Mid-Century Modern Design: A Magical Movement

Mid-Century Modern refers to an architectural design movement period of influence in the United States, Canada, and Europe roughly between 1940 and 1970. Different regions have different dates to mark the beginning and end of the Mid-Century Modern era, but it is commonly placed between the end of World War II and the early 1970s. 

Table of Contents

  1. Mid-Century Modern: An Enduring Design Movement
  2. What is the Difference Between Mid-Century and Mid-Century Modern?
  3. Mid-Century Modern Design Style
  4. Is Mid-Century Modern Going Out of Style?
  5. Are the 1970s Considered Mid-Century Modern Style?
  6. What Does a MidCentury Modern House Look Like?
  7. What Colors Represent MidCentury Modern?
  8. Is MidCentury Modern Still Popular in the 21st century?
  9. How Do You Style MidCentury Modern Furniture?
  10. What are MidCentury Modern Textiles?
  11. Is Frank Lloyd Wright a MidCentury Modern Designer?

Mid-Century Modern: An Enduring Design Movement

It was a period of great change, and the design style reflected this. It combined the optimism of the post-war era with a keen awareness of environmental issues, social problems, and technological advances and is often associated with the post-war boom in America and Japan. It was also a popular style in Western European countries like France and West Germany. In terms of appearance, mid-century Modern is often considered “less is more”.

The Farnsworth House
“The Farnsworth House” by Ronald Douglas Frazier is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Homes during this period reflected this optimism with a clean, minimalist style but also included curved lines and nautical elements that were often referred to as “Streamline Moderne”. Homes of this era were designed to be beautiful and functional at the same time, making use of new technologies like plastics and atomic-age furniture to create open floor plans and interiors filled with light.

Palm Springs Polar Vortex by Randy Heinitz
Source: “Palm Springs Polar Vortex” by Randy Heinitz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the United States, the Mid-Century Modern movement stems from a series of events that took place during the first half of the 20th century. The Great Depression of 1929 led to a drop in home construction, while the Dust Bowl forced many people to leave the land for new homes in the city. During this time, household goods were scarce, especially in the poor and middle class, and many turn-of-the-century designs were re-introduced. 

After World War II, prosperity reigned supreme in the U.S., and many folks, especially those in newly forming suburbs, had the disposable income to spend on modern conveniences and decor. The rise of mass production and manufacturing led to the mass production of goods, including furniture, clothing, home appliances, and various decorations. It was the birth of consumer culture, after all.

All of these factors led to the mid-century modern style, which grew out of the Bauhaus movement in the early 20th century.  The Modern movement was founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, a German architect and founder of the Weimar-based Bauhaus School and modernist architecture.

skodsborg strandvej 300 by arne jacobsen
Source: “arne jacobsen, skodsborg strandvej 300, 1953-1956” by seier+seier is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Many designers, architects, and artists contributed to the MidCentury Modern design style.  Some of the most influential figures are Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mies van der Rohe. These four designers all contributed to the Mid-Century Modern movement, as well as a plethora of architects, artists, industrial designers, and graphic designers. All of these designers, and many more, contributed to the design style of Mid-century Modern. 

This movement was a rejection of the excesses from the Victorian era that favored a more functional style. The most well-known proponent of the movement was architect Frank Loyd Wright, who is responsible for developing the American Prairie style: a blend of Prairie School and mid-century modern.

Mid-century modern design is arguably the most well-known era of interior design, with its embrace of clean, minimalist lines. 

Private Showing by Randy Heinitz
Source: “Private Showing” by Randy Heinitz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What is the Difference Between Mid-Century and Mid-Century Modern?

Many people have misused the terms Mid-Century and mid-century modern to refer to the modern decor in general, but, in reality, the two are quite different.

Mid-Century Modern design is characterized by an eye toward function, with built-in storage and furniture that is often multipurpose. We know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t mid-century modern just a fancy way of saying Mid-Century?” 

