MCM Furniture: Guide To Vintage Mid-Century Modern Furniture Design
Trends come and go in a cycle in the world of modern design. Interior designers look to the past for vintage items and ideas to compliment modern approaches. Mid century modern furniture is the perfect example. The term makes it sound like this is a fairly recent era in interior design. But, a lot has happened since the 1950s. What was modern and unconventional then has a retro charm and historical value now. The great thing about this period is that the shapes and ideas marry so well with modern styles. An authentic mid century chair or coffee table can work in a modern home.
There are a few reasons for this. First of all the best designers of the period brought some Scandinavian flair to our living rooms, kitchens and studies. Little has changed in that regard. The shapes and styles have that modernist feel, yet still remind home owners of simpler times. In this brief guide to this mid century modern period we will look at some of the most iconic designers and pieces. This means the best chairs, coffee tables and desks to grace these homes. We will also look at the patterns, colors and inspirations of the period.
The Mid-Century Modern Furniture Period
Although the period technically began in the 1940s, this style largely relates to the 1950s. Homes saw a shift in design in this post-war period. Designers took a fresh look at American interiors with a little inspiration from European and Bauhaus design. One of the pioneers was Le Corbusier, a renowned architect that revolutionized modern buildings. Homes saw a shift from the trends of war-time interiors into a brand new type of family home. It was something of a fresh start after the conflict and devastation of the Second World War. Whole suburbs and towns had a new lease of life with purpose-built building and new living arrangements.
The mid-century period officially ends at 1975. That means 30 years developing and living with these new designs. Although these trends remained popular in the 60s, many still see these pieces as 1950s designs due to their date of conception. Some of the building look a little dated by today's standards. But, the furniture and design ideas continue to inspire contemporary designers.
The lasting appeal of this period is down to the best mid century modern designers.
The list of artists responsible for this period of design is extensive. There are some names that immediately stand out - such as those highlighted below. Then there are the lesser names trying to make their mark on the world. This latter group includes a number of female designers slowly establishing themselves, such as Florence Knoll and Eileen Gray. There was also a strong Scandinavian influence in this period of design. Finn Juhl was one of the many pioneers in Danish furniture design. His work furnished the UN building in New York and appears Museum of Modern Art. Countryman Hans Wegners, along with other Swedish designers, also made some popular chairs in this time.
Mid Century Modern Chairs
Mid century modern furniture design covers the entire room, from the wallpaper to the choice of materials in the coffee table. Yet, many of the most iconic designs are chairs. This era may have been all about a minimalist, back-to-basics approach in many respects, but there were some striking designs. Some of these are collectors pieces that still trade hands at high prices. Others became exhibits in design museums.
A great example of this rise of the chair is the lounge chair and Arne Jacobsen. The term lounge chair suggests something cozy and comfortable - something more like the Easy chair below. Yet, one of the most iconic designs of this period was Arne Jacobsen's egg chair. The egg is unmistakable with its tall curved sides and still sits proudly in many modern home.
Then there are the pedestal chairs from Eero Saarinen. More commonly known as the tulip chair, this is a stunning piece of design from the mid-50s. The molded white chair and cushioned seat has a welcoming shape. It also had matching side tables for those that wanted to complete the look.
Couples may have preferred to add a mid century loveseat to their new apartment or family home. These love seats are essentially 2-seater couches with clean lines and small tapering legs. Those legs are similar to those seen on some of the coffee tables mentioned below. The great thing about these seats is that there are colorful and comfortable. There is just enough room to snuggle up on the upholstered cushioned. Authentic models would come in the pastel shades of the day. Modern equivalents may keep the shape, but use more neutral tones.
Ottomans & Stools
Then there is the strict contrast with the Easy chair. This design from Charles & Ray Easy is one of the first that comes to mind when discussing mid century design. Many designers and home owners want to add this comfortable classic to their home. Many of the best 1950/60s chairs are sleek and minimal. Yet, this chair takes things further with the padded seat, head rest and matching ottoman. The shapes and curves are definitely of the period, but homeowners can truly recline and relax with this chair. The ottoman is the ideal finishing touch so you can put your feet up with a good book.
Seating was clearly an important feature in the mid-century modern house as there was a seat for every room. Fathers could lounge on the Easy, kids could sit at the kitchen table on stools and the whole family could benefit from an entryway bench. These benches were a great place to sit in the hall. The designs and use of materials continued some of the trends seen in the tables and other furniture. Some of the best designs used a mix of materials, asymmetrical shapes and clean lines.
Mid Century Modern Tables
Homeowners of the period couldn't enjoy their seating without a mid-century modern table.
The best tables of this period complemented the designs and ideas seen in those lounge chairs. Irregular shapes and tapered legs worked with the lines of other items of furniture. There was also a switch to some new materials. Designers didn't abandon wooden constructions, but there wasn't as much as is common in modern Scandinavian design. Instead, the 1950s saw a rise in Formica, as well as more glass and metal options. Formica hasn't exactly come back into fashion, as there are many that hate the artificial look. Yet, there are collectors that see the value in these original Formica pieces of mid century modern furniture.
Coffee tables in a new mid-century living room were arguably more practical than aesthetically pleasing. The simple shape and low profile meant they sat neatly in the center of the room without shouting too loud. Warren Platner's glass coffee tables did break that mold a little, and are still sought after pieces. This round, translucent tables offered a completely different look to the low angular Formica. The curves work well with other items like the egg chair.
A guide on modern mid century furniture design isn't complete without a look at some of the kitchens. The 1950s were a time of traditional family values, before female liberation and the counterculture. Yet, many kitchen saw bold expression and a sense of fun. The floral prints were out and the diner aesthetic was in. This shift meant sleek tables and counter-tops with Formica. Bar stools added to the feel. All that was left was to add a soda stream and other modern appliances to modernize the kitchen even more.
Mid Century Modern Office Furniture
This mid century period also saw some interesting new pieces of office furniture.
If a woman's place was still in the home during the 1950s, the man's place with in the office. Many of the lounge chairs and more opulent designs would have suited the office spaces of executives as much as a home study. Different designers took different paths with mid century modern furniture for the office.
One of the most interesting designs in office desks, from a modern perspective at least, is a desk from Pierre Paulin. There is something quite stark about his designs, which are at odds with the giant mahogany desks of many executives. One desk stripped everything back to a simple table top, two draws and metal legs. While the drawers were oak, the top continued the new trend in Formica. This design highlights that idea of bringing different materials together in one modern design.
Every good office desk needs a good office chair to sit at. Again, these chairs varied in style depending on the designer. But, they followed the - bare bones - ideals seen in many lounge chairs. The Harry Bertoia chair actually looks just as at home in a modern office as one from the 1950s. The metal grid and simple shape isn't dissimilar to the mesh backs of modern ergonomic office chairs.
Mid Century Modern Lighting
Modern designers should also take a second look at mid century modern lighting.
It is easy to get a little fixated on the furniture when taking inspiration from mid century design ideas. There is so much focus on the chairs and tables that homeowners may overlook the lighting. Lighting received a new lease of life in the 1950s. Designers wanted to turn away from boring, practical options and create statement pieces.
One of the most interesting developments during this period is actually the bubble lamp. There are sure to be many people reading this with some variation of a bubble lampshade lighting the room. These translucent spheres originated in this era to draw the eye up and offer a more interesting source of illumination. Another development during this period was Serge Mouille's Three Armed Ceiling Lamp. Why have one big light in the center of the room when you can have three smaller lights branching out. The space-age feel of the piece spoke to buyers a little later in the 1960s.
Mid Century Patterns and Materials
The final consideration with mid century modern furniture design is the use of pattern and color within those materials. Color is an important part of 1950s design in a number of ways. Not only were new approaches entering the home through furniture design, many families now had color television. Color adverts sold items for the home and the hues were clearer than ever before. The Pierre Paulin office desk is a good example. The black metal legs contrast with the oak drawers and white Formica for a striking look. The vinyl covers on the seats and stools came in all sorts of shades. Pastels were key to interior design in the 1950s, with shades of yellow, pink and blue dominating rooms. It wasn't just the seating and walls that offered color. The 1950s saw a trend for colorful appliances. Many modern retro kettles and toasters take inspiration from this approach. The bright blue refrigerators are not quite as popular now as they were back in the day.
Patterns also changed during this period. Many modern homeowners have this idea of the 1950s mid-century period as one of the perfect housewife and white picket fences. However, mid-century designers abandoned the floral prints more commonly associated with the 1940s. The patterns simplified, with polka-dots, checks and stripes. This stripped down geometric shapes complimented the furniture, especially the grid-backed chairs like the Bertoia chair.
There are some great similarities between this mid-century design and modern approaches.
The colors and patterns aren't always well-suited to modern minimalist, neutral interiors. Yet, the shapes and stripped-back designs of the furniture are appealing for a modern home. It is also clear that a Scandinavian influence is nothing new. Many current homeowners may turn to the flat-pack options, rather than bespoke pieces. But, the basic ideas continue from the Scandinavian masters of the mid-century era. There is a kitch charm to some of the most iconic items of mid century modern furniture, but that doesn't mean they aren't compatible with a modern home. In short, designers can still bring the best of this important design period into today's interiors with great success.