While many design trends come and go, the midcentury modern style is well-entrenched in today's design vocabulary.
What Is Midcentury Modern Style?
Midcentury modern style is a style of interior design characterized by a contemporary, somewhat futuristic aesthetic and an emphasis on function.
The style rose to prominence in 1950s and 1960s America, took a bit of a dive thereafter, and experienced a resurgence in the mid-80s, borne of people's nostalgia for its contrasting colors and materials, its focus on functionality above all else, and its simplicity of form—and we've been pretty much obsessed with it ever since. Perhaps the most compelling reason the movement has become so rooted in twenty-first-century design is its contemporary feel.
"Midcentury design supports the way we want to live today," explains the Los Angeles-based interior designer Natalie Myers, of Veneer Designs.
Meet the Expert
Natalie Myers is the principal interior designer behind Veneer Designs. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Interior Design from Cornell University and is a LEED-accredited professional who lives in L.A. Her projects have appeared in publications such as MyDomaine, Elle Decor, Domino, and House Beautiful.
The midcentury modern movement took hold in post-WWII America, a paean to our rejuvenated economy and to the suburban, middle-class housing boom that followed. In addition to sleeker furniture and decor, the style was also manifested in the construction of new homes (à la architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Joseph Eichler, and Richard Neutra) that featured low, flat rooflines, massive window-walls, and more mindful connections to their surrounding environments. Materials and furniture forms were basic, and prices accessible. This pared-down approach contrasted the ornate Victorian style that reigned before the mid-1930s. And it's the main reason why the midcentury modern style still feels fresh today.
But, as with any interior design style, sticking too literally to the midcentury theme can make a room look too contrived, or worse yet, super-dated. To bring midcentury design into your own home (in a thoroughly modern way), follow these 15 edicts.
Focus On Flow
Once midcentury modern architecture rose to prominence, smaller rooms previously designated for special occasions had all but disappeared, replaced by large, open common spaces in which family members could congregate in designated activity zones. "Traditional homes were planned with compartmentalizations that separated service, entertainment, private, and social areas," explains Myers, "and the midcentury movement created an egalitarian blurring of the lines."
Whether you live in a big home with a large common space or in a smaller-scale apartment makes no difference: Optimal flow is the key to channeling midcentury vibes. Foster visual and physical openness, by enabling free movement—of air, people, and light—throughout every room, as in this Beverly Hills dining room by Veneer Designs. Avoid crowding windows by piling plants and furniture in front of them, and ensure sightlines to windows and doors are always maintained. Likewise, ample walking room (ideally 30 inches) should be left in front of, between, and in the back of large pieces of furniture, and coffee tables should sit 14 to 18 inches away from sofas.
Maximize Natural Light
If you're lucky enough to live in a home with walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, insufficient daylight isn't likely one of your problems. But if your space is window-challenged, every ounce of natural light that does make it into the room can still be maximized. Trade heavy fabric drapes and window treatments for subtler, unfussy, sheerer versions that facilitate clearer outdoor views—or use none at all, as in Emily Henderson's Lake Arrowhead, California home. Place period mirrors in strategic spots to cast daylight into dark corners and opt for lighter wall colors that reflect natural light. Likewise, leggy furniture that doesn't sit flush with the floor and glass and acrylic pieces, too, allow even more light to pass.
Strive For Variety
By the end of WWII, materials reserved primarily for building construction (steel, iron, plywood, glass) were, once again, plentiful, and innovative manufacturing processes added plastics to the mix. Midcentury furniture designers merged natural materials with affordable synthetics, such as Plexiglas, Lucite, vinyl, and fiberglass and experimented with molded plywood, wood veneers, light finishes, and raw surfaces.
"Materials that didn't seem to belong together were also combined into one organic whole," adds Myers. "Think wood with terrazzo, concrete, tile, natural stone, and mixed metals."
Embrace the midcentury look by sourcing a variety of pieces composed of wholly organic and manmade components, or an amalgam of both, as the designer Katie Hodges has done in this Los Angeles living room.
Embrace Biomorphic Shapes
In 1957, after the Soviet Union's launch of its Sputnik1 satellite, America began competing with the Soviet Bloc in a fierce race for advancements in rocketry and outer-space exploration. This, in turn, inspired the futuristic shapes and symbolism (aka Space Age design) so typical of midcentury modern pieces. Furniture in biomorphic forms, too, (read: kidneys, amoebas, and one-celled organisms shaped like boomerangs) became all the rage and, Myers tells us they were often paired with sharp, minimalist, angular frames—and even decorated with cartoon-like illustrations of atomic particles (which are, admittedly, a bit passé now).
A freeform wooden coffee table, such as the one seen above, in designer Emily Henderson's L.A. living room, looks just like a microorganism with its organic shape and smoothed edges.
The midcentury's newfound optimism also promoted a fresh take on color: Furniture, decor, and even architectural facades of the day incorporated bright, cheerful colors celebrating America's recovered prosperity. By the 1950s, primary colors (red, blue, yellow, and white, too) and creamy pastels (Calamine-lotion pink, soft turquoise, and minty green) were everywhere. The 1960s saw an earthier, slightly psychedelic palette (think: avocado green, burnt sienna, and harvest gold).
