The Innovative Timelessness of Mid Century Modern Furniture
60 years later, Why is the Mid Century Modern Furniture Still so popular?
The mid-century modern style is well over a half-century old. As early as the 1930s, artists and designers began employing crisp lines and organic shapes in the development of what is now classified as mid-century modernism. The style remained dominant all the way through the 1960’s, showing up in furniture, architecture, fashion and other art forms for decades.
Today, you can’t go very far without seeing a piece of mid-century modern furniture (think IKEA—it’s almost all inspired by MCM!). Indeed, the style has appealed to consumer sensibilities for decades.
What makes mid-century modern furniture, decor, and architecture so timeless? Why do homeowners today respond positively to designs that first appeared more than 60 years ago?
In order to answer these questions, we’ve outlined a short primer on mid-century modern furniture. It will help you to understand why the style remains prevalent today and how you can use it to furnish your own home.
A Short History of Mid-Century Modern Furniture
The early years of the 20th century were a time of rapid global movement. Artists and designers, were traveling around the world soaking in the influences of other cultures. Many of them were enlisted in the military as soldiers in the two World Wars.
One group of German designers (who would later become known as the Bauhaus), took a particular interest in Japanese design. The minimal but efficient furniture and architectural designs created by the Japanese appealed to the Bauhaus’ sensibilities.
The Japanese, after all, created furniture in a somewhat restrained way, avoiding the addition of any features that created clutter. Every piece was manufactured with efficiency in mind, creating a quiet type of beauty where nothing seemed out of place.
The Bauhaus greatly appreciated the aesthetic sensibilities of the Japanese and took its influence back to Germany with them. Whereas the Asian cultures of the time worked in somewhat traditional materials—woods, natural textiles—however, the Europeans wanted to incorporate a wide range of new materials. Technological developments allowed for the mass production of new building materials, fabrics and composites.
Through taking inspiration from Japanese minimalism and incorporating new materials, textures, and colors, the Bauhaus essentially set into motion a movement that would stand the test of time.
After WWII, these influenced converged into what would become know as mid century modernism. As Matt Riley, principal @ Tonic Design explains,
Mid Century Modernism is most closely associated with the period between 1950s through to the mid 1960s and references the trends that influenced interior design and architecture in the prosperous post-war era. Scholars often credit Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames for making the modern movement in the USA popular, however Architects like Neutra, Schindler, Wexler and developers like Eichler bought mid-century modernism style to the masses through the development of Tract Housing suburbs prevalent in Silverlake and Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, and in Palm Springs and San Diego in Southern California.
Keys to Mid Century Modern Decor
Mid-century modern furniture is defined by its classic, understated quality. It most often contains slick lines and very little ornamentation.
MCM designers placed an emphasis on function. They believed that the role of the furniture designer was to create pieces that functioned as well as possible and that the form of the work came second. Again, Matt Riley of Tonic.cc Notes 7 principles
- Form should follow function
- Design centers around living well
- Truth of Material - Details and design reflects the true nature of the material with minimal or no ornamentation - the details are the ornament.
- Juxtaposition of combined materials e.g. steel with glass with natural stone, with timber all used together
- Clean lines balanced and in proportion spatially with both organic and geometric forms
- Internal spaces blend and complement with external spaces, architecture sits harmoniously within its' environment
- Longevity in design - functional beauty paired with quality materials
Mid-century modern furniture has very little clutter. There is a combination of organic shapes and geometric forms included in the work but everything should come together in a minimal, harmonious way.
While the basis of each piece is in traditional materials and construction methods (wood, steel, fabrics), most pieces include some form of non-traditional materials. Much of the furniture that came out of the MCM movement include plastic, vinyl, and plexiglass, which were new resources for designers in the early 20th century.
This style uses color in a strategic manner. Many furniture pieces are produced in natural tones (the color of plywood, for example) with carefully-placed bits of brightly-colored paint or patterned fabric. The harmony between natural colors/textures and mass-produced, machine-made ones is a key component of the style.
Why is Mid-Century Modern Furniture Still Popular Today?
Today, homeowners all over the world appreciate mid-century modern furniture for its simple, efficient qualities. The majority of us, after all, are dealing with too much clutter and not enough space. We see the influence of MCM in both the Minimalist movement (where people are getting rid of everything except for their most precious items) and the Tiny Home movement (in which homeowners are foregoing the purchase of a traditional home and building compact, efficient mobile homes instead). Matt Riley from Tonic.cc again
...the principle of living well is not something that will drop away, internal spaces blending with and sitting harmoniously within the natural environment will equally continue to be prevalent in design thinking and longevity in design will likewise be something that will be continued.
This makes sense given the fact that the mid-century modern movement originally gained traction in early 20th century America. Although the school had started working in European art academies, they fled to the U.S during World War II where their work was met with critical acclaim.
At that time, suburban development was taking off in America. Soldiers who returned home from the war often purchased houses in newly-developed suburban areas. Oftentimes, these homes were filled with mass-produced goodies like appliances, toys, trinkets, etc. Mid-century modern furniture, in all of its elegant efficiency, offered a way to keep the home organized in a stylish manner.
This is not to mention that, due to the inexpensive production costs of MCM pieces (they were made of mass-produced materials like plywood, after all) homeowners could furnish their homes for relatively cheap.
Furnish Your Home Mid-Century Style?
Today, homeowners everywhere are using MCM furniture as an inspiration to get their lives in order. Whether you’re building a home from scratch and want to maximize the space or simply want to start a mid-century modern furniture collection, there are plenty of options available.
Finding Quality Furniture & Design
Sharron Tancred of Tailored Artworks points out that mid-century furniture is available at most price points, even diy-ers. She notes,
[MCM is]...interesting and easily accessible on a budget as much is available in 2nd hand furniture shops. With the increase in upstyling, MCM is an appropriate style for DIY decorators.
In other words, mid-century furniture is available across the spectrum of decorators. This is most true in the re-sale space, where you can find beautiful, vintage mid-century furniture is more re-sale home goods stores. Online, Ebay, Charish, and Etsy are filled with mid-century inspired pieces.
Not a diy-er? Buying new is just as accessible. Amy Kilvington of Interior Home Goods explains that her brand has seen a huge increase in demand for the natural finishes and simplicity of the mid-century era.
We're also seeing a lot more wood is coming through in decor, and there is more of a demand for real woods in natural tones and finishes.
MCM is here to stay
It's no wonder the mid-century style has lasted all these years. Its focus on simplicity, quality, and function provide a set of guiding principles for any decor or architectural project. Whenever quality and function are the most important considerations, longevity will definitely follow.