This is a term that has been used (and abused) so much over the last ten years that I thought it might be good to have a look at true mid-century modern design to help you work out what’s real and what’s just pinched a few straight lines and called it mid-century when there’s nothing remotely mid-century about it. It has become a popular marketing description and a phrase that is bandied about often with little or no regard to the original.
1 When was it? Well, as you can imagine there’s some dispute about the exact time frame but it’s roughly between the 1930s and 60s although purists would, of course, reduce that to the end of the 40s and through the 50s. It started to grow after WWII with new technologies (Charles and Ray Eames honed their plywood techniques with wooden leg splints for the US Navy that would eventually end up as the LCW chair) and mass migration to urban areas and smaller living spaces.
2 What is it? Broadly speaking it’s about clean lines, minimal styling, no fuss and nothing there that doesn’t need to be there. The key is that form follows function so the ornamentation is minimal – there are no twiddly carvings or fancy bits that serve no purpose.
3 It wasn’t just about wooden furniture though. Mid-Century Modern was also highly innovative, with plastic being used in mass production for the first time as well as metal, glass and plywood.
4 Often materials were juxtaposed in a way that hadn’t been seen before; so glass coffee tables with wooden legs – Noguchi’s classic coffee table was described as a sculpture for use – and the Eames worked with wire mesh, moulded plywood and fibreglass reinforced plastic in their goal to create mass produced chairs that were affordable and comfortable.
5 Many of the pieces were designed to be mass-produced so they would be more affordable for everyone. Democratic was one of the key points of the movement. Sadly some of those designs are now among the most expensive pieces of furniture you can buy. That said they are investments and will hold their value if you wish to sell.
6 And many of the most classic designs – the Eames Lounger, pieces by Jacobsen and Panton – have never been out of production since they were first created. Others fell by the wayside and have been re-issued as interest in the period has reignited.
7 The Eames were perhaps the most influential power couple of the movement in America but the Danes were also hugely important. Finn Juhl, flipped the notion of form following function and made both equal partners in the relationship. He may not have the star name recognition of Jacobsen, Wegner, Knoll and Panton but his influence is huge. Eero Saarinen, a Finnish American, designed Dulles Airport in Washington DC as well as the CBS HQ in New York. His Tulip table is hugely collectable today. Verner Panton worked with Jacobsen and pioneered the use of moulded plastic.
8 The market was flooded with copies of many of the classics until, in 2017 the copyright law was changed so that no replicas can be sold as the copyright was extended from 25 to 70 years from a designer’s death. However, a quick glance around Google seems to show that there are still plenty of replicas around.
It’s become a controversial area as some designers claim the Eames, for example, would have hated that the furniture they worked so hard to make affordable is now out of the reach of all but the wealthiest. Others claim that the designs must be protected. No-one is keen to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds making the lawyers richer. One maker of replicas told me that he is raising awareness of this “elitist” furniture.
Vitra point out that an original will, as I said earlier, retain its value and offer customer service as well as protecting an original design rather than buying an imitation which “will never be anything other than a copy, a stolen idea, almost always of inferior quality”.
9 Controversy aside, the joy of mid-century furniture is that it loves any style of interior. A simple chair will sit as happily in a maximalist colourful interior as a pared back minimalist home. It provides a calm foil for an ornately panelled room and its quiet elegance will elevate a characterless modern box.
10 Mid-century modern furniture is often slimline so it’s perfect for small spaces, modular s it’s great for storage and the streamlined styles work with both bright and muted colours, geometric and florals, prints and patterns. It’s no wonder its popularity has endured for so long.
If you want to know more about some of the design classics I wrote a whole series here. Not all are mid-century but many are and most have good stories behind them.