Although midcentury colors are still lovely in modern-day room designs, floor-to-ceiling coverage can approach dangerous (read: tacky) territory unless you're a master colorist, like designer Dani Nagel, of Dazey Den, who decked out her Hollywood Hills living room in many shades of pink. But accent walls, in typical '50s and '60s colors, as well as decorative accessories and upholstery, are still fair game. Today's midcentury-approved colors are directly inspired by those of yesteryear, and range from pale green to ivy, mustard yellow, and deep red to soft, airy pink, pewter gray, marigold, and denim blue.
Midcentury modern design always kept the end-user in mind (read: the ways in which families lived in and used their homes) and the architectural principle, "form follows function" might as well be its battle cry. "Functionality is paramount," says Myers, who's partial to midcentury-inspired furniture that serves multiple purposes. Purely decorative (and highly decorated) items take a back seat. A chair's beauty, for instance, like the plainly-designed teak-and-leather vintage chair seen in L.A.'s Silver Lake Pool & Inn, lies in its intended function: One can curl up and set a drink on its arm while comfortably resting against its padded-leather side.
A clean-lined ottoman that pinch-hits as a sleeper, a desk that doubles as a shelving system, a coffee table with hidden storage (and multiple configurations), and a smart captain's bed stacked atop a built-in dresser work well in midcentury homes, and are also boons for small spaces, too. Furniture should be practical, simple, useful, and livable—and skews toward smaller-scale and low-slung, height-wise.
Concentrate On Quality
Original midcentury-era pieces are still around today because of their reliance on top-quality materials and excellent craftsmanship. "Every detail and connection is extremely thought out," says Myers. Source vintage and midcentury-inspired furniture made of hardwoods typical of the time, like teak, maple, elm, rosewood, beech, and walnut—and look for dovetail and mortise-and-tenon joinery, dowel-joint webbing, and an array of tried-and-tested mixed materials such as melamine set into wood and brass or steel with tempered glass. Veneer Designs chose a super-durable solid-wood dining table to anchor this midcentury modern dining area in Brentwood, California; you can see its wood grain and instantly recognize it's a top-quality piece.
While authentic (licensed) reproductions are of the utmost quality, newer pieces can run the gamut. Look for kiln-dried hardwood frames, reinforced corner blocks, dowels and screws (as opposed to nails and glue), smooth-gliding drawers, and hand-tied coil springs. Don't be put off by plywood, wood veneers, or pleather, either: Many quality (and highly valuable) midcentury modern pieces feature lesser wood frames covered in thin layers (veneers) of better-quality wood and even feature ultra-durable PVC upholstery.
Choose Flat-Panel Cabinetry
In the kitchen, says Myers, "flat-front, or slab cabinet doors are the most acceptable style since midcentury modern design is so unfussy." You could also opt for wide-open shelving in a striking, bold color—but open shelving dictates clean, organized surfaces. Solid-wood and wood-veneer doors that show natural wood grain, as well as painted-wood cabinetry, as seen in this all-blue Ashe + Leandro-designed kitchen, are all great, modern options.
Opt For Tailored Upholstery
"Clean lines are emblematic of the movement," says Myers, "which means no unnecessary ornamentation." This concept is conferred to upholstery fabrics, styles, and techniques, as shown in the sleekly-appointed furniture designer Amy Row chose for this New York City living area. Trade overstuffed and skirted pieces for tightly-tailored cushions with details like corded welting, button tufting, and channel backs. Organic and synthetic fabrics indicative of the period also include those with screen-printed patterns and nubby textures. Brands such as Knoll, Maharam, and DwellStudio for Robert Allen, Kravet, and Modern Fabrics are companies that offer archival and period-specific textiles that are ripe for the picking.
Mix High With Low
Midcentury modern design takes cues from the Scandinavian design movement's democratic principles that lionized the importance of creating practical yet innovative, durable yet economical, and easily accessible (read: affordable) objects. During this era, "Innovations in fabrication enabled many designers to take advantage of mass-production techniques, while others dedicated their work to the celebration of traditional, handmade craft methods," Myers explains, "and it resulted in an elegant mix of high and low—factory-made and heritage pieces—that is still adored to this day." Take this colorful living room in Haberfield, Australia, for example. Designer Brett Mickan thoughtfully mixes vintage artwork and decorative items with affordable midcentury-style pieces for added depth and dimension.
Not everything you buy must date back to the era or be made by an important designer to create a midcentury modern space. By all means, splurge on a large statement-making piece but fortify it with lower-cost vintage and modern-day pieces in fun period-specific shapes and colors.
Favor Statement Lighting
Big, bold lighting with highly-reflective finishes (brass, chrome) ruled the day, as did colorful thin-metal versions in organic silhouettes and materials. Starburst, orb, and sputnik shapes spoke to America's expansion in scientific research, while notable midcentury modern designers like Isamu Noguchi looked to the natural world for inspiration; his Akari light sculptures are comprised of washi paper, bamboo, and mulberry bark, and serve both sculptural and practical functions. Noguchi's organic Akari BB3-33S floor lamp holds court in this midcentury-style living area designed by Arent&Pyke in Annandale, Australia.
