Between the curvaceous silhouettes and the punch-drunk colors, there’s a lot to love about Mid-Century Modern furniture. If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of Mid-Century Modern style, pull up a (Mid-Century Modern) chair—Mid-Century Modern 101 starts now!
A Little History…
As early as the 1930s, European designers were experimenting with Bauhaus design. The minimalist style touted function over elaborateness. As WWII dawned and resources became limited, minimal designs began to make more sense than ever. Paired with new technology that allowed designers to bend plywood and mold fiberglass, Mid-Century Modern style was born.
Fun Fact: Mid-Century Modern style arrived in the U.S. years after it did in Europe. It’s Danish-born designer Jens Risom is credited as bringing the style stateside. Risom partnered with Knoll to design Knoll’s inaugural collection in 1942.
Thanks to advances in furniture construction, mid-20th century furniture makers could execute futuristic shapes that weren’t previously possible (see Arne Jacobsen’s swooping Egg Chair). Even case pieces got in on the action and were outfitted with aerodynamic details like chiseled pencil legs and sculpted brass pulls. To balance out all that wood, designers embraced Crayola-colored upholstery in durable wovens and wools. Favorite colors of the era include cobalt, poppy, shamrock, and of course: mellow yellow.
Mid-Century Modern Architects to Know
Given their symbiotic relationship, you can’t give airtime to Mid-Century Modern furniture without recognizing the genius of Mid-Century Modern architecture. Here are three Mid-Century architects to know.
Frank Llyod Wright
If you’re familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright’s furniture, then you know it skewed towards Arts and Crafts style. His architecture; however, was purely modernist. Hence, his homes, scattered across the U.S., showcase low-slung profiles, open floorplans, and an abundance of natural materials. For a look at his undisputed masterpiece, check out PA’s Fallingwater.
Thanks to his L.A. locale, architect Richard Neutra was a chief proponent for indoor-outdoor living. His experimental properties, which dot Southern California, routinely feature modular forms, entire walls made of glass, and partition-less interiors.
In contrast to Wright’s Fallingwater and Neutra’s Kauffman House, Joseph Eichler brought Mid-Century Modernism to the masses. Because Eichler was not an architect, he hired one to design a modern suburban tract home. Plans in hand, Eichler then spearheaded dozens of developments in both Northern and Southern California (and even one in New York!).
Mid-Century Modern Makers to Know
So what were furniture makers creating to fill these incredible minimalist abodes? Here’s a rundown of some of our favorite Mid-Century Modern furniture makers.
Ray & Charles Eames
Best known for their hard-shelled fiberglass chairs in candy-coated hues, husband-and-wife duo Ray and Charles Eames are synonymous with Mid-Century Modern style. The Shell Chair, which you’ve likely seen everywhere from libraries to airports, is the epitome of style-meets-function. Their all-hits, no-filler catalog also includes the DCM chair, La Chaise, and the Eames Lounger.
In addition to engineering the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Eero Saarinen designed the iconic Tulip Table and the Womb Chair, both of which were produced by Knoll. For Saarinen, simplifying classic furniture silhouettes was something of a mantra. Hence, the Tulip table was meant to “clear up the slum of [table] legs in the U.S. home,” while the Womb Chair was meant to imitate “a basketful of pillows.”
From clocks to lamps to sofas, George Nelson (aka Herman Miller’s Director of Design), did it all. With an eye for atomic form, Nelson cooked up some of the era’s most memorable (and playful) designs. Hits include the Marshmallow Sofa (constructed of circular, jet-puffed cushions) and the hammock-like Coconut Chair.
Danish designer Arne Jacobsen brought a sculptor’s touch to Mid-Century Modern furniture. Most noteworthy is the furniture he designed for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. The line-up included the Egg Chair, the Swan Chair, and the Teardrop Chair. Like their names suggest, all three merge whimsicality with “like-butter” curves.
American designer Adrian Pearsall fused the minimalist Mid-Century Modern aesthetic with surrealism. Pearsall signatures include high-backed armchairs set on walnut ski-legs, coffee tables with amoebic-shaped bases, and the languorous Gondola sofa. A former architect, Pearsall began selling his designs out of his own home before founding the still-operating Craft Associates.
Above all, no discussion of Mid-Century Modern furniture is complete without a mention of Milo Baughman. Credited as the designer who “glammed up” Mid-Century Modern, Baughman amped-up furniture proportions and introduced never-before-used materials to the genre. His hallmark materials include chrome, burl wood, brass, and color-saturated velvets.
Lead photo courtesy of Mid-Century L.A.