What Is Mid-Century Modern Design? Everything You Need to Know

What Is Mid-Century Modern Design? Everything You Need to Know
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For the last few years, pop culture has been hitting rewind.

Today's youth are taking it back to the '90s. Low-rise jeans are back. So are "Clueless"-era plaid patterns and ultra-mini mini skirts. You can see it in workout wear (biker shorts) and accessories (oval-framed sunglasses). "Saved by the Bell" is on TV again (well, the reboot is, anyway). So is "Full(er) House.

Today's aesthetics seem to be reminiscent of decades past, and the same rings true for home design. The same is true when it comes to furniture and decor, too. Because inside the home, it's all about the mid-century modern.

Not sure what "mid-century modern" really is? You're not alone. We're taking a look at what defines mid-century modern, when it started, and how to identify it so you can bring the style into every room in your home.

Meet the Experts

Mid-century modern design can be hard to navigate with its rich history and many interpretations. We spoke with interior design and furniture experts about mid-century modern design, its characteristics, and how to create a mid-century modern-inspired home. The experts included within this guide are:

What is mid-century modern design?

As the term suggests, mid-century modern (mcm, for short) refers to home furniture and decor styles that rose to popularity during the middle of the 20th century. Furniture at that time reflected the population's desire for functionality and simplicity, which is why staples the modern style include smooth wood and curved, clean lines. 

Mid-century design ditched the "frilly," more opulent and ornate designs of decades past, opting for more plain but still visually engaging pieces.

mid-century modern design
Mid-century modern rose to popularity during the middle of the 20th century.

Influential mid-century designers like Charles and Ray Eames understood people's changing needs and reflected them in their innovative designs. Charles Eames famously described their creative process saying, "we don't do art, we solve problems," and their furniture, particularly the Eames lounge chair, may be the purest example of that. George Nelson similarly said that "Design is a response to social change," and his sleek, almost architectural designs tie directly to the shifting cultural mindset in the 1940s. Other influential designers include Arne Jacobsen, Florence Knoll, and Eero Saarinen.

A brief history of mid-century modern design

When thinking about mid-century modern design, it's helpful to quickly turn back to the history books. Mid-century design could be found in homes in the 1930s. But as the world moved out of World War II and the 1940s and the economy skyrocketed, more people than ever were buying real estate and furnishing their homes. At the same time, culture was demanding simplicity and stability. Design answered, and the mid-century modern concept (an aesthetic rooted both in societal shifts and a resurgence of 1930s style) was born.

The mid-century look ultimately went out of style by the end of the Mad Men era 1960s (to be replaced by the easily identifiable, funky, now retro, looks of the 70s) but had a massive resurgence in popularity in the 80s. A book by author Cara Greenberg revisited furniture of the 50s and coined the term "mid-century modern" in 1984. The re-exploration of the look reignited public interest in the style and ushered in the new "mid-century modern" era of design that still has a massive hold on today's home decor.

What's the difference between mid-century and mid-century modern design?

The terms "mid-century" and "mid-century modern" are frequently used interchangeably, but there are some slight (and key) differences.

The first has to do with each term's place in history and cultural significance. "Mid-century modern refers to the movement that became popular post World War Two in 1945, while mid-century is a style that developed earlier in the 1930s," explains interior designer, Franklin.

Mid-century modern colors
Mid-century modern design uses bright, playful colors.

Mid-century home furnishing is pinpointed by neutral and basic colors. In the 1930s, furniture was a necessity and, for many, a luxury. But as people started to really think about (and could afford) home decor in the post-WWII era, mid-century modern incorporated color into practical and structural furniture designs. "The main difference between these two styles is the use of color," says Moiseoff. "Mid-century focused on neutral, practical colors like deep browns and greens. Mid-century modern uses brighter and more playful colors."

Why is mid-century modern design still so popular?

It's fair to question why the mid-century modern design style has persisted through the decades. Its longevity ties directly back to its mid-century origin: above all else, there's still a need for practical and functional furniture. The bonus of mid-century modern design is the addition of eye-catching color that creates a clean yet engaging home aesthetic. "Mid-century modern furniture is appealing due to its versatility; it is very functional and timeless," notes Franklin.

"Mid-century modern furniture is appealing due to its versatility; it is very functional and timeless."

Many other areas of design, like fashion, often force people to choose style over comfort, or vice versa. The beauty of mid-century modern design is that you don't have to choose. You can have a visually engaging chair that is still comfortable. There's no need to pick having a functional home over a stylish one - mid-century modern allows you to have both.