To wit, statement-making geometric-shaped sconces, arc floor lamps, table lamps with tripod legs, and massive, angular chandeliers duly enliven a midcentury-inspired space without relying on decorative accents to do so. Popular midcentury-era lighting designers and manufacturers include George Nelson, Poul Henningsen, George Kovacs, Laurel Lighting Co., and Stilnovo, respectively.
Midcentury modern design is void of needless embellishment, and it eschews the fussy ornamentation, cluttered surfaces, and overstuffed spaces typical of the popular Victorian style that preceded it. Instead, furniture and architecture, rather than an overabundance of knickknacks, took the lead. So allow yourself only a modicum of tchotchkes, and relegate them to out-of-the-way places, such as bookshelves, like designer Mel Burstin did in her Silverlake, Los Angeles living room. Back then, tables and countertops supported useful items such as ashtrays (now used as catchalls) and sculptural works.
Again, organic materials and shapes were signs of the time, and colors ranged from earthy neutrals to bold, saturated hues. When shopping for vintage midcentury decor, look for hand-blown Murano and Blenko glass pieces, Russel Wright and Fiestaware dinnerware, and hand-thrown studio pottery, such as pieces by ceramist Blake Beaudette. Newer companies, such as The Granite, Muuto, Hay, and Apt2B offer unique selections of midcentury-inspired home decor.
Use Abstract and Graphic Patterns
"Midcentury designers used playful, graphic prints in textiles and wallpaper," says Myers, "with bold shapes, bright colors, and endless geometric combinations." Industry was booming, Abstract Expressionism dominated the art scene, the Pop Art movement was on the rise, and consumerism was huge. The energy was electric and art followed suit. Freeform furniture designs of the day, such as kidney, boomerang, and biomorphic shapes were mimicked in popular patterns, too.
Keep the colors of a room's furnishings primarily monochromatic (and within the same color family), and use pillows, textiles, and even upholstered pieces with floral, abstract, and geometric patterns—as in this perfectly mismatched Austin, Texas living room designed by Erin Williamson Design—to channel those mid-century vibes. You can find amazing midcentury-inspired and original fabrics at Top Fabric, Spoonflower, and Etsy, respectively. Rugs, too, are amazing ways to inject pattern and texture: You can find some amazing statement-making rugs at Aelfie, Pieces, Danish Design Store, and Well Woven.
Blend With Other Design Styles
Because of its functionality, sleek lines, and no-frills designs, midcentury modern style pairs well with other styles. Scandinavian and industrial styles, in particular, are great matches, but mixing with rustic and farmhouse styles demands a certain confidence. In this Nyköping, Sweden home shot by Magnus Selander for Elle Decoration, two large, 19th-century mahogany pieces in Sweden's Karl Johan style (1818-1844) go super-well with an industrial-era Triplex telescopic lamp designed by Johan Petter Johansson and a midcentury Philippe Starck for Kartell Ero/s desk chair.
An easy way to establish cohesiveness is to source pieces of furniture with similar finishes and to use colors of varying intensities within the same color family. Balance the delicateness of, say, a diminutive tapered-leg piece from the midcentury with a larger antique Chippendale or Biedermeier case piece, for example.
"Plants add life and warmth to clean-lined spaces that would otherwise feel flat," says Myers. By the midcentury era, the foliage-stuffed atriums and conservatories en vogue during Victorian times gave way to a sparser, plant-here-plant-there approach that better complemented a home's architecture. Very often, potted plants served as living sculptures: The large rubber tree in this elegant, textural dining room (above), as shot by the photographer Nicole Franzen, is serving the drama.
Hunt for handmade, vintage architectural pots by Gainey Pottery and Willy Guhl and shop for ultra-affordable midcentury-inspired planters at Ikea, Target, West Elm, and even Home Depot.
Bring Midcentury Modern Home
Consider the following five finds—from vintage to midcentury modern-inspired decor and furniture—to bring the style home.
No midcentury modern design would be complete without an homage to one of the era's foremost artists, Alexander Calder. This hand-cut and -painted steel number moves via the air's currents and is reminiscent of the artist's Mobile (c. 1932).
Form follows function, and these low-slung 1960s teak-and-leather chairs are excellent examples of the gorgeous craftsmanship, top-quality materials, and comfortable functionality indicative of the midcentury era.
Solid-Wood Dining Table
Although this huge, oak dining table seats 12, its natural finish and form are stylishly understated, and its gently-angled, tapered legs let light through for days.
Geometric Throw Pillow
This mod, geometric throw pillow, in sumptuous velvet, has a hidden zipper closure and a striking Pop Art print written all over it.
West Elm is the midcentury shopper's go-to for chic, affordable pieces in designs taken straight from the Space Age. Its brass-finished offerings, in particular, like this celestial-style nine-light chandelier, are always stars of the show.