Recently, beautiful examples of mid-century modern interiors have been recreated for television shows like The Queen’s Gambit and Mad Men, the latter famously styled by the Herman Miller Company, one of the foremost manufacturers and producers of the MCM style.
But what exactly is mid-century modern and when did it take place?
Classifying the Mid-Century Modern Movement
Mid-century modern, or “MCM” its internet acronym, is currently the most recognizable and sought-after period of 20th-century American furniture design. The era is generally dated between 1933 and 1965, though it’s popularity and production likely peaked in the decade immediately following the war between 1947 and 1957. However, it was not until 1984 that the term “mid-century modern” was coined, when journalist and author Cara Greenberg examined the post-war period’s furniture and design in her book Mid Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s.
Modernism, Migration and Massachusetts
MCM does not refer to a single organized movement, nor is it limited to a single geographic center or producer. It is primarily recognized as an American phenomenon because many of its most iconic designs were manufactured in the US through companies like Herman Miller and Knoll. But these items were often actually designed by those who fled Europe during the war, among them some of the leading European Modernist designers and architects.
Massachusetts was a major center for the development of mid-century modern architecture and design in the US. Renowned German architect and designed Walter Gropius (1883-1969) fled Nazi Germany in 1937, emigrating to Lincoln, MA. In Germany, Gropius and other modernist designers were labeled “degenerates,” a disparaging term used by the Nazis who preferred Neo-Classical design. In reality, Gropius had formed one of the leading Modernist movements in architecture: the Bauhaus (1919-1933). In America, he was welcomed, joining Harvard’s Graduate School of Design as a professor of architecture and becoming chair of the department the following year in 1938. Gropius’ tenure at Harvard lasted from 1937 to 1955, during which time the city of Cambridge, MA, became a Modernist outpost in its own right.
A veritable ‘who’s who’ of key Modernist players in architecture and design made the pilgrimage to Cambridge, MA, at this time. Among them, Le Corbusier (a partnership between architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (1887-1965) and his often less celebrated but no less brilliant partner, Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999)), Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), who also joined the Harvard faculty in 1937, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York dedicated an exhibition to Bauhaus artifacts, solidifying Walter Gropius’ reputation, and those of his luminary colleagues, as household names in 1940s America.
Notable Bauhaus objects were directly absorbed into mid-century modern design production. Most notably, Marcel Breuer’s ‘Wassily Chair’ (1925), designed when Breuer was head of the Bauhaus’ cabinet-making workshop in Dessau, Germany, is still manufactured by Knoll. The chair is a simple metal frame inspired by the tubular steel of bicycle handles and its seat, monochromatic fabric strapped minimally across the steel. Similarly, the ‘Barcelona Chair’ (1929) by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is synonymous with MCM, though designed at the Bauhaus school for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. Knoll still owns exclusive rights to this chair which is also still produced.
The MCM moment evolved the Modernist ideals sown in Europe earlier in the century.
MCM owes much to earlier 20th-Century Modernist architectural and design movements, from which it is ultimately descended, like the German Bauhaus, Dutch De Stijl, and the International style. Each of these Modernist factions was a unique variant on a similar impulse towards reimagining design in service of social reform and human need rather than ornament. Their efforts were further linked by a utopian belief that good design could improve life radically and that new technologies would ultimately better the modern world.
Looking for Furniture?
Design with Purpose & The Scandinavian Influence
In the American context, there was a continued emphasis on the belief that modern design should strive for practical simplicity and seek to express its function. America in the postwar period demanded ground-breaking and cost-effective design solutions to reconcile the needs of an expanding human population and its increasingly cosmopolitan lifestyles. The wars had also forced America into the unabashed pursuit of the ‘new’ in architecture and design in order to break from the tarnished, war torn, European past. The decorative excesses of hand-carved Chippendale and the Neo-Classical revival movements that harkened back to the old world were gone; sparse lines, simple geometry, and biomorphic shapes were everywhere.
MCM furniture prominently featured architectural materials like wood, metal, glass, concrete, plastics, and resins. These were preferred for the inherently stark and artificial qualities that lent a distinctly modern feel to the designs, while the materials simultaneously pushed convention into new, experimental realms out of structural necessity. Later examples of mid-century modern design mixed organic and synthetic materials to great effect. Like the architecture which inspired it, MCM valued function and streamlined design. Think geometric shapes, minimal components and simple cost-effective materials like steel, glass, and fabric. MCM thrived in the confluence of art, design, technology, and craft.
