What is Mid Century Modern?

American mid-century modern

Mid-century modern refers to trends in art and design throughout, unsurprisingly, the middle of the 20th century.

While there will always be exceptions, particularly in the field of the visual arts, these trends tend to equate to a focus on form and function, economy in design, the use of clean lines and classic shapes and a mistrust of the frivolous.

There is a degree of conjecture over the exact dates that define the period. Some commentators claim that mid-century modern equates to the 30 years between 1940 and 1970. Others believe that the term should only really be applied to the decade that falls between 1947 and 1957.

Either way, what cannot be contested is the increased popularity of the furniture, designers and architecture of the period.

mid-century modern interior

Where to Start with Mid-Century Modern?

The studious among you might like to take a holistic approach and seek out material that tries to identify and explain trends across various disciplines. Publications such as Dominic Bradbury’s Mid-Century Modern Complete are as good a place to start as any.

However, we feel it more likely that your journey into the world of mid-century modern will be dictated by your particular interest.

Obviously, our niche is mid-century modern furniture and we are drawn to it because it is made with the best materials, the highest craftsmanship and no extraneous details.

But you could start your learning with mid-century architecture or graphic arts and fashion yourself an equally rewarding path through this hugely accessible period.

Regardless of what you are into, we recommend starting with the specific pieces or examples that you are drawn to, then researching their creators.

Take the Eames plastic chair, for example. It seems like you can’t turn around for seeing one these days.

If you started here, it wouldn’t take you long to become immersed in the myriad connections that link this product and, say, advertising images from the period.

mid-century modern city

Where You Can Expect to End Up with Mid-Century Modern?

If your experience is anything like ours, then you’ll find yourself lost (happily lost) in sub-categories.

Again, if you take mid-century modern furniture as a jump off point, you could end up focussing on post-war British furniture like that produced by Ercol on the outskirts of London.

Similarly, your reading might take you in the direction of Scandinavian Modern or, more specifically, Danish Modern furniture and the unmistakable work of Borge Mogensen, Kai Kristiansen and Grete Jalk.

If architecture is your thing, then you might be lead in the direction of Californian suburbs or Chicago’s inner city.

If you prefer a grander scale, you may come to research South America. There are some remarkable mid-century structures in Brazil's purpose built capital Brasilia.

where to see mid-century modern design

Where Can You Experience Mid-Century Modern?

Mid-century modern design is probably a lot closer to you than you realise. If you live in an area of the UK that was affected by or born of war-time bombing, then it is likely to be all around you.

Never is this more clear than in the so-called ‘New Towns’ like Milton Keynes, which arose as an attempt to deal with the housing overspill that had begun to trouble many London boroughs and, of course, the need to re-house people whose homes had been destroyed during conflict.

The houses that were erected often demonstrate the design economy that characterises much of the output from the period. The schools built to cater for this movement of people do, too. Think tall, stark buildings with large, glass sections — that focus on form, function and the use of light.  

However, you don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home to view the best of mid-century modern design.

The excellent Mid-Century Magazine has put together a thorough list of Instagram accounts with a thirst for the best work from the period. 

Failing that you could just put on an episode of Mad Men. That’s how most people came to be aware of the topic in the first place.

mid-century London

Mid-Century Modern London

We’d love to go into detail about every mid-century modern highlight in every corner of the globe but we suspect that a nervous breakdown might be waiting at the other end.

So we thought we’d focus on our London home instead. And, depending on how specific you are about the dates, it’s everywhere.

Brutalism, a movement that flourished in the 50s, 60s & 70s, is an inescapable part of the London experience. It’s not for us to say whether or not it’s helping or hindering said experience but we can certainly attest to how noticeable it is.

If you’re mind’s eye can’t find a referent, have a look at the National Theatre, Balfron Tower or the Barbican Centre.

As with so many of the mid-century items that we love and stock, the focus with these building is on design economy, form, function and clean lines.

That’s not to suggest that mid-century London is confined to massive, concrete forms. There are plenty of other examples that embody a different interpretation of the same principles. Take St. Paul’s Church in Kennington, for example. It’s all there, just with a different accent.

There are plenty of other ways to experience the delights of mid-century in London. The V&A, Tate Modern and Design Museum usually have exhibitions on that can get you pretty close to the action.

Take the tube there and you might pass through stations from the era. If you’re lucky enough to get a seat, you’ll most likely find yourself plonked on a mid-century themed moquette.

mid-century lampshade

Collecting Mid-Century Modern Items

Mid-century design, be that houses, furniture or graphic art, has become more desirable in the last 10 years.

If you want the big ticket items, expect to pay big ticket prices. In recent times, a pair of Knoll Barcelona Chairs was offered for $24,000 on 1st Dibs.

However, as we have tried to demonstrate in the previous sections, mid-century modern design is more accessible and affordable than you might think.

And what’s more, when you’re shopping for furniture at least, you know that, as a result of the materials used and the craftsmanship involved, you are buying a piece that could last a lifetime.

If you'd like to learn more about bringing mid-century design to your home, have a look at our furniture collection.

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