While it’s true that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they do refer to different styles. Mid-Century design refers to any post-World War II design, while mid-century modern refers specifically to the movement in architecture, furniture, and graphic design from the early 1930s and mid-1960s.  However, this has been argued to be specified between the years 1947-1957.

Former NEBA Roast Beef Mid-Century Style Building
Mid-Century Style Building: “Former NEBA Roast Beef” by Phillip Pessar is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mid-Century Modern design has gained a cult following in recent years, and the style has evolved beyond just the classic furniture you see in Mad Men and retro coffee shops. Today, it’s still popular for its clean lines and timeless, accessible appeal—and when it comes to this look, you can’t go wrong with the right fabric.

Santa Fe Savings and Loan, Black and White Photo
Source: “Santa Fe Savings and Loan” by Randy Heinitz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mid-Century Modern Design Style

Mid-Century Modern has been one of the most popular home decor styles of the last decade. It has been a growing trend in the interior design world since its popularity in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. It evokes a sense of nostalgia, adventure, and exploration which reflects well on the hustle and bustle of the boom years of the 20th century.

The term mid-century modern was coined in 1978 by Karl Lagerfeld, a fashion designer.  The modern aesthetic is characterized by simplicity in form and function using clean, unadorned lines, bold colors, geometric shapes, repetition, and space-age furniture.  It is known for its forward-thinking designs, incorporating new materials like plastic and glass or technology. It also encompasses a range of styles, including organic modernism, Googie-style, and sleek contemporary design.

Motel Sign, Googie style, Wednesday: Prescott Valley, Arizona
Source: “Wednesday: Prescott Valley, Arizona” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Again, the design movement flourished during the middle of the 20th century, so the phrase “midcentury” is a bit of a misnomer. This design style was most prevalent in the 1950’s and 1960s and a key reason for its popularity was the low cost of materials which fueled the development of suburban communities in large tracts of land which represent Silicon Valley’s communities today. Steve Jobs’ parents lived in a home built in 1952 and have three bedrooms and two baths.

Blueprint design of 1949 Sport Suburban home
Source: “1949” by SportSuburban is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Interestingly, the materials that are associated with the mid-century modern furniture style from this time period are not necessarily used today. Wood was used extensively in the construction of furniture back then. However, it wasn’t the high-quality hardwood that we know today. It was softwood that had been stained and lacquered to create a high gloss finish.

Midcentury design has gained a cult following in recent years, and the style has evolved beyond just the classic furniture you see in Mad Men and retro coffee shops. Today, it’s still popular for its clean lines and timeless, accessible appeal—and when it comes to this look, you can’t go wrong with the right fabric.

Is Mid-Century Modern Going Out of Style?

The mid-Century design has been having a moment in the mainstream for some time now. While the term “Mid-Century Modern” is often used to refer to the decades of the 1940s to the 1960s, you’d be forgiven for thinking that its heyday has passed: some have declared that it is definitely going out of style. But is MidCentury Modern really going out of style, or is this just another case of an ugly duckling becoming a beautiful swan?

Mid-century MIMO Design - Former Motel
Source: “Mid-century MIMO Design Former Motel” by Phillip Pessar is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As we all struggle to maintain the clean lines and simple designs that mid-century modern (“mid-mod”) stands for, we sometimes feel as if we’re fighting a losing battle. Much like the styles of the 20th century, mid-century modern has emerged as a global style of architecture, interior design, furniture, decorative arts, and even in the popular game, Minecraft. Resembling designs from the Bauhaus movement, this style has a lot in common with the look and feel of Scandinavian and German designs.  Think of products from Braun or even IKEA.

Bauhaus Building in Dessau
Walter Gropius | founder and designer of Bauhaus: The Bauhaus school, Dessau, Germany

Its popularity can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the Baby Boom generation’s fondness for the 1950’s era, social shifts toward more leisure time, and a heightened awareness of the environment. 

Are the 1970s Considered Mid-Century Modern Style?

