Mid-Century Modern: What Does It Even Mean?

Ah, buzzwords. There everywhere, and the design world is no exception. If you’re at all interested in design or aesthetics — even in just a general sense — you’ve almost definitely heard the term “Mid-Century Modern.” It’s a fairly common design principle, and when it comes to interiors it’s really having its day.

To be totally fair, Mid-Century Modern never went completely out of style, but for a lot of great reasons (which we’ll talk about in a future installment of this series) it’s enjoying a huge resurgence. So what exactly is Mid-Century Modern design? It’s a lot more than just a word to describe the curious furniture you’ve seen at your grandparents’ house or in that fancy furniture store you passed the other day.

As its name implies, Mid-Century Modern design had its birth in the middle of the 20th Century. While our history lesson is upcoming (check back next week for a more detailed account of where the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic truly came from), suffice it to say that Mid-Century Modern’s distinct aesthetic was borne of the national fatigue America was experiencing following its involvement in not one, but two harrowing World Wars. Families in specific and the country in general were really put through the physical and emotional wringer, and by the time World War II had drawn to a close, it’s no surprise that people wanted a bit of simplicity in their lives.

It’s also no surprise that people need places to live and things to put in those places, on the double. As soldiers flooded from the battlefield back into the home and workplace, the country saw a nearly unprecedented demand for new furniture and goods...but had lost its attraction to ornamentation, decoration, and unnecessary design flourishes.

Hence the defining simplicity of Mid-Century Modern design. Perhaps one of the most defining traits of Mid-Century Modern designs is its simplicity. Simple shapes. Clean lines. Mid-Century Modern furniture tends to be sleek, almost futuristic: reflective of not only a country’s desire to look forward at a promising future, but also of its need to live simply again. (Two consecutive international conflicts will absolutely do that to you.)

Experimentation was another defining trait of the era that gave birth to Mid-Century Modern designs: one of its hallmarks is the combination of natural and fabricated materials. Furniture and product design was moving forward, which is what lends Mid-Century Modern design is distinct and charming sense of “retro-futurism.”

Mid-Century Modern design came about as a response to an increasingly conflict-riddled, confusing, complicated world. Our exit from WWII and entry into the Cold War prompted designers, artists, and thinkers to create the simplicity they felt was missing from the world at large, and Mid-Century Modern design was born.