What Is Mid-century Modern?

The Style of Design, Architecture, and Furniture Since World War II

modern interior
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In the 1984 seminal book Mid-century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s (Harmony Books, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York), author Cara Greenberg gave a term to the style of design, architecture, furniture, and accessories that had proliferated since World War II. As with other aspects of an exuberant postwar world, inspired designers created organically shaped furnishings for all the new homes being built that used materials and technology from the war years.

The Design Period

While Mid-century modern originally targeted the years 1945-1965, since Greenberg’s book was published some 30 years ago, the design period has often stretched to include the late 1960s and early-to-mid-1970s. Since the book’s publishing, Mid-century has seen streaks of popularity, yet has had a dedicated and consistent following, like the ModCom group of the Los Angeles Conservancy. With extreme accuracy and detail, mid-century's design has been reintroduced to devoted fans of the AMC cable series, Mad Men.

Architecture After World War II

After World War II, residential architecture was designed to be simple and built quickly: usually, one-story tract homes that emphasized horizontal lines, many windows, an easy and open flow from room to room, plus a smooth transition from indoors to outdoors. Furniture design reflected the clean, unfettered look of houses with curves, polymorphic and geometric shapes replacing any busy or highly ornamental details.

"Multipurpose became a catchphrase," and addressed the needs of modern life, writes Greenberg in Mid-Century Modern. "This new furniture stacked, folded and bent; it was rearrangeable and interchangeable; it nested and flexed. Chairs were designed to be pressed into service for a dozen different reasons. Tables were nonspecific, for eating, writing, or playing cards."

Modern Design and Casual Living

To go along with these new "casual living," home furnishings and lifestyle products, gadgets, and appliances included items like barbecue sets, toasters, broilers, mix masters, and bicycles for every family member.

Mid-Century modern collectibles range from furniture and architectural fixtures to accessories like lamps, clocks, artwork, and glassware. Prominent designers of Mid-Century modern furniture include:

  • Harry Bertoia
  • Charles and Ray Eames
  • Arne Jacobsen
  • George Nelson
  • Isamu Noguchi
  • Vernor Panton
  • Eero Saarinen
  • Hans Wegner

Common Misspellings

More of a misinterpretation, Mid-century Modern is not synonymous with Art Deco, Art Nouveau, “deco” or any misused 20th-century design terms. Mid-century Modern is also known as terms like modern, mod, California modern, atomic, atomic ranch, Eames era, games and google style. It also describes more high-style, designer items from the era rather than unclassifiable kitsch from the same period. For example, Dylan was attracted to the flying saucer-like form of a Mid-century Modern lamp designed by A.W. and Marion Geller in the early 1950s.

Example

  • Eero Saarinen (American, Kirkkonummi, Finland 1910–1961 Ann Arbor, Michigan)
  • Manufacturer: Knoll
  • Date: 1956
  • Medium: Aluminum, plastic, wool and nylon upholstery
  • Credit Line: Purchase, Theodore R. Gamble Jr. Gift, in honor of his mother, Mrs. Theodore Robert Gamble, 1980