a playful, relaxed atmosphere while enhancing your natural lighting.
Time After Time
For over 70 years, this remarkably resilient and beautiful style has been bringing us furniture and design that, while evocative of an earlier time, still feels fresh and modern to this day. With timeless incredible designs from some of the most gifted modern designers and artists ever to have lived, there’s something for everyone in mid-century modern, and we’re sure to keep seeing it as the years go by.
If you're looking to get the same mid-century modern look for your home, check out our modern collections of sofas, end tables, and dining room furniture.