In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not the 1970s are in fact mid-century modern, and for the most part, the answer is no. It’s important to remember that mid-century design was all about the marriage of form and function—and while some pieces from the 70s certainly had an element of that, they were also close to the beginning of a new design era that focused more on style than substance.

1960s living room with wood finishes, clean lines, floor lamps and stylized wood accented furniture “1960’s Living Room” by KB35 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Source: “1960’s Living Room” by KB35 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A lot of people say that the 1970s had it best when it comes to decorating. But if you look at the trends of the decade, you’ll see a lot of browns, golds, and oranges.  These are not colors that most people want on their walls, so what is the point in bringing them up?  The best style of the 1970s remains the 1960s when you’re talking about the MidCentury Modern style.  Many people associate the 1960s with the more psychedelic decade, but not many know that the 1970s took that same style and toned it down a bit, and made it much more practical.

1960s Atlmann Living room with wooden furniture, clean lines and bold colors like a blue floor “1960s Altmann living room” by diepuppenstubensammlerin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Source: “1960s Altmann living room” by diepuppenstubensammlerin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The 1970s were a time of great change. The Vietnam War was still the big headline, with the Watergate Scandal soon to follow. The women’s liberation movement was gaining steam, and the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. As the decade went on, disco began to take over, and by the end of the ’70s, everyone was talking about the potential of an “energy crisis.” The 1970s really were the best of times and the worst of times. 

Deep inside, we loved the 1960s design carry-over into the 1970s and we still revert to the stylish settings in Columbo’s Pilot Episode, Prescription: Murder, which had an air date of February 20, 1968.

What Does a MidCentury Modern House Look Like?

The mid-century modern style advocates for clean, uncluttered lines in both interior and exterior design. Remember that homes typically exhibit a sleek, spare aesthetic, clean lines, natural materials, and an open floor plan. 

Homes exhibit a combination of characteristics like minimalism, organic shapes, and sleek finishes. Think Eames furniture, shag carpeting, and mod furniture, as well as clean lines and lots of glass.

The first and most important step of achieving a mid-century modern look is to work with a mid-century modern interior design. They will work with you to establish an overall design concept for your home and help you select furniture, flooring, and paint colors. For instance, they may suggest you paint your walls in a shade of blue, and your trim in a shade of green to achieve a look that is both modern and pulls from mid-century design influences.

Consider one example from Pittsburgh-based designer Robin Wagner, a living that incorporates mid-century modern style is a considered solution with an open layout to allow natural light to flood in, with careful positioning of a sofa and coffee table in front of the window.  This furniture placement allows for a clear view of a beautiful scene outdoors, without leaving the room closed off or constrained.  The placement of a small rug beneath the coffee table adds softness to the hardwood floor.

While it’s not as popular as it once was, mid-century Modern furniture and design elements are still widely popular and commonly used to give a modern twist to casual living rooms, restaurants, and more. 

What Colors Represent MidCentury Modern?

If you have a passion for mid-century modern design, chances are you love the clean lines and simple shapes that were popular during this period, as well as the bright, exciting colors that were often used in this style. 

However, when it comes to finding the right colors for your space, you may find yourself at a loss. This is because the MidCentury Modern palette is a diverse one, and it usually consists of bold, bright colors that are often difficult to pair together.

If you’re a fan of modern design, chances are you’ve heard the term “mid-century modern” (or “mid-mod”) bandied about quite a bit lately. While many associate the term with the seemingly ubiquitous “Eames lounge chair” or “Prairie Style” vases, we’re here to tell you that the term is much more encompassing than that. In fact, we’re here to tell you mid-century modern is still popular and is not just a fad.

Millennials have a thing for Mid-Century Modern—so much so that they’re willing to spend more to live in a home that screams this classic era. Why? For starters, the trend is a direct backlash to folks of older generations who valued function over form, efficiency over appreciation of beauty. But really, who can blame them? The sleek, clean lines; the overuse of color and pattern; the retro furniture; the vintage artwork; the “swinging bachelor pad” vibe—if you ask us, this style screams “youthful” and “fun” (not to mention “trendy”).