Mid-century modern also benefitted from the influence of Scandinavian design, its most notable early exports were designers Kaare Klint (1888-1954), Hans Wegner (1914-2007), and Finn Juhl (1912-1989), to name but a few whose influence indelibly shaped MCM in the US. The simple lines, striking materiality, and expert craftsmanship of Danish-modern furniture also owed much to the Bauhaus and its insistence on functional, clean, design executed on a human scale and built for human proportions.
The Danish use of luxurious dark or deeply hued woods, like old-growth teak, aligned with the modernist dictate that materials speak for themselves when expertly handled through good design. Beautifully durable and oily, this resinous tropical wood, indigenous to Thailand and Indonesia, was eventually over-harvested to the point of disappearance. Authentic period pieces of Danish Modern teak furniture, whether solid wood or veneer, tend to be much darker in color and grain as access to the old-growth wood, often between 150 and 500 years old, was still possible when these were produced. Younger teak is lighter in color and more porous.
The Scandinavian Influence on Mid-Century Modern Furniture
Mid-century modern also benefited from the influence of Scandinavian design. The most famous early exports were designers Kaare Klint (1888-1954), Hans Wegner (1914-2007), and Finn Juhl (1912-1989). The simple lines and expert craftsmanship of Danish-modern furniture also owed much to the Bauhaus’s insistence on functional, clean design.
The Danish use of luxurious dark or deeply hued woods, like old-growth teak. They aligned with modernist views that materials speak for themselves in good design.
Unfortunately, this resinous tropical wood was eventually over-harvested to the point of disappearance. Therefore, authentic period pieces of Danish Modern teak furniture are much darker in color and grain. This is due to the fact that access to the old-growth wood was still possible when these pieces were made.
Moreover, Younger teak is lighter in color and more porous. It made the later 20th-century use of the material in furniture a typically much lighter surface.
Continued Presence & Demand
The prevalence of mid-century modern persists in our cultural consciousness and auction markets alike. MCM shows very little evidence of waning and has been consistently on-trend since its revival took hold in the late 90s and early 2000s. From high-end retailers of current mid-century modern furniture reissues like Design Within Reach (DWR), Knoll, and Herman Miller, to magazine publications like Dwell and *Wallpaper, all have contributed to the longevity of MCM’s interest. Original pieces from the era itself remain highly sought after and continue to garner impressive results at auction. A Christie’s 2019 lot saw a single Teak and Cherrywood chair by Danish Modernist Hans Wegner sell for USD$30,000.
Some well-known designs from this 1950s period include Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic molded plywood furniture and their luxurious leather-upholstered Lounge and Ottoman set, a legend of near-mythic reputation that’s been in continuous, uninterrupted production by Herman Miller since 1956.
Equally recognized, though perhaps unknown by name, is Eero Saarinen’s (1910-1961; American-Finnish), cast-aluminum “Tulip Table” from 1957. A sculpturally organic fluted base topped by a simple circle, the ‘Tulip Table’ has been endlessly replicated since its release in the late ‘50s. A similar testament to this period’s timeless appeal can be found in the Florence Knoll Sofa (1954), named after architect, designer, and co-founder of the Knoll Company, which is still echoed in virtually every IKEA couch on offer since the 90s.
When identifying vintage MCM pieces, attention to detail is the key. Because the period is endlessly emulated, the risk of acquiring a historical imitation or copy is a concern. This is further complicated by the fact that many of the most sought-after designs have been in continuous production for decades. The level of craftsmanship and manufacture of these period pieces is exceptional and surpasses anything “inspired by” them. Stamps and other identifying physical details can help date pieces and authenticate the history of their origin— these identifying marks are often found inside drawers, on the back or even underside of furniture. The market remains flooded with examples of MCM reissues, making the pieces of greatest value early iterations of the most iconic MCM designs. Any objects or ephemera related to an early object release or limited production tends to secure higher prices, and of course, anything with a unique and documented provenance is highly coveted.
Though the mid-century modern design moment is largely cast through an American lens, its legacy is ultimately one of immigration, change, and the re-synthesis of early 20th-Century European Modernist movements like the Bauhaus. When faced with the challenges of a new post-war modernity, architects and designers, many of whom were displaced and in a new country, embraced industrial materials and new technologies with innovative concision. Perhaps it is the optimism of MCM, its reconciliation of the human and machine and its faith in the future, somehow expressed formally, that continues to resonate with us more than 90 years later.