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5 Characteristics of mid-century modern design

There are a few critical characteristics of mid-century modern design that make it an identifiable style. "Mid-Century Modern is marked by clean, simple and sleek lines, functionality, and a minimalist aesthetic," says Blazona.

Moiseoff adds, "Its enduring popularity has a lot to do with its simplicity. It's clean and simple without being boring. It's eye-catching without being frenetic or fussy."

Here's what you should be looking for when searching for mid-century modern pieces.

1. Minimalist design

At its core, mid-century modern design isn't complicated. That means you won't find many intricate wood carvings in your armrests or royal-looking claw feet supporting your desks. In some ways, mid-century modern furniture looks like the bare minimum, but that's a massive part of its appeal.

"Mid-century modern furniture is often straightforward. Chairs and tables will often consist of simple pieces held up by wooden pin-style legs," says Franklin.

2. Neutral with pops of color

"Mid-century modern decor uses bright accent colors against primary neutral tones of white, black, and wood tones," Franklin also notes. Think of mid-century modern furniture like pairing an all-black outfit with a neon yellow bag. The outfit's foundation is super basic, but the pop of color still makes it effortlessly eye-catching.

Mid-century modern color
Mid-century modern design uses pops of color.

The same goes for mid-century modern furniture. A simple wooden dining chair doesn't sound too exciting but add yellow uphostery, and suddenly it can look like a work of art.

3. Mixing materials and textures

Wood, like teak, is a typical feature of mid-century modern furniture. But you won't always find all-wooden mid-century modern design. "Manmade materials and natural materials like wood are often paired together," says Franklin.

4. Geometric and organic shapes

A staple of mid-century modern furniture is clean and simple lines. Those lines are often curated from geometric shapes, which tend to be rectangular and boxy. Overall symmetry is also a key feature, making this style look effortless.

This is why you'll see a lot of tapered legs and smooth surfaces on mid-century modern pieces. Less is certainly more when it comes to this style.

5. Function over form

At the end of the day, if the furniture isn't functional, it's not mid-century modern. Every piece of furniture and decor has a purpose in this style, if not multiple purposes.

Mid-century modern functional
Mid-century modern spaces are always functional.

Think back to the origin of mid-century furniture: furniture was a luxury at that time. The more functional those pieces of furniture could be, the better (no one wanted to buy more than they needed). The essence of this is still captured in mid-century modern design, and that means that if the furniture looks good but is terrible to sit in or use, it's not true mid-century modern. 

How can you tell if a piece of furniture is mid-century modern?

We'll be the first to admit this part can get tricky. Given how long mid-century modern design has had a place in culture, it's easy to see how slight differences and interpretations have made their way into the genre. But there are ultimately straightforward ways to identify which pieces are genuinely mid-century modern.

"You will also see a lot of organic curves mixed with clean lines and a minimalist style that harks back to a 1950s style."

Franklin suggests looking for a few main elements: wood, storage, and those classic clean lines. "Look for rich and dark woods for tables, desks, and storage, often with pin-style legs. You will also see a lot of organic curves mixed with clean lines and a minimalist style that harks back to a 1950s style."

Franklin also suggests taking colors into account, specifically on accent pieces. "You will typically see bold colors, for example, on accent chairs or rugs."

Mid-century modern furniture can feel very similar to Scandinavian pieces, rooted in simplicity and practicality. And it's no coincidence as both Scandinavian and mid-century modern design styles first rose to prominence in the 1950s.

How to create a mid-century modern home

Now that you can (hopefully) identify mid-century modern pieces, here are a few ways you can curate the overall look in your home.

Jennifer Guerin, the owner of JG Color Studios, suggests that your very first step shouldn't be about the pieces at all: "A great place to start is to paint your walls white," she says. "This will act as a fresh canvas for and allow your furniture and pops of color to stand out."

A considerable part of incorporating mid-century modern design into your home is starting slow and starting small - one piece at a time.

"You can't necessarily go and throw a bunch of Mid-Century Modern pieces into any space and call it a success," says Blazona. "Instead, make sure you're starting with an updated, modern space and begin layering in a few Mid-Century Modern pieces."

"Create a balance by choosing a mix of modern and traditional pieces for your room."

"Create a balance by choosing a mix of modern and traditional pieces for your room," Franklin says. "Get classic solid wood (walnut, oak, or rosewood) furniture pieces with clean lines, and let these be the talking points of the room."

