The Resurgence of Everything Mid-century Modern

Mid-century modern is currently red hot in real estate, home furnishings, industrial and graphic design. Here's what you need to know in order to join the trend.
Marcia Wendorf

Want to sell a dilapidated, 500-square-foot shack out in the middle of nowhere? Just put the words "mid-century modern" in its description, and you've got yourself a sale.

The same goes for anything you want to sell on eBay. The words "mid-century modern" are magic to buyers. So, what's behind this half-decade-old trend? A love for all things mid-century modern, that's what.


What is mid-century modern?

Mid-century modern (MCM) is the design movement that took place roughly between 1933 and 1965 but really hit its stride in the mid-1950s — hence the term "mid-century." It encompassed architecture, interior design, product design, and graphic design.

How do you know if something is truly mid-century modern?

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court was reviewing an obscenity case, Jacobellis v. Ohio. Justice Potter Stewart wrote these memorable words:
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it ..."

In order for you to "know it when you see it," here are some examples of the mid-century modern style.

Mid-century modern residential architecture

Residential architecture of post WW-II America was defined by:

  • The importance of functionality, with form following function
  • Sleek lines, having both organic and geometric forms
  • Minimal ornamentation
  • A juxtaposition of different and contrasting materials

MCM residential architecture in the U.S. arose out of the work of Walter Gropius in Germany. Gropius founded the Bauhaus school of design, and along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Florence Knoll, and Frank Lloyd Wright are considered a pioneer of Modernist architecture.

The MCM style was characterized by simplicity, clean lines, and an integration with nature. Houses started popping up in America's post-war suburbs that had open floor plans and lots of windows that opened up the interior spaces and brought the outdoors in.

In California, builder Joseph Eichler created mid-century modern "Eichler Homes" in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Eichler home Los Angeles
Eichler home Los Angeles. Source: Sanfranman59/Wikimedia Commons

In the midwest, architects such as George Fred Keck, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe created MCM residences.

A notable example is Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House located 55 miles (89 km) southwest of Chicago. Farnsworth House is a one-room weekend retreat.

Farnsworth House, Illinois
Farnsworth House, Illinois. Source: Victor Grigas/Wikimedia Commons

Between 1945 and 1966, the magazine Arts & Architecture commissioned architects to design and build inexpensive and efficient model homes.

In 1959, architect Pierre Koenig built Case Study House #22 in the Hollywood Hills, outside Los Angeles for client Buck Stahl. Since then, the Stahl House has appeared in dozens of films, TV shows, and music videos.

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In 2007, the house was listed by the American Institute of Architects as one of the top 150 structures.

Stahl House, Los Angeles
Stahl House, Los Angeles. Source: Ovs/Wikimedia Commons

Nowhere can more examples of mid-century modern architecture be seen than in Palm Springs, California.

One of its most iconic MCM houses is the Kaufmann House, which was designed in 1946 by Austrian-born American architect Richard Neutra.

Kaufmann House, Palm Srpings
Kaufmann House, Palm Springs. Source: Barbara Alfors/Wikimedia Commons

The house had been commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann, who, a decade earlier, had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater House in Pennsylvania.

The American Institute of Architects, in 1991, named Fallingwater House the "best all-time work of American architecture."

After Kaufmann's death in 1955, the house went through several owners who altered its mid-century modern character until it was purchased by a couple who dedicated themselves to returning it to its former glory.

In 1968, architect Richard Foster created the Round House in Wilton, Connecticut. The entire house revolves on its base, and its rooms are arranged like the spokes on a wheel.

Round House, Wilton, Connecticut
Round House, Wilton, Connecticut. Source: Round House Wilton/YouTube

Mid-century modern furniture

Mid-century modern furniture features organic shapes and natural materials, such as wood, metal, and leather. It also featured bold geometric patterns that stood out in lean rooms.

New materials like plexiglass and fiberglass started appearing in home furnishings. Plexiglass was formed into organic shapes in coffee and end tables. Fiberglass and plywood were molded to fit the curve of the body, and tubular steel and leather strapping created comfortable chairs.

For the 1929 International Exposition, which took place in Barcelona, Spain, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe created the Barcelona Chair as a place for the king and queen of Spain to sit during their visit. Following the exposition, Mies granted the Knoll furniture company of New York City the right to reproduce the chair and its accompanying ottoman.

Barcelona Chair
Barcelona Chair. Source: de:user:ptj/Wikimedia Commons

In 1952, Italian-American designer Harry Bertoia created the Diamond Chair. It was made of welded steel.

Bertoia said of the chairs: "They are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them."

Diamond Chair
Diamond Chair. Source: Sandstein/Wikimedia Commons

In 1955, Finnish-born American architect Eero Saarinen designed the Tulip Chair for Knoll.

The chair broke new ground with its use of fiberglass, and it is considered a classic of industrial design.

Tulip Chair
Tulip Chair. Source: Holger.Ellgaard/Wikimedia Commons

For sheer beauty and comfort, nothing comes close to the Eames Chair and Ottoman.

Made of three curved plywood shells covered by a veneer of Brazilian rosewood and leather, they were designed in 1956 by Charles and Ray Eames and manufactured by the Herman Miller furniture company of Zeeland, Michigan.

Eames Chair and Ottoman
Eames Chair and Ottoman. Source: Sonett72 via Emfurm/Wikimedia Commons

If you're reading this article while sitting in a cubicle, you can blame Herman Miller. They invented the office cubicle in 1968.

In 1960, an Eames Chair and Ottoman were added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Herman Miller also made the iconic wall storage unit, which arose out of the pioneering design work of George Nelson. Nelson was Herman Miller's Director of Design from 1947 until 1972.

Wall storage unit
Wall storage unit. Source: George Nelson/Wikimedia Commons

In 1958, Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen created the Egg Chair for the Radisson SAS Hotel in Copenhagen Denmark.

Egg Chair
Egg Chair. Source: Scott Anderson/Wikimedia Commons

Jacobsen followed the Egg Chair with the iconic Swan Chair. Both chairs are still manufactured by the Danish manufacturer Republic of Fritz Hansen.

Swan Chair
Swan Chair. Source: Saiko/Wikimedia Commons

Mid-century modern tableware and lighting

As any fan of the TV series Mad Men can tell you, mid-century modern tableware and glassware were very specific to the era. It featured futuristic designs, such as maker Franciscan's "Atomic Starburst" pattern. Glassware had clean, organic shapes, such as the wine glasses from Belgian manufacturer Boussu.

In the mid-1950s, Danish designer Poul Henningsen was experimenting with concentric tiers of reflective metal bands to reduce glare and distribute light evenly.

His goal was to eliminate harsh contrasts everywhere in a room, and in 1958, he released his iconic Artichoke Lamp and followed it up with his PH5 Lamp.

Artichoke Lamp
Artichoke Lamp. Source: Bengt Oberger/Wikimedia Commons

If this lighting fixture looks familiar to you, it's because, furniture stores such as IKEA, have been copying Henningsen's designs. Even wall clocks got a makeover during the mid-century modern movement.

Finally, no discussion of mid-century modern design can fail to include the pioneering work of husband and wife design team Massimo and Lella Vignelli.

Initially working at Unimark International, Massimo Vignelli designed the American Airlines logo, and the 1972 map of the New York subway system, which became a landmark of Modernist information design.

Massimo Vignelli also made famous a number of typefaces, including Helvetica, Bodoni, Garamond, and Century Expanded.

Now that you've hopefully fallen in love with everything mid-century modern, I've got a dilapidated, 500-square-foot mid-century modern shack out in the middle of nowhere, for sale.

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