Mid-century modern is actually a term that was coined way after the period in which it refers. It is often the case with most design movements and eras. The label that now refers widely to certain furniture and even developments soon caught on. Not only is the term “Mid-century modern” used to refer to furniture, it is also used to refer to urban planning, architecture and even graphic design that was famous in the mid-1930s and 1960s.
The mid-century modern style is quite easy to spot. You can be able to identify it by its characteristic curves, clean lines and some easy geometrical shapes. It also happens to make use of materials like glass, metal and plastic. Mid-century modern furniture and design also happens to have a general space age feel. Probably what the future would look like back in the 1950s. You know, those peaceful colonies on the moon and using sleep pods? These are some of the characteristics of mid-century modern furniture.
Origins of the Mid-century Modern
The deep rooted origins of this distinctive style are deeply associated with one Swiss architect Le Corbusier and German Walter Gropius who also led the Bauhaus School.
With Mid-century design, the philosophy was relatively simple and straightforward. The practical use of the object or building was what inspired the design. All other unnecessary designs were thrown to the wind. Hence the phrase, “Form follows function.” As opposed to being held up by the past, the designs were driven by the future and were dedicated to staying true to the materials that were used in their making. That meant that the materials would not be hidden or covered up. If a chair was made from a material like steel, it was evident and easy to spot the steel. As a result, items like buildings had a lot of flat surfaces and right angles and had a simple and stark look to them.
Scandinavia and the United States are the homes to what is now referred to as the Mid-century modern. This Modernist movement had great reach and influence worldwide back then and still do to date.
The Danish Modern
In the 1920s, there was a rise in furniture that brought together functionality and the Bauhaus modernist principles. The same Furniture around the same time also encompassed the elegance of the classic Scandinavian chair and cabinet making. The person responsible for this was Danish designer Kaare Klint. His designs and chairs were not only affordable but they were practical and could be produced in large numbers and added some homely warmth to the home by adding the beauty that only traditional furniture could offer.
In the next two decades, there were quite a number of designers that closely followed what Klint had done. They used the same principles as Klint as well as general design. This latter came to be known as Danish Modern. Among the most notable designers of this type was Finn Juhl. He was famous for creating a softer side to the hard right-angles that came with modernism. A good example of his unique works is portrayed in the pelican chair which he made in 1939. It showed traits of his work among them the organic forms and natural shapes.
Before Juhl’s designs caught on in America in the 1940s, they were described by critics using an unsavory collection of words. One described the pelican chairs at the time as a “tired walrus” and another said it’s “aesthetics in the worst possible sense of the word. However, they later became the pedestal on which mid-century modern style really took off.
America and Mid-century Modern
Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames once won a competition dubbed “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” that was held in 1940 by the New York Museum of Modern Art. At the time, the pair was not known. However, later on, they would go on to become the most important designers of the 20th century.
As with their predecessors, the two designers opted for simplicity, functionality, sleek lines and materials that were more modern. But, while they did share a lot with previous designers, the two did bring something new to the table: elegance that could be mass produced and fit well with an aspiration home in America. Time magazine at one time nominated a 1946 Eames molded plywood chair as the “design of the century” which was a true depiction of their ethos and spelled comfort and elegance. The design would later on be heavily copied but not much was done to improve the original design.
The molded plywood chair was a work of Eames and his wife Ray who also happened to be a very gifted designer. They created the chair for Herman Miller Company. Together with other companies like Knoll, the company was able to bring these designs that were considered modernists to the mass market. From the 1940s all the way to the 60s, these companies were responsible for making stunning chairs available to the masses. Most of those chairs are still produced to date and are quite common in TV adverts, restaurants, upmarket hotels and even offices.
During this breathtaking time for Design in the US, there were also other designers like George Nelson. He is better known for the Marshmallow sofa which he also designed for the Herman Miller Company. Other designers like Arne Jacobsen who created the egg and swan chair were the bark and bone which Eames and Saarinen thrived upon. Arne was also the key link that brought the Danish and American design world to a full circle.
What a Sofa from the Mid-century era looks like
In the 1980s, mid-century sofas and the style at large began making a resurgence. This was attributed to the light shone on the designs by a book by Cara Greenberg. However, the mid-modern look had to wait until the 90s to go full throttle. Some of the pieces that were original now sit in museums or are traded at staggering prices.
While the museum ready pieces of the 1950s were quite the history makers, sofas made in the current day and age tend to be comfier and practical. However, it can be clearly seen that the 1950s curvaceous and aesthetic appeal are very much relevant like in the case of the Zappelin sofa and even the Margot.
The works of Arne Jacobsen with the Swan and Egg chairs are also still very much alive and replicated in the retro-chic Peggy arm chair with the same curves and organic shapes.
Back then, designers believed that their boomerang shaped coffee tables and biomorphic chairs were actually a practical creation of the future. In a way, their beliefs were actually correct. While we do not live in moon colonies, we do make use of replicas and the same designs and amazing furniture that were put forth. Only that we now think of them as retro objects.
The Six Best Mid-Century Modern Sofa Designers
- Finn Juhl – other than being the father of Danish Modern movement, he is also the one who is credited with having introduced the softer, geometric and organic forms style that bred the pelican chair.
- Ray and Charles Eames – This American husband and wife duo is responsible for a number of classics most of which have since been mass produced. The molded plywood chair and the Eames lounge chair and the ottoman are just a few of their creations.
- George Nelson – His most iconic work was the Marshmallow sofa. Just like the other greats like the Eames, he also made his creation for the Herman Miller Company.
- Florence Knoll – Not only was this a great mind but also a Finnish-American architect that used her Knoll brand to mass produce some of the best classics. She also designed some of her own furniture.
- Eero Saarinen – He is better known for his Tulip chair creation and the womb armchair. In conjunction with Eames, this Finnish-American designer and architect spear-headed the creation of the American modern style.
- Arne Jacobsen – While there are those that are credited with bring modernism to America, Arne took it back to Denmark and used it to produce some breath-taking chairs. The Swan and Egg chairs are testament to this as well as the lesser known Ant.