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15 Midcentury Modern Décor and Design Ideas

A midcentury-modern style living room with an eclectic mix of furniture, pattern, and color.

Design: Emily Bowser; Photo: Sara Ligorria-Tramp

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.

After rising to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s America, midcentury-style took a bit of a dive thereafter and experienced a resurgence in the mid-80s. This was 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 has 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, in response 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 tips.

01 of 15

Focus On Flow

A midcentury modern living area with optimal flow between furniture and sightlines to the outdoors.

Design: Veneer Designs; Photo: Marisa Vitale

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, and the midcentury movement created an egalitarian blurring of the lines," Myers explains.

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.

02 of 15

Maximize Natural Light

A midcentury sitting area that maximizes light by leaving out window treatments.

Design: Emily Henderson; Photo: Sara Liggoria-Tramp

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.

03 of 15

Strive for Variety

A midcentury modern living area featuring a wide variety of furniture and materials.

Katie Hodges Design 

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.

04 of 15

Embrace Biomorphic Shapes

A midcentury modern style living area with an amoeba shaped coffee table in the center of the room.

Design: Emily Henderson; Photo: Sara Liggoria-Tramp 

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 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).

05 of 15

Celebrate Color

An all-pink living room with midcentury vibes.

Dazey Den

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.

06 of 15

Consider Function

A midcentury modern leather lounger with a concrete side table, potted plant, and ceramic vase.

Design: Silver Lake Pool & Inn; Photo: Anne Sage

Midcentury modern design always kept utility in mind 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, or a coffee table with hidden storage are also boons for small spaces. Furniture should be practical, simple, useful, and livable—and skews toward smaller-scale and low-slung, height-wise.

07 of 15

Concentrate on Quality

A midcentury modern dining area with quality, solid furniture.

Design: Veneer Designs; Photo: Marisa Vitale

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.

08 of 15

Choose Flat-Panel Cabinetry

Mid-century modern, wooden kitchen

Afro Bohemian Living

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.

09 of 15

Opt for Tailored Upholstery

A midcentury modern-inspired living area featuring furniture with tailored upholstery.

Design: Amy Row; Photo: Julia Robbs

"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.

10 of 15

Mix High With Low

A mid-century style living area with a thoughtful mixture of high and low decorative items, artwork, and furniture.

Design: Brett Mickan; Photo: Thomas Dalhoff

Midcentury modern design takes cues from the Scandinavian design movement's democratic principles of creating practical yet innovative, durable yet economical objects.

"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, and it resulted in an elegant mix of high and low—factory-made and heritage pieces—that is still adored to this day," Myers explains.

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.

11 of 15

Favor Statement Lighting

A midcentury living room with a warm, denim blue, channel-tufted leather couch and a large blue abstract painting on the wall.

Design: Arent&Pyke​; Photo: Anson Smart

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.

Geometric-shaped sconces, arc floor lamps, table lamps with tripod legs, and massive, angular chandeliers are all features of the genre.

12 of 15

Accessorize Thoughtfully

An all-white midcentury modern living room that uses accessories sparingly.

Design: Mel Burstin via Emily Henderson; Photo: Tessa Neustadt

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.

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.

13 of 15

Use Abstract and Graphic Patterns

Midcentury inspired living room with cheetah print chair.

Erin Williamson Design

"Midcentury designers used playful, graphic prints in textiles and wallpaper with bold shapes, bright colors, and endless geometric combinations," Myers says.

The 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.

14 of 15

Blend With Other Design Styles

An all-white area underneath a black spiral staircase showing how midcentury modern style can be mixed with other design styles and eras.

Magnus Selander for Elle Decoration 

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.

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.

15 of 15

Incorporate Plants

A midcentury modern dining area with a large potted rubber tree.

Nicole Franzen 

"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 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.

Updated by
Mia Ingui
Mia Ingui headshot
Mia is an Editor at MyDomaine and The Spruce. She previously covered home décor and luxury lifestyle as an editorial intern at Unique Homes Magazine.