Mid-century modern - Furniture from yesterday and for today

Mid-century modern furniture

Mid-century modern is an interior design style with enduring appeal. Here we look further in to the approach, with a special focus on the furniture that helped define the style.

What is mid-century modern?

The term mid-century modern refers to a significant design movement originating from the middle of the twentieth century. The precise period that can be defined as mid-century modern (MCM) is the subject of some debate, but the general consensus is that it spanned from the mid-1930’s to the mid-1960’s.

The style manifested itself in aspects such as architecture, product and graphic design, but is perhaps most commonly known for the furniture produced during this time.

How did furniture become such an important part of the movement?

The MCM style of furniture became particularly prominent when new homes were built rapidly, en-masse, after the Second World War. It was a style that was intended to improve the quality of life for ordinary citizens and the fact that it was deliberately designed to be popular to the masses helps to explain its enduring popularity.

The MCM design movement was led by the United States, but Britain certainly wasn’t far behind. Rationing in Britain had ended by the mid-1950s and households became more affluent, consequently having more disposable income to spend on ‘luxuries’ such as new furniture. To meet the burgeoning demand, more furniture makers began to form or expand.

During this post-war period technology was evolving at a rapid rate. Furniture designers were able to take advantage of this, experimenting much more with such things as form, fabric and styles. Materials such as metal, glass, plastic and vinyl began to be commonly used for the first time, and colours were also experimented with, especially towards the end of MCM’s heyday. The use of colour was a reflection of the times – it was a style that was synonymous with post-war optimism.

Big and heavy furniture design from earlier in the 20th century was replaced by something altogether more sleek, slender and stylish. It’s fair to say that furniture design took a significant leap forward in such a relatively short period of time – perhaps more so than any time before or since. We have renowned furniture brands such as Eames, Knoll, Ercol and Herman Miller, to name but a few, to thank for this.

The popularity of MCM temporarily waned after the 1960’s but thankfully, by the late 1980’s, interest was very much revived, and its popularity continues to this day.

Mid-century modern lounge

Why does mid-century modern furniture remain so popular?

‘Fashions change, style remains’ as the saying goes. The fact that MCM has so many qualities that appeal to people irrespective of the decade or century probably explains why it gained popularity so quickly and equally why MCM-influenced furniture has remained prominent ever since.

  • The simplicity of the style is one of the most appealing aspects, but it’s also attractive, chic and stylish. 
  • Mid-century modern furniture is inherently well designed and is considered as contemporary now as when it was first available.
  • It can definitely be described as ‘statement furniture’, yet the simple lines offer a subtle, understated quality that mean it’s rarely ostentatious. 
  • It also has practical appeal. Its design is inherently functional and it’s also versatile, suiting a range of interiors. MCM furniture was originally designed to be suitable for smaller, post-war homes and, although we now live in different times, space is still at a premium and therefore the approach remains very much applicable.
  • It has an abundance of retro-appeal and also works well with the minimalist style – another popular mainstay of interior design.
  • Finally, there is also a sentimental appeal, with many generations associating it with furniture from their youth. 

Are Scandi and mid-century modern the same thing?

Scandinavian design was also coming to prominence during this period, which is why the two are often commonly associated. However, whilst they are very similar and there is often crossover, there are differences. For example, Scandi furniture and décor is usually paler, whereas MCM often uses bolder colours.

Mid-century modern kitchen

How can I inject some mid-century modern style into my home?

In mid-century modern architecture there was a strong emphasis on ‘bringing the outside in’, with generous windows and a sense of minimalism, with clean, spacious areas. Therefore, you should try to provide as much natural light and space as possible. In particular, ensure you allow plenty of space around furniture – almost too much space. Choose a focal point – a key item of furniture – and build the room out from there.

Try to keep patterns in surrounding décor to a minimum yet, at the same time, be ready to inject one or two bold accent colours.

Original furniture from the period is understandably becoming rarer by the year and as a consequence has become highly collectable. However, they are still out there as long as you have the patience, tenacity and budget. As well as specialist dealers, shops and online retailers, you may occasionally be lucky enough to find a piece on eBay or other local online advertising platforms.

Rather than trying to source original pieces, a much easier way is of course to buy MCM-influenced pieces, which thankfully are aplenty. Furniture styles from the original period are often imitated today and branded ‘mid-century modern’ even though the MCM production period ended over 50 years ago. This certainly isn’t a bad thing and should be celebrated – mid-century modern is a style that’s here to stay and has earned its place amongst the most prominent interior design styles of our time.

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