What Is Mid-Century Modern?

We get to the root of what mid-century modern means with a few simple questions
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Jul 13, 2015 | By Nicole Varvitsiotes

Inspired by our exclusive sale on Modernica's iconic mid-century chairs, we thought we'd brush up on our design vernacular. This time up, we're examining the tenets of "mid-century modern" design — something from which Kenn draws inspiration for his most recent Inheritance Collection, which has been turning heads around the industry. To learn more, we asked one of our correspondents to break down some of this design terminology, and are sharing her notes with you. 

Everything on and around you has been designed. Your shirt, your toothbrush, your laptop charger, that parking structure, those ice cream cones — everything serves a purpose, either as a tool for utility or to add a touch of aesthetic beauty to your day.

Designers are alike in that they make a million little decisions in order to create a product or solve a problem; some of those decisions are aesthetic and others are structural. What separates these visionaries, though, is their worldview and how it dictates their style.

So how can you differentiate the work of a mid-century modern designer from another? Start by asking yourself a few simple questions.

If any of the above stand out in the design, chances are that it’s Victorian clutter. Intricate patterns, plump tassels, Fenton table lamps with their fine marble bases and quilted amber glass —these are all examples of the ornate extravagance that spurred the modern design movement.

Momentum for that counter culture began when German architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919. His radical school taught students the importance of understated designs that were simultaneously functional and expressive; this celebrated a new relationship between art and industry. He exposed materials in their truest, most natural form — an approach that deeply influenced American designers, inventors, and artists in the years following World War II.

The war was over. Between 1945 and 1966, Arts and Architecture magazine commissioned lead architects to design and build inexpensive, efficient model homes using war-born techniques that best suited the expression of man’s new life in the modern world. Life was beginning anew, and the Case Study House Program provided an opportunity to reflect the shifting American spirit towards the idealized, stylized, and romanticized.

Of the 36 modern house designs that emerged, the Stahl House, Case Study House No. 22, is the most well known. For its occupants to better enjoy the 240-degree view of Los Angeles, architect Pierre Koenig created an L-shaped floor plan that emphasized the lot’s unique panorama. He called for expansive glass windows and walls, designed the rooms to face the swimming pool, and made it so the outside and inside spaces were uniformly livable — the hallmark of mid-century modern architecture philosophy.

Charles and Ray Eames were legendary designers who pursued modern furniture design with a sense of adventure and imagination. During the 1950s, the husband and wife team created what would become the most iconic chair of the twentieth century: a molded plywood design that turned an ordinary, rigid material into something functional and elegant. This chair showed the world that a flowing form can be made out of a single material and process, without straying from the product’s spirit and purpose.

And the original chair was only the beginning. The couple continued to pair technology with artistry and produced the fiberglass, plastic resin, and wire mesh furniture that both influenced their peers and would inspire generations of designers to come.

The Bauhaus mantra, less is more, spread beyond the architecture and furniture industries. Those three words guided Edith Heath throughout her career as a ceramist, and like the other modernist pioneers of her time, she had a great respect for artistry and material. Her stalwart approach to the craft brought advancements in clay and glaze developments, and she used single-kiln firing on her pieces, all of which tended towards simple, functional and thoughtful design. No ornamentation, no fluff; just smooth curves and soft, solid colors. That was her way, and nearly seventy years after opening a storefront in Sausalito, California, her minimalist, timeless designs endure.

Mid-century modern, as it turns out, is always in vogue. [H]

Have a new appreciation for mid-century modern design? Don't miss our USA-made Stephen Kenn furniture collection, on sale on Huckberry right now

Nicole Varvitsiotes is a traveling writer who catalogs joy. 
A contributor to Kinfolk Magazine, Darling Magazine, The Daily Muse, Forbes and Mashable, she lives in San Francisco, California. 
Follow her on Instagram here.

Images ©: 1, 2, 4, 5, 7; Courtesy of Stephen Kenn. 3, 6, 8; Nicole Varvitsiotes.