Also, keep in mind that less is more. "My first tip would be to not overwhelm yourself," says Pricilla Moiseoff. "Start out by incorporating one piece (this could be artwork, furniture, etc.) and see how you like it. Then start to incorporate more pieces. Play with furniture layouts and remember that mid-century modern is all about simplicity."

Examples of mid-century modern Furniture

Need a little jumpstart when it comes to bringing mid-century design into your home? Here are some key elements to consider for every room in your house.

Mid-Century Modern Living Room

The living room is one of the best places to see mid-century modern design's "big picture." It's easy to create your space around the clean lines and geometric shapes that define this style to give the entire room a cohesive look. Each piece can blend into the next while still mixing and matching materials. Bring in a few pops of color on accent rugs or cushion accessories to make the room fun. Or highlight the functionality and comfortability of the room by letting the pieces shine all on their own.

Mid-Century Modern Coffee Table

Mccurley Coffee Table with Storage
Mccurley Coffee Table with Storage

You'll find many mid-century coffee tables made entirely out of sleek wood, and keep an eye out for the signature pin legs. Most coffee tables will have some form of storage, whether through a few small drawers or a designated space underneath the tabletop.

Mid-Century Modern Chair

Edgar Lounge Chair
Edgar Lounge Chair

Mid-century modern chairs are a great way to bring eye-catching geometric shapes into your living room. While these pieces will still have the typical wooden legs, cushions can be manmade materials that play on strong rectangular bases and smooth curves.

Mid-Century Modern Couch

Floyd Sectional Sofa
The Floyd Sectional Couch

Mid-century modern couches don't tend to stray much from basic rectangular shapes. A mix of materials and an accent color can make them the center of your mid-century modern living room (and one of the most comfortable). Mid-century modern sectional sofas are also popular, with simple design and clean lines.

Mid-Century Modern Credenza

Sloan Credenza
Sloan Credenza

The key to a mid-century modern credenza? The storage. The space is pretty well hidden, though - you won't find any intricate drawers or handles. They'll look more like seamless wooden panels like the rest of the credenza or just a large open shelving space - you may not even notice there's storage at all at first (but that's the point)!

Mid-Century Modern Bedroom

The most essential thing in a bedroom is the comfort factor. After all, it's the room where you rest and recharge, and mid-century modern bedroom pieces don't complicate that. These pieces tend to be very boxy and rectangular and leave you a lot of space to spice up the room with fun accent pieces or colors.

Mid-Century Modern Bed

Mid-Century Modern Bed Burrow Circa
Burrow Circa Bed

The mid-century modern bed might not look like anything special, but that's precisely the point. Look for long rectangular shapes in various wood stains that don't seem to do much other than hold a mattress. But, it's key in giving the bedroom a clean and crisp look.

Mid-Century Modern Nightstand

Mid-Century Modern Nightstand
Bluff Rectangle Nightstand

Most mid-century modern nightstands are very boxy and tend to stand on stubbier pin legs. Storage is a crucial aspect of these pieces, like mid-century modern coffee tables and credenzas. 

Mid-Century Modern Dining Room

One of the sleekest and simplest rooms in the mid-century modern home, the dining room makes a stunning statement. Pieces are simple but use unique geometric shapes to draw in the eye. The dining room is where people gather, and the mid-century look personifies that with effortless cohesion.

Mid-Century Modern Dining Chairs

Mid-Century Modern Dining Chairs
Gallman Fabric Upholstered Dining Chairs

This type of chair is one of the mid-century modern pieces that will usually be all wooden and very geometric. Some may have a mixed fabric cushion, but ultimately the chair is for function.

Mid-Century Modern Dining Table

Mid-Century Modern Dining Table
The Floyd Table

Mid-century modern dining tables are some of the most simple-looking pieces of the style. Look for very plain - primarily wooden - table tops in simple rectangles or circles sitting on long, thinner legs.

Ready to embrace mid-century modern design?

It may seem overwhelming at first, but mid-century modern boils down to a few main principles that you can use to guide your design journey:

  • Less is more.
  • The simpler, the better.
  • Keep it clean.
  • Function over form.

Most importantly, go with what you feel. If things are getting a bit complicated, take a step back and look at the big picture. Remember to start slow and keep a balance of mid-century modern with other styles in your home. The primary goal of mid-century modern is to create a comfortable, inviting, and always functional home. The effortless aesthetic that comes together along the way is just the cherry on top!

Written by
Ash is the founder of Living Cozy. He's been featured by publishers like MyDomaine, Realtor, Real Homes, Architectural Digest, The Spruce, Homes and Gardens, and more. As a writer his work has appeared in publications like FastCompany, TNW, and Entrepreneur.
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