Mid-Century Modern (MCM) denotes a style of design and architecture that stretched roughly from 1933 to 1965. Some would limit it to 1947-1957, but I prefer the wider range.

Cara Greenberg gets credit for coining the term in the title of her book, Midcentury Modern: Furniture of the 1950s (Random House, 1984).

Furniture made in the middle of the 20th century isn’t automatically Mid-Century Modern furniture.

Craigslist sellers and estate sales often slap a Mid-Century Modern label on their wares because they know the style is popular. Perhaps they don’t know the difference. Perhaps they hope buyers won’t know the difference.

For those who remember the I Love Lucy TV show, Lucy and Desi moved to colonial home in Westbury, Connecticut in 1957. Here’s their Early American dining room in the television studio. It’s Colonial Revival in style — casual and rustic yet traditional. And unlike real homes, unusually large.

Lucy and Desi's Colonial Westport Home
Lucy and Desi’s Colonial Westport Home

This next photo provides more realistic proportions for a room, but both examples show sturdy maple dining sets, farmhouse curtains, braided rugs, and hutches displaying serving ware.

Early American 1950s Living Room
Early American 1950s Living Room

Now, here’s the Birkenstock House, an home in New Canaan, Connecticut, built in 1962. Geographically, it’s about 10 miles away from Lucy and Desi’s fictional Westport home. Stylistically, it’s a world apart.

Birkenstock House
Birkenstock House. Architect: Victor Christ-Janer. New Canaan, 1962

5 Characteristics of Mid-Century Modern Furniture

1. Lines

Clean lines, curves and smooth surfaces create an understated look. Less becomes more. The heavy, boxy, ornamented pieces of the past were banished and replaced with slimmed down furniture in open spaces. Suddenly, MCM homes became light and airy.

Mid-Century Modern
MCM Family Room: Open and Colorful

2. Materials

Furniture continued to be made from wood, but now with international influences. Scandinavian design and teak wood soared in popularity. Broyhill’s popular Brasilia line, introduced in 1962, imitated the waves and lines of the Brazilian capital. Despite this being a large piece, designers managed to visually reduce its mass.

Broyhill Brasilia china cabinet
Mid-Century Modern Broyhill Brasilia Style Server and Hutch, 1st dibbs, $2,950

New materials — and uses for them — emerged in World War II. Post-War designers conscientiously applied plastic, plywood, glass, and/or lucite to their creations, integrating these materials into the design.

Mid-Century Modern Designers
A few of America’s greatest designers, assembled in 1961, Playboy. Left to right: George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames and Jens Risom

Design husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames (pronounced EE-ms) experimented with a variety of inexpensive materials. Their work with molded plywood, for instance, resulted in the much coveted (if it’s original) Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. We own a couple of replicas at our house.

Eames Chair
Rosewood Herman Miller Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. 1stdibbs, $4,700

This 1950s bar, made of bamboo, vinyl and formica, holds center stage in our booth at Avonlea Antiques and Design Gallery.

Dry Bar and Stools
Royal Chrome Dry Bar, Stools and Matching Wall Shelf, 1950s

3. Colors

Color exploded. Neutral walls receded to emphasize shapes and colors in the room.

Mid-Century Modern Living Room
Source: Chris Barrett Design

A bold accent wall, on the other hand, as in our Iris Abbey booth at Avonlea Antiques and Design Gallery, gives a pop of excitement — just not too much.

Heywood-Wakefield living room furniture - $1,995
Orange Accent Wall in Iris Abbey Booth

4-5. Pattern and Texture

In the photo below, textures flex their power. The shag rug, rough stone fireplace, smooth glass table, sleek ceramic lamp, and furniture fabric all work together. Patterns emerge in the abstract painting, pillows, and pottery. The wood and glass of the coffee table suggest the lines and shape of a modernist sculpture.

Form follows function for all of the pieces seen in this room. Again, I’ll mention the lightness and airiness of the space. The sofa sits on a floating frame. This serves to lift and suspend the heaviest piece of furniture, giving the same ethereal feel as the lounge chair.

Midcentury Modern living room
Source

In our last photo, what textures can you identify in this photo? There’s natural wood and brick, tile flooring, ceramic lamps, a nubby rug, the metal chandelier, fur throw, and fabric on the pillows, chairs and sofa. I like the exotic bookcase that features items from the owners’ travels.

MCM Living Room
Contemporary Living Room in MCM Style

Despite some of the prices seen here, you can find Mid-Century Modern furniture to fit your budget. If you are not a collector, you don’t need an original. Replicas are an alternative. All you need is one statement piece and you can build your room around it.

5 Characteristics of Mid-Century Modern Furniture

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Ann Marie and David

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5 Comments on 5 Characteristics of Mid-Century Modern Furniture

  1. kandice
    February 15, 2016 at 5:40 am (4 years ago)

    Wow! I think my favorite part is the bold colors!

    Reply
    • irisabbey
      February 15, 2016 at 1:44 pm (4 years ago)

      Hi, Kandice — Thanks for the comment about MCM colors. I just visited your website — that French bombe is gorgeous — and liked your FB page.

      Reply
  2. Diana
    February 25, 2016 at 4:42 am (3 years ago)

    Hi–wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your informative post. It will be featured tomorrow at Vintage Charm!

    Reply
  3. irisabbey
    September 29, 2017 at 9:14 pm (2 years ago)

    Thanks for quoting me in your article. Ann Marie @ Iris Abbