How to Nail Mid-Century Modern Style

Is it 2022 or could it possibly be 1962? A lot in the world has changed, but stome styles remain timeless.

9 minute read


Go back in time seventy years and strangely, interiors of the “moment” back in the 50s and 60s don’t look a whole lot different to what you might find in a tasteful home today.

What’s going on?

The answer is: Mid-century modern style.


You can’t bounce the bounce if you can’t pronounce the bounce!

TIGER, OF WINNIE THE POOH

Behind the Mid-Century Modern Style


To pass your design history on this subject, just remember that mid-century modern is seen as the “golden age of modern design”.


The modernist movement got its start with the Arts and Crafts movement, which was most influential between 1850-1914. This ‘reform’ movement challenged the stuffy Victorian approach to home furnishing and also cheap machine production.

What the arts and crafts movementOpens in a new tab. valued most was quality, hand-crafted goods. They also wanted to return to “purity” in design.

Although rebellion against machines did not endure as a hallmark of modernism, purity in design did.

This would later be known as “form follows function”, a term coined by architect Louis Sullivan in 1896.


In case you don’t know who this Sullivan guy is, I didn’t know at first, either. He is, in fact, the father of the modern day skyscraper, and very definitely an American.

There was a very exciting moment in my history course when we jumped from the old world to the new, from the likes of Robert Adams to the Father of prairie style and modern architecture.


I can feel my love for American architecture starting to brew. My brand of choice? Why, team Frank Lloyd Wright, all the way!


Image Attribution

The Seeds of Mid Century Modern

The Bauhaus schoolOpens in a new tab. (which existed between 1919-1933 until Hitler quashed it) was a founding modernist institution which was active in the social revolution from which it emerged.

It was led by designers, architects and industrial engineers. They imagined an entirely new way of thinking about design and producing for the masses. This new insight would enable quantity of production while still maintaining craftsman-like quality.


The great thinkers of the Bauhaus were wise not to fight technology, but instead to embrace it. They also tried to humanize it.

This approach to humanization (ergonomics) served to make all future design better.


The early “prototypes” (forerunners of future modern products) designed at the Bauhaus school, as well as its philosophies on industrial design were influential in developing future modern styles (like MCM styles).

The newly emerging styles in the modern movement from here would come to be based on function, simplicity and later, elegance.

Most importantly, these new modern styles were not related to any style that had come before them.

The modern age was born, and it is here to stay.


Modern Design Superstars


If the Arts and Crafts and the Bauhaus gave birth to modernism, the middle of the twentieth century is when modern design reached new heights.


The styles which emerged following the second world war spoke of optimism in their design ethos.

A more thoughtful, robust and pragmatic way of living was needed as the world was rebuilding.


True mid-century modernist style for purists applies to furniture designed and manufactured for the first time between 1947 and 1957.

However, this doesn’t account for the heydey of Scandinavian mid-century modern design.

Here’s why: Scandinavian furniture continued to rise in popularity another six years after 1957, until 1963.

The key difference is that the once ‘Scandinavian manufactured‘ furniture was now being manufactured in the United States. (So, less pure in case anyone is wondering :))

This is probably only a useful distinction when it comes to buying antique and vintage MCM on premier sites such as 1stDibsOpens in a new tab..

I highly recommend looking at some of their beautiful collections on the site!


Scandinavian Influence

‘Danish modern’ furniture exploded onto the transatlantic design scene and dominated from the forties throughout the fifties and early sixties.

Because Danish architects and designers of the time saw design as a tool through which people’s lives could be improved, their designs were broadly appealing to just about everyone.

They were received especially well in the American market.


American manufacturers produced many Danish furniture styles under license up until around 1963, when sales reached a peak.

The style then lost popularity and lay dormant for thirty years, until the late nineties.


The Comeback of MCM

A contemporary home keeps it vintage modern with a choice of some mid-century modern inspired furnishings and very mid-century modern color palette, mostly neutrals with a strong accent and warm tones throughout. The one part of the scheme I’m not buying is the curtain motif, which seems too whimsical for the ‘pure’ style. Nonetheless, it definitely works with the scheme overall and would not change the room’s classification as mid-century moddern in style.

Like Rocky Balboa, we are not putting this legend to rest just yet.

As you may know, the modernist movement went in the direction of minimalism in the nineties.

But while minimalism might have been the biggest influence of the nineties, to the detractors of the ‘bare essentials‘ stripped-down style, the now 30-year-matured vintage designs of modernism’s golden age were calling.


They may also, just maybe, have started to appeal at this time to those people that didn’t really like modernism the first time it came around.


The truest test of a style or mode of design is the test of time.

The steady, silent strength of solid construction, careful selection and use of materials and the pure elegance of design found in original mid-century modern furniture only becomes more evident with age and patina.

Original mid-century modern furniture is now officially in the role of modern classics.

Imagine the craze when these designs turn one hundred and become antiques!


What is the Appeal of Mid Century Modern Style?


Harmony

In a certain sense, furniture of the mid century is timeless in its tendency to find perfect balance between form and function. —Something that is also seen in the traditional design of Japan, interestingly enough.

The two opposing concepts of ‘purpose’ and “pose” (shape) shouldn’t ‘reject’ one another in a successful modern piece.

Instead there should be a harmony; an elegant dance between the material, it’s form and its use.

It becomes prose.


Human-Centered Design

Here’s something you may not know:

Ergonomics are fundamentally important to good modern design.


Beauty

An important part of making modern styles in general more popular than arts and crafts had been was making modern styles ever more subtly, more visually appealing.

Instead of dismissing aesthetics as ‘unimportant’, the approach in MCM design was usually to keep it light stylistically.


Influential mid-century modern designers like the Father of modern Danish furniture making Kaare Klint of DenmarkOpens in a new tab. didn’t shun style altogether, they just cleverly made it seem like the graceful aesthetic was inherent to the making of the piece.

Here are some ways a piece of modern furniture, like a dining chair, can be tested:

It should feel natural to look at it; natural to sit upon. It should be comfortable, and should take the weight off tired areas of the body.

You should be able to pick it up and move it easily.

It looks good almost anywhere.

It brings you joy in a certain way, just to own something so thoughtfully designed.

Mid century design at its heart is about human experience.

The philosophy behind MCM makes us want to bring joy into the little things in life and to savor them.


What the style teaches us is that good design can encourage a person to live better; more thoughtfully and more deliberately.


How to Furnish, Style and Decorate with Mid-Century Modern


Starting Pointers for Mid Century Modern Style Design

Sourcing your mid-century pieces

-Decide whether you are going for a mid-century “inspired decorating scheme, or whether you will use all or mostly vintage MCM pieces

-If you are on a budget buy your key pieces first, and add more over time

-If you are an avid MCM fan don’t forget to look for buy/sell MCM furniture groups on Facebook or other social channels

-Look for unwanted MCM pieces at yard sales and charity shops -extra points if you are willing to fix them up and restore them to their original condition


Keep your background ‘clean’.

-Have minimal or very modern architectural elements

Wall panels can be used as accents, either in natural material finishes or painted bold primaries (wallpaper tends to feel art deco, but not ruled out)

Built-in furniture elements, such as open display shelving or window bench seating help to keep the room more seamless

Anything on display is treated as modern art; while MCM is not minimalism, it shuns clutter

-Keep arrangements open, with lots of negative space


Tops Tips for Mid Century Modern Style Decorating

  1. It’s generally quite easy to match furniture and decor items with other pieces from the period, but because it can tend to be ‘boxy’, try to mix things up!

The mid-century modern inspired furniture pieces on this board vary between being sharply rectilinear (angled 90 degrees) and softly rounded. These square, rectangular and circular motifs are repeated in the lighting and wall art.
The art and rug patterns are abstract, but the colors palette is simple: mostly basic primaries with soft exceptions.
Brown is a very dominant color in mid century modern. It makes an appearance in wood, brick and leather.

In order to get the best results:

Mix and match round edges with right-angles

-Mix upholstered with non-upholstered furniture

-Use pieces with different materials


Too much uniformity will look forced and static, more like what you’d expect from a formal, traditional room. Instead, invite the eye to move around the room with several low key focal points, and one major one, like a tapestry wall hanging or a fireplace.


Keep the overall sillhouette (general ‘outline’ of the furniture in the room) dynamic by varying the heights and proportions of furniture

Play with groupings of furniture and see if you can make them more fun

-Yes, do please “tie the room together” with that one large accent rug, accent wall, or fun upholstery pattern

Don’t be too serious about it, add a little tongue in cheek!

-Mid century modern looks great with contemporary pieces, too.

-Good mid-century modern design should ‘click’, furniture arrangement should be on point

-Bring in some uniformity through sets of sconces and other lighting elements, mirrors and artwork.


Mid Century Modern Style Info – At a Glance

Level of difficultyBeginner (easy) to Collector (mid range level of difficulty)
Expense LevelBudget – Mid range to expensive
Modern-Traditional SpectrumPure Modern
Architectural featuresModern architectural features
Common materialsConcrete, brick, wood, steel, glass, ceramic, stone
Style origin or primary influenceThe modern movement, the Bauhaus, Scandinavian modern style
Color profilePredominantly white or warm natural material background, major saturated color accents
Furniture styles rangeOnly mid-century modern (and mid-century inspired) furniture or maximum sixty-forty percent mix with contemporary
Pattern profileMostly minimal pattern (10-40 percent total scheme), usually large-scale geometric
Decor styles rangeClassic modern pieces and modern contemporary pieces
Art styles rangeMostly modern art
Distinguishing featuresSimple, streamlined and rectilinear forms, soft curves and geometrics
Comfort and livability indexExcellent

Have Fun with Mid Century Modern Decorating

Going with a favorite decorating style should never feel like a chore.

This style is a winner on several levels.

One, it is easy to find mid-century modern type furniture (yes, Ikea is an obvious choice on a budget!), two, it allows beginning collectors to keep their eyes open for interesting MCM pieces, and three for those who are already established collectors, there is a very good supply of vintage MCM to keep things interesting for a long time.

On top of that, vintage modern pieces are pretty easy to style and to arrange for newbie decorators, and the chances that you end up with that tasteful, crowd-pleasing and instagrammable room you’ve always wanted are excellent!


If you are interested in a thriving facebook group for buying and selling mid-century pieces, check out this groupOpens in a new tab..

For home inspiration from every day people who have used this style, try this groupOpens in a new tab..

To brush up on the super star designers of the mid century, go hereOpens in a new tab..


Thanks for reading and happy mid century modern designing and styling!

Want more? Learn more about the modern style genre, only here on Design Baddie!

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vonsassy

Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

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