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'Mid-century modern' is a term that is much-referenced in design and furniture circles, and the style has a wide and enduring appeal. Characterized by an emphasis on clean lines, minimalism and curvilinear and geometric shapes, this type of home décor takes its name from the Mid-Century Modern art movement — the American response, lasting roughly from 1935-1970 to the earlier Bauhaus and International schools in Europe. Designers in this art movement were also heavily influenced by the work of Le Corbusier and Scandinavian furniture makers. The term 'Mid-Century Modern' was coined in 1983 by scholar and journalist Cara Greenburg, nearly two decades after the trend’s heyday, in a book on 1950s furniture. Mid-Century Modern was in many ways a reaction against the over-elaborate and highly decorative styles that were previously fashionable.
The Essential Origins: Turn-of-the-Century Modernism
The turn of the 20th century brought tumultuous changes to society, with faster travel, increasingly rapid production of goods and speedy communication across distances becoming more commonplace. The focus was on the future, and styling in many arenas began to distance itself from the luxuriously ornate designs of the late 19th century. In the twenties, Art Deco's linear, luxe geometry was a major design trend, and out of the Great Depression, a bare-bones, functional aesthetic of modernism took shape in America. Generally, modernism stressed minimalistic (and slightly “futuristic”) design principles of simplicity, functionality and discreet elegance. This was especially influenced by expatriate, predominantly German, designers and architects who had worked in the European Bauhaus movement between the two world wars.
Also called the International Movement, Bauhaus aesthetics favored a more simple, casual lifestyle with little ornamentation. The focus was on harmony and unity between the form of a piece and its function. Usefulness, or utilitarianism, was a common theme. This “no-frills” mindset can be seen across all types of design, influencing everything from large buildings to modern lighting. Its echoes are still being felt in 21st-century furniture design.
A ‘Machine For Living’
“A house is a machine for living” was a motto for the Bauhaus designers. In keeping with their focus on utilitarian needs, furniture was becoming more than just a thing to show off and was now something to feel, to experience and to be integrated as part of the home as a functional organism. This is furniture that works for the act of living, with the way it works being just as important as how it looks. Nothing unnecessary is kept, and the utmost effort is made to focus on lightness, freedom and sensibility.
During this time, Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was developing principles along similar lines. His buildings were centered around load-bearing central columns, or pylons, which allowed for walls with long horizontal windows, open interior spaces and increased natural light. With flexible, free floor plans, a new kind of furniture could be envisioned.
A third influence was that of Scandinavian design thought, which historically emphasized spare functionalism, but combined the usefulness of things with beauty and organic, natural materials. A catchphrase of this school was 'beautiful things to make your life better.'
These conceptual trends were the foundation of what is known as Mid-Century Modern design.
Iconic Mid-Century Modern Designers
This period is well-known for the numerous design icons it produced, including Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Florence Knoll, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto.
As its international practitioners indicate, the movement’s influence was felt worldwide, but it was generally considered within the context of two main locales or categorizations: American, which favored mass-producible designs and industrial materials, and Scandinavian, which maintained a focus on minimalism, with natural elements such as wood and leather and a preference for handmade over mechanical production.
According to Charles and Ray Eames, the ideology behind their designs was to “get the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least amount of money.” This fresh concept of designing well, but with the ordinary person in mind, enabled a wide group of people to bring top-class design into their homes and workspaces. While modern interior design was moving toward mass production, this was a new era in which functional art became more accessible to the average consumer.
Mid-Century Modern Chairs
The Mid-Century Modern movement impacted everything from furniture to architecture, but it had a particular impact on seating fashion. Some of the most comfortable and timeless chairs ever made came from this period.
- The Eames Chair, designed by Charles and Ray Eames, is an iconic piece from the movement. This two-piece lounger is still a living room staple in homes across the world.
- The 1958 Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen is another classic that united the concepts of architecture into furniture design. Starting from the concept of the wingback but giving it a seamless and dramatic curvature, it was something no one had ever seen before.
- The Barcelona Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and collaborator Lilly Reich takes the simplicity of outdoor lounging and invites it into an indoor setting with luxurious materials.
- The Wassily Chair by Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer, made in the 1930s, has clean lines and basic metal legs. The airy, empty space underneath creates the illusion of a larger room.
- The Tulip Chair by Eero Saarinen is still a staple in casual seating today at bars and breakfast nooks around the world.
There are many more: for example, Arne Jacobsen's Swan Chair that echoes the clean, curved lines of the Egg Chair and the two-piece Womb Chair by Eero Saarinen — both lounge chairs that are still much loved for their comfort.
Mid-Century Modern Furniture Examples
This movement is known for its modern sofas, and a few iconic pieces in other categories have made their way into constant production years after their inception, such as:
The dramatic arc of the Flos Arco Lamp, made in 1962, sweeps over much of the room and provides a focal point that hangs off a curved support. The simple and extremely versatile Eero Saarinen Circular Table with a thin pedestal base has been gracing breakfast nooks and small living spaces since its launch in 1957. And, the influence of the tufted, rectangular Florence Knoll Sofa can be seen in many modern living rooms, especially on the sleeper sofa, with its thin, tapered metal legs that support a utilitarian yet comfortable couch.
Elements that grace mid-century furniture include tapered legs to embody a sense of lightness and freedom from ornament and ostentation. Clean, straight lines and echoes of the natural curves that occur in nature are a hallmark, as in the Egg Chair or the slightly curved shape of the Dunn Coffee Table. Favored materials were plastic, fiberglass, plywood, metal and other elements that were avant-garde for their time yet have held their aesthetic value to the present day.
Since its inception, Mid-Century Modern has maintained its status as one of the most popular and sought-after design periods. Though the exact dates of the era are often debated, it is generally accepted that it spanned the period following the Second World War through the late 1960s, and its influence has been felt across all forms of design.