The 6 commandments of mid-century modern design

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Insider
Feb 26 · 4 min read

Mid-century modern is as popular now as it was in the 1940s. Learn the distinguishing features of the timeless design movement.

A couch and a chair.
A couch and a chair.
Wooden accents, thin legs, and a vivid color palette are all signatures of mid-century modern style. Photo: KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images

By Melissa Epifano

Mid-century modern-inspired style can be found everywhere, whether it’s the full-blown theme of a room or a space that simply has hints of it. Though the period itself emerged in the 1940s (and technically ended in the late ’60s and early ‘70s), people are still adorning their homes in furniture, colors, and materials that look like they could be plucked from a home in 1955.

The origins of mid-century modern

According to Luciana Fragali, owner of interior and architectural design firm Design Solutions, mid-century modern’s timeless appeal has made it a go-to for designers and homeowners alike. The now-iconic design style was started by German architects and designers who immigrated to the United States post-World War II.

“It is based on earlier styles like the Bauhaus that began in Germany, but it is still around and thriving in the world of interior design today,” she says. “This is due to its iconic look featuring clean lines, organic and geometric forms, minimal orientation, and high functionality.”

If you’re obsessed with the look — or just starting your design exploration — these are six distinguishing features of mid-century modern to keep stowed away for your next reno project.

1. There’s a versatile color palette

For those who are color obsessed, this design type won’t let you down. “The color palette of mid-century style tends to include a lot of whites, muted orange tones, smoky blues, deep yellows, and olive green,” says Laura Hodges of Laura Hodges Studio. This means you have a wide range of shades to play with — so go wild mixing them all or pull it back for a minimalist spin by only selecting one or two hues.

2. Design icons are names you’d recognize

You could spend days talking about all of the designers, architects, and inventors who have made mid-century modern what it is today. Some of the most well-known are designers like Charles and Ray Eames, who Fragali says “paved the way for mid-century modern furniture with their colorful furniture made of bent plywood and plastic chairs molded to fit the curve of the body.”

For more furniture that fit for your current design projects, but feature the original traits that make mid-century modern so popular, Hodges recommends looking into pieces from the late and great Scandi designers Alvar Aalto and Hans Wegner, whose work has Finnish and Danish influences. Other names to keep in mind:

  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

3. The furniture is clean, minimal, and sleek

Nearly anything — beds, dressers, consoles, desks — can get the mid-century modern treatment, says Fragali, because the designs themselves were incredibly efficient, minimal, and angular.

The evolution of this furniture style didn’t come from the design world at all. Ethen Wood of Ethen Wood Designs says designers “started using industrial techniques that had been developed for the war effort and applied them to make light and affordable furniture pieces.” Although the furniture frames were thought to be neutral and plain, the upholstery took everything to a new level with bold colors and vivid prints.

Where to buy mid-century modern furniture

  • Edloe Finch: Embracing mid-century modern for today’s times, Edloe Finch creates items like jewel-toned sofas and lounge chairs with wooden accents and tapered legs.

4. Elevated furniture is part of the appeal

The fabrics and materials that made up the furniture from this era (and the modernized versions that aim to copy original styles) include “thin legs, chromed steel, or bent wood,” according to Wood. They’re major indicators that an object hailed from this time — or would like to at least believe it did.

He explains that the point of this was to take furniture off the floor and emphasize a light and spacious vibe, so those living in pint-size apartments, take note: “This helps small spaces feel bigger allowing the floor to feel more visually continuous.”

5. Soft curves and sharp lines live in harmony

Items like the Eames chair, egg chair, and Saarinen dining table are proof of how angular, geometric shapes and curves can work in tandem. In one item alone, you’re able to see how sharp legs play perfectly against a circular top of a table or rounded spine of a chair — so don’t be scared of mixing these contrasting looks yourself.

6. It’s easy to blend with other interior styles

Both Hodges and Fragali emphasize that mid-century modern is super versatile. “Choose two or three pieces that work well for your taste and combine them with more contemporary pieces or other complementary styles like Art Deco,” says Hodges. This is especially helpful if you’re just warming up to the style and don’t want to overwhelm your space (and wallet) with brand new furniture and decor.

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