Mid-Century Modern: A Timeless Classic
“It generally takes me a week to come up with good impromptu speech.” The quip is usually credited to Mark Twain; if he didn’t use those exact words, he definitely said something similar on many occasions. The point is that anything that looks as simple and effortless as Mid-Century Modern, that timeless classic of design, is rarely simple and never effortless. Don’t believe your eyes and ears. Whether it is sport, literature, art, craft or – to turn to the main topic of this blog – furniture, there is a lot of skill and work in simple.
That is where the Mid-Century modern look comes in. It is clean, streamlined and easy on the eye. There are no nooks and crannies for dirt to take up residence. It looks straightforward but looks deceive.
In terms of a strict definition, mid-century modern is a style that a started to become popular in the 1920s. It hit its peak in the postwar era and started to fade in the 1960s when other modernist trends took over.
At the start, it was the reaction to the fiddly, fussy Gothic style favoured in the previous century. Even the ornamentation of the Art Nouveau and the Art Deco movements started to become a bit over the top. The creators did away with unnecessary frills and concentrated on each item’s shape. The design roots lay in Germany’s Bauhaus movement, but it evolved into something fresh, particularly in the post-war years.
Mid-century modern properly turned into that timeless classic when its pure geometric principles were picked up by Scandinavian designers. Thanks to their shared concentration on shape and form, they came up with a look that was both elegant and functional. The designs had an abstract simplicity to them. Anything not doing a job had to be removed. If something could do more than one job, so much the better.
You are looking at hairpin legs, streamlined sofas, curved wood legs, walnut finishes, anything that looks sleek and modern. New techniques for preparing wood also allowed designers to achieve the functionality of artificial materials but do so with something natural, strong and durable. It has become a fusion of modern function with traditional aesthetics.
Isn’t Mid-Century Modern a Bit Old?
After the heyday of the movement in the decade between 1947 and 1957, mid-century modern start to fade a little from public consciousness but it never fell out of style. There was a time round the turn of the century when possibly only professional interior designers knew about it but television changed all that.
The spur for the big revival was the American show Madmen, which exploded onto people’s screens in 2007 and ran for eight years. It was a big hit, all played out against the backdrop of 1960s designs. Given a glimpse of these iconic images people fell in love with the look all over again.
The show may be finished, but the fashion trends, particularly for interior design and furniture have endured. They are as strong today as they were when the show reached its conclusion. The look has become so well loved that it has taken on a life of its own.
How Do You Identify Mid-Century Furniture?
The first thing to look at is the design itself. The lines are sleek, clean and uncluttered. There are plenty of curves and few sharp angles. The surfaces appear to blend into each other in a seamless transition. Some pieces look reasonably conventional but more will feature novel and interesting shapes.
A wide variety of materials are used, but wood tends to feature heavily. You are looking at clean lines, interesting shapes, handles sunk into the surface, so they don’t disturb the smooth finish. Plenty of curves, often sitting alongside aggressively straight edges to create the strong contrast.
Coverings come in a cool colour palette with plenty of teals, grey, lively green, rust orange, mustard yellow and dusky blues on display. Patterns are bold, reflecting the abstract designs that dominated the art world at the time the style was created. What you are looking at is design set in the art world dominated by the likes of Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. What makes Mid-Century Modern so a timeless classic is the solid blocks of colour that dominate alongside iconic shapes meant to take you by surprise.
Who makes the best mid-century modern furniture?
The movement really caught fire in the years after the last War though designers such as Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe had been laying the groundwork in the years before hostilities broke out.
Probably the most famous early creators however, are the husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, who made it their goal to get the best design to the greatest number at the lowest cost. Their interests ranged across the spectrum but included furniture and interior design. They are probably best known for their iconic chairs, designed in the late 1950s but still available today. They are so important in the field the many of their designs remain the inspiration for furniture being created today.
At Olson and Baker, we have a couple of favourite designers in Arne Jacobsen and Hans J Wegner – if you don’t know them you have almost certainly seen furniture modelled on their designs.
Jacobsen is best known an early pioneer in Danish furniture design. He took to the Mid-Century Modern concept and adapted it to create iconic works like the Fritz Hansen Egg Chair and footstool he created in 1958. Wegner went on to design more natural-looking products that are staples of home and commercial furnishings I’m modern times. He was one of the early pioneers in the movement, demanding that traditional craft skills had to go alongside modern techniques to create a new look.
Hans J Wegner
Wegner, who trained with Jacobsen, is another master of the art, with plenty of designs that illustrate his versatility. He is widely seen as both a leader in making mid-century modern a timeless classic and one of the most influential furniture designers of the 20th century. Have a look at the Carl Hansen Shell Lounge Chair to get an example of his outstanding ideas.
It is a 1963 design based on his earlier Sawback Chair from 1952. The design is justly seen as both groundbreaking and an all-time design classic. It is mean to look interesting from any angle. Its sculpted frame with its solid played legs certainly achieves that goal. Forget the old, boring rectangular or round seat. This shell lounge chair comes with wings instead of armrests. It adds glamour to any space it is found in.
What wood is used for mid-century modern furniture?
This is one change there has been in the style over the years. Originally mid-century modern furniture was usually made with teak or a combination of teak and oak. Furniture made more recently is less likely to feature teak, but that has not affect the style too much. Oak continues to be used and beech has taken over many of the roles that teak used to occupy. Both have the advantage of being paler woods, reflecting the mid-century modern’s Scandinavian influences. The natural colour is less overbearing than the darker teak and is more likely to fit in with a mid-century modern colour scheme.
One of the major trends throughout the style’s history has always been the use of moulded plywood. Bending plywood into interesting and innovative shapes was a process being developed at about the same time as the mid-century modern. It is a technique the designers were quick to adopt. Chair seats are the big winners from the developments made here. It allows the creators to come up with a series of iconic shapes. It also allows them to repeat the process with great accuracy and cuts down on waste. Using plywood also cuts costs but, for all that, the main reason for using it is still its flexibility.
Where Can I Buy Mid-Century Modern Furniture?
Given where you are reading this blog, the obvious answer is just stick to Olson and Baker, where there is an extensive range of mid-century modern furniture for almost every room in the house. The Carl Hansen lounge chair, the Carl Hansen shell chair and Carl Hansen dining table are popular lines but there are plenty to choose from.
The slightly longer answer is that it depends exactly what you are looking for. Remember Mid-Century Modern is a timeless classic, so you could go for authentic 1950s or 1960s furniture. There are plenty of outlets that specialise in just vintage and classic pieces. Be warned though, that level of authenticity comes at a price – up to tens of thousands of pounds per item.
It is really not worth it unless you are totally dedicated. The furniture bing made today follows exactly the same designs and manufacturing standards. It also comes with the advantage of being new, so there is no danger of hidden damage from half a century of wear and tear. It is, however, worth avoiding cheap copies. Authentic furniture in the mid-century modern style comes with assurances that it is made according to the exact specification of the original design. That also means all the quality standards of an item meant to last for years. The fact that the originals are still out there and collectable shows the level of craftsmanship that goes into them.
Make Your Space Mid-Century Modern
You will probably want to start with the furniture. A hero piece – a sofa, chairs or iconic table – will be the centre of the room and the rest can follow from that.
You will need a colour scheme to match it. One good idea is to pick a pale, possibly even white, colour scheme for a wall. Then use it as a backdrop for a large piece of bold artwork. A large abstract picture or a wall hanging will stand out.
Sofas and chairs need to be set off with well-chosen cushions. A lot will depend on the exact colour scheme of the furniture but big cushions in a neutral colour. Yellow, teal, grey, dusky blue and the like are unlikely to go far wrong. There is nothing to stop you passing the look up by adding some cushions sporting bright, vibrant patterns.
Don’t neglect the floor. The mid-century modern look often comes with wooden floors, so add rugs to create a bit more texture to the room. They look warm and cosy and are practical too. They protect the surface below and can easily be moved around to change the look.
Add the Finishing Touches
If you are going the whole hog, don’t neglect the lighting either. Spectacular light fittings or lamp shades will add that little bit of “wow’ factor. Be careful here. The fittings have to go with the rest of the room, so don’t mid brash metallic fittings and harsh lighting with soft, warm wood furniture. As a rule of thumb, go with silver if there is a lot of metal in the furniture but a more golden touch if there is a lot of wood.
Don’t feel you have to go with the same colour scheme either. The mid-century modern look often involves one wall done up in a contrasting style to the rest. So while you may have three walls in a cream or pale yellow, why not have one with a bold-pattern wallpaper on it. That will set off the rest and draw attention to a sideboard or table on that side of the room.
Talking about sideboards; mid-century modern uses homely touches like vases to set off the mood of the room. These can be words of art in their own right. If you are going for the authentic look, the quirkier the better. If you have a true conversation piece, then stick it on a unfussy sideboard or table and make it the centre of attention.