If you’re a millennial, chances are you identify with this design aesthetic and its appreciation for the bright colors of the 1960s. The classic trends from the last century continue to influence current and future generation’s styles and choices.

How Do You Style MidCentury Modern Furniture?

The bold, geometric angles of Mid-Century Modern furniture make these pieces an absolute classic, which is why they’ll never go out of style. Adored by fashionistas, tastemakers, and hipsters alike, the popularity of this trend is growing faster than a tiny houseplant in a small pot.  While this furniture is super easy to decorate with, the key is to know how to use it. 

People today may not want to turn everything into a time capsule so the easiest solution is to move slowly and start with any furniture item.  It could be the coffee table, the sofa, or the chair.

Choosing an iconic path considers mid-century sass which incorporates furniture such as the Ottoman by Charles/Ray Eames or the Eames lounge chair.  

Natural wood for items such as a credenza provides an eye-inspiring and connected design with neutral color palettes to encourage a relaxed atmosphere with patterned, pink armchairs and a fusion of textures and subtle patterns.

We’ve discussed bright, bold colors but now let’s think about avocado green.  Bright, right?  This color would fit nicely with textile finishes and incorporate room features like a delicious and expansive fireplace with floor-to-ceiling stonework.  From afar, twin armchairs in matched avocado fabric balance the visual lens to bring forward a distinct and lush mid-century style.

Wood has been a central theme for this style and can deliver a striking statement with a floor-to-ceiling wall in bronze or honey-toned wood paneling that delivers ample inspiration and coziness with angled ceilings.

Sofa makeovers can be ultra-fun using accents and light fixtures from an inspired era while a bold, velvet color with tulip-colored end rests.

"Moloch Floor Lamp" by Gaetano Pesce. 1970-71.
“DSCN1379” by Fire of the Mind is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Inspired illumination with Italian influences can be a considered solution using floor lamps. The dramatic Arco lamp was created by Pier and Achille Castiglioni, renowned Italian designers working for the company, Flors, in the 1960s.  The marble base, metallic aluminum pendant, and arched arm make this dramatic lamp, one of the most iconic light fixtures in mid-century design in the 21st century.

What are MidCentury Modern Textiles?

In the early 20th century in the United States, mid-century modern-style homes were built to accommodate the growing middle class. In these homes, the look was decidedly European, with clean lines and simple shapes representing the latest trends. 

The mid-century modern design also borrowed elements from the Scandinavian designs that were popular in the early decades of the 20th century. These homes were built out of wood, which had become more accessible and affordable in the US thanks to new construction techniques. By the mid-20th century, synthetic fibers became more popular than natural ones, making it easier to create beautiful textiles with a wide range of patterns and colors.

Is Frank Lloyd Wright a MidCentury Modern Designer?

A black and white photo of Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect
“frank lloyd wright 54 01” by apfelauge is marked with CC0 1.0

In total, Frank Lloyd Wright created more than 500 buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Fallingwater House near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But did The Architect of the Century also design anything that could be considered Mid-Century Modern? Yes, he did, and we’re not talking about his Prairie-style houses. Many of Wright’s Usonian homes, built during the post-war period, and some of his earlier work, could also be considered ’50s Modern or Retro-Modern.

Fallingwater House, the famous Pennsylvania home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright “Fallingwater” by rootbeer667788 is marked with CC PDM 1.0
Source: “Fallingwater” by rootbeer667788 is marked with CC PDM 1.0

In the last few years, the style of mid-Century Modern has become a design fashion staple. Mid-Century designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Florence Knoll have become household names. When you look at the homes, offices, and other buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, you can see that he was a pioneer of modern design.

A Mid-Century Modern home with clean lines, indoor-outdoor experience, sleek, straight lines and diagonal-lined garage rooftops “Modernism Week Starts Friday” by Randy Heinitz is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Source: “Modernism Week Starts Friday” by Randy Heinitz is licensed under CC BY 2.0