The Style That Defined a (Mid) Century

You’ve seen it mentioned countless times on Facebook Marketplace, Wayfair ads, Madmen episodes, and Pinterest boards. But what is “Mid-Century Modern”, and where did it come from?

In short, “Mid-Century Modern” is a term coined by Author Cara Greenburg in 1984 in her book, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s. This term describes a style of architecture and design that was popular from roughly 1945 to 1969, during America’s post-World War II era. The style is defined by clean lines, lack of ornamental embellishments, an emphasis on utility and functionality, and utilization of a combination of natural and synthetic materials. But to understand where Mid-Century design came from, we need to travel much further back than the 1940s.

Let’s stroll back in time to the era of the Shakers. Shakers were a protestant sect founded in England in the 1740s. They held radical beliefs in racial and sexual equality, and were skilled craftsmen. It was believed that the act of making something was in itself an act of prayer. They paid great attention to detail, and prioritized function over decoration. In doing so, the Shakers produced furniture that was simplistic, practical, and high-quality. Because of this approach to interior design and furniture-making, they are thought to be the first minimalists. Shaker furniture rose in popularity in the late 19th Century, as the introduction of minimalist furniture to mainstream culture had only just begun.

Shaker Work Table (1820-50)


So we can thank the Shakers for introducing us to minimalist, high-quality furniture. But what about architecture? In the late 1800s, ornate Victorian and Gothic Revival architecture was widely popular. These styles are quite the opposite of the furniture styles we saw coming out of the Shaker communities at the time.

It wasn’t until Frank Lloyd Wright and several avant-garde Bauhaus architects started designing unprecedented structures in the early 1900s, that the world opened its’ eyes to this new style of architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” house designed in 1939

Frank Lloyd Wright is arguably the most iconic and influential American architect. Born in the small town of Richland Center, Wisconsin in 1867. He went on to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. However, he only attended the University for a brief period of time, and did not take any courses in Architecture. At the age of 20, he moved to Chicago where he began working for a renowned architect, J. L. Silsbee. During his tenure with Silsbee, Wright had an opportunity to learn first-hand to be a skilled architect. Wright’s structures are characterized by low-pitched roofs, overhanging eaves, and wide, flat expanses.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Harper” house

While Frank Lloyd Wright was quickly establishing himself as the Architect of the century, a German art school- The Staatliches Bauhaus (or just Bauhaus)- was also rising to prominence. The Bauhaus was established in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. Gropius believed that artists should be craftsmen and vise versa. He was on a mission to unite art and functional design, with a vision making art accessible and integrated into everyday life. Bauhaus students entered specialized workshops in metalworking, cabinetmaking, pottery, typography, and more. In order to achieve the ultimate goal of bringing art back into contact with everyday life, Bauhaus theory stressed the importance of designing for mass production. In 1923, the school adopted the slogan, “Art Into Industry”.

Bauhaus architecture turned away from gratuitous ornamentation, was focused on simple geometric forms, favored asymmetry, and often featured flat roofs.

Gropius House (1938) Designed by Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius

With so much focus on minimalist and practical design, you can see the parallels between Shaker furniture and the new architectural movements. By the 1940s, America started running toward the design style we now know as “Mid-Century Modern”. The style resonated throughout the world, with countries like Denmark and Sweden following closely along.

Left: Shaker-made Side Chair circa 1840-60 Right: Danish Chair circa 1960

Further headway in Mid Century furniture design came from around the globe. Most popularly in the United States, we had designers Charles and Ray Eames. You might be familiar with the timeless Eames Lounge Chair, originally released in 1956 after years of tedious development. This sleek lounge chair combines smooth black leather with natural wood.

Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman

Wooden furniture was often made from dense wood, such as walnut or teak. Table and chair legs often featured distinct tapered legs.

It’s important to understand the origins of Mid-Century Modern in order to fully appreciate this popular style. Has the concept of Mid-Century Design become cheapened by the expansive availability of inexpensive knock-offs from retailers such as Wayfair and IKEA? Or has Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus mission of bringing art back into contact with everyday life through mass production been actualized? Either way- the more you know and understand the origins of design, the more you can appreciate the art that surrounds you.

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