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By Jessie Katz Greenberg on September 19, 2023
Ever hear someone talk about a style but you have no idea what it means? The first time I heard someone say a piece of furniture was mid-century modern, I had no idea what they were talking about. I’m pretty sure that I shook my head externally, but internally, I was the shrug emoji.
However, once I learned more about the style, which I found beautiful, I realized it was absolutely everywhere. I found design elements taken from the middle of last century in the houses of relatives and doctor’s waiting rooms and late-night television.
Mid-century modern design may have disparate aspects, such as curves and squared edges, but it becomes easier to spot once you’re aware of its common themes and motifs. In this quick primer on what to look out for and why mid-century has stuck around for so long, you’ll be up to speed in no time!
But, first of all, when people say “mid-century modern” what period of time are they talking about? Precise dates differ depending on where you look. While some places saying MCM design began in the late 1930s, most places peg its start to around the end of the World War II.
General consensus puts mid-century modern design between the 1940s and the 1960s, making it adjacent to the Hollywood Regency style. The two styles differ as mid-century modern lacks Hollywood Regency’s focus on glamor, but both styles include furniture meant for use over admiration, and embrace pops of color and neutral tones.
According to Curbed, the term “mid-century modern” was coined when author Cara Greenberg needed a title for her 1984 book on 1950s furniture, “Midcentury Modern: Furniture of the 1950s”— meaning decades elapsed without this style being called what we know it as today.
These days, mid-century design is so common that Fast Company called it the “pumpkin spice latte of interior design” in a 2016 article that went on to add it’s “a prefabricated style so inoffensive and ubiquitous that even cynics eventually yield to its nostalgic, neutral warmth.”
That dig also hints at the elements that make mid-century modern shine. The style’s sleek, often curved, clean lines give warmth to minimalist designs that fit in well among a wide range of decor tastes.
Architectural Digest notes four common motifs of mid-century modern design, “organic influences, simple forms, emphasis on function and democratic (in other words, designed for everybody).” In looking at it this way, it’s not hard to see why it has been so successfully replicated over the years.
Its focus on good design meant to last and to be used could well be its superpower in a world that has so quickly been gripped by fast fashion and consumerism. It’s also noteworthy that good, timeless design led to transcending trends.
In the website Home Designing’s roundup of 30 different mid-century modern living rooms, common themes stand out. At first, mid-century design almost appears effortless in its simplicity. Simple vs. scrolled, curved vs. raw edge, flow vs. clutter. Another common element is blending opposites to create a cohesive vision. Soft textural elements mix with sleek wood, oranges match creams and metallic lamps loom not far from large windows.
House Beautiful highlights how mid-century modern design was influenced by what was happening at the time: “Studies in nuclear physics, molecular chemistry, as well as a growing obsession with science fiction all played into the futuristic shapes and materials seen in everything from furniture to suburban homes and skyscrapers.”
Thus the playing of opposites continues as boxy wooden pieces appear with atomic starburst designs nodding to then-current events. Even though this style first appeared almost a century ago, it still remains fresh today given an approach that looked to ease of use over bending to trends.
So what does this all mean when it comes to mid-century patterns and wall art?
MidCentury magazine explains some common pattern themes, “Designs made bold use of contrasting, sometimes clashing, colours and popular themes such as cutlery, fruit and animals. The apparent simplicity and pleasing repetition, together with the impact and scalability of these motifs ensure that these patterns still flourish.”
The designs are also easy to add to your existing decor. As Mark Riddle, a Room & Board store associate, told The Washington Post, “Mid-century-modern-inspired pieces are versatile, so you can pepper them in without having to rethink the whole room … it’s not a look that needs to be implemented wall to wall, floor to ceiling. It should be mix-and-matched.”
If you’re looking for quick decorating tips, Insider’s guide to affordably making your house more mid-century modern shares quick affordable ideas like changing the legs on your furniture, buying reproductions instead of vintage and using accent pieces.
Betsy is a writer and stitcher who joined the Brand Marketing team in July 2021. In her spare time, she talks to people about their choice to make things by hand and related lessons learned for her project Dear Textiles. She also aims to befriend all the dogs she meets and is forever looking for the perfect dress pattern with pockets.