Mid-century modern style is defined by artisan driven approaches to decor, furniture, industrial design, and architecture. There is great diversity, in part because there were so many creative minds behind this pioneering movement. The influence of Scandinavian minimalism and an affinity for natural materials is one of the core elements of mid-century modernism and many of the key figures are from Nordic countries.
Mid-Century modern style in architecture, interior design, decor, and furnishings includes sculptural biomorphic shapes and the use of industrial materials such as steel, brass, pane glass, fiberglass, resin, and concrete. This man-made sensibility is combined with natural elements, including a continuation between the indoors and outdoors, living quarters that engage with the environment sometimes on two levels, recessed areas with garden views, and panoramic views of landscapes or simply open views of leafy branched trees.
While there were many fruitful collaborations, each designer has a singular vision of what modernist style should be, resulting in a rich vocabulary that still has great resonance and appeal today. Although there are several different approaches to mid-century modern design, these elements are almost always included:
- Combining natural materials with manmade materials and technical innovation
- An emphasis on function and affordability
- Comfort paired with biomorphic forms
- Simple lines, geometric patterning, and atomic starbursts
- Emphasis on indoor/outdoor living
- Aesthetic contrasts and emphasis on texture
One point that almost all mid-century modern designers agree upon is that what they develop should be well designed and, if possible, mass produced so that the products are affordable.
As the design duo Ray and Charles Eames put it: “The best for the most for the least.”
Element 1. Wood Detail
Drawing from the Scandinavian adoration of natural materials, modernist designers use wood for furniture, doors, ceilings, storage, and more in both finished and unfinished styles. The photo below showcases the interior of a fantastic original mid-century modern residence designed in 1956 by Saul Zaik, an important Portland architect. It features a classic mid-century design and has seven doors all leading to the outside. The Saul Zaik House was recently renovated to reflect its original character by Jessica Henderson Interior Design.
Typical interior materials in mid-century design include doors and accents of teak or walnut and textured dyed wool. Many find mid-century furnishings and homes to be coolly relaxing, and indeed mid-century style is surprisingly comfortable as its original designers intended.
Element 2. Biomorphic Forms
Noguchi’s mid-century modern style design series has a history linked to The Museum of Modern Art. In 1939, the art collector and President of MoMA, A. Conger Goodyear, commissioned a table from the Japanese American sculptor.
The result was a beautiful combination of organic shapes paired with functional counterbalances such as the base of natural rosewood and the ambiguous biomorphic glass top, balancing on three points.
The Goodyear table would evolve into a simpler version that Noguchi designed for Herman Miller, transforming the idea into a more geometric two piece model. Miller produced the table until 1975, with special editions in 1980. It continues to be produced from 1984 on with new wood selections.
When we see these photos of Goodyear’s home, it occurs to me that many of us have lived with mid-century design without realizing it.
Element 3. Comfort
While innovative design and new production techniques were key, the designers also wanted their products to be comfortable and functional.
Mid-century modern style is largely seen as a movement that grew out of European modern design, its origins found in the Bauhaus school and continuing to breathe life into European and American creativity and home design through the mid 1960s.
The American interest in mid-century design expanded extraordinarily with the support of The Museum of Modern Art’s Industrial design competitions, particularly the 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings Competition, which brought together dealers, designers, and producers the museum facilitated exploration and innovation.
Of particular note, two designers developed the concept of a sculptural chair that would transform furnishing and the use of fiberglass.The manipulation and use of fiberglass initiated the production of affordable modern furnishings. American Charles Eames, and Finnish American Eero Saarinen worked together to create the small reading chair “Organic Chair.” First produced in the 1950s, today the chair is still popular, which is really quite remarkable considering it was designed over seventy years ago. It is sold through Vitra in a number of updated configurations.
Molded fiberglass became one of the most used materials, conceptualized and manipulated into biomorphic shapes, the goal to make modernist design affordable and easily mass produced.
It is rather ironic that today many of these vintage pieces, as well as contemporary versions, are too expensive for the average homeowner.
Element 4. Geometric Minimalism
The sensibility of clean, easy to maintain, and functional living spaces, includes impressive architectural elements such as cantilevered roofing and minimalist but gorgeously designed living spaces.
In addition to the clear influence of the lines of mid-century modern style on contemporary architecture, decor, and furniture, there are a number of iconic pieces that still have resonance today, seamlessly fitting into contemporary design.
Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair, Knoll #70, 1947
This chair grew out of the designer’s collaboration with Charles Eames, and came about when Saarinen was prompted by Frances Knoll to create a chair that while stylish and modernist, was also comfortable:”Like a basket full of pillows–something [you] could really curl up in….”
The fabric covered fiberglass chair was produced from 1948 to 1922, and is still for sale. It comes in a variety of colors.
Ray and Charles Eames’s Dax Molded Fiberglass Chair, 1948
Still an icon today, this chair was originally produced by Hermann Miller. Models are available today at Vitra and Design Within Reach.
This chair, or some derivation of it, is found in almost every major designer’s repertoire.
Element 5. Glass
Glass allows for transparency, open plans, and minimalism as well as integrating outdoor and indoor space.
More recently the aesthetic, technical achievements, and importance of this living period of design has moved to the forefront of culture, showcased in TV shows like Madmen. However, what we see today is a little different from the original homes.
Case in point is made via these amazing photos of a mid-century house in a time capsule. Outside of Minneapolis, this 1961 home was designed by architect John Polivka (featured on Retro Renovation with photos by Mike McKaw of Spacecrafting, 2013). This is a true rarity as today, many homeowners have “renovated” what seemed to be outdated styles, or high design mid-century homes have gone out of style and fallen into disrepair. As a result, much of America has been witness to an obscured aesthetic of mid-century modernism.
When we look at this preserved space, we get a sense of mid-century modern style’s power and avant-garde sensibility. Today, people like the preservationist and architect Cory Buckner are trying to keep the spirit and sites of mid-century modernist landmarks.
The influence of mid-century modern design is everywhere, and yet, most notable of all is the dedication of many of the designers to enhance the lives of many with their work, as Finnish American designer Eero Saarinen once said, “‘The purpose of architecture is to shelter and enhance man’s life on earth and to fulfill his belief in the nobility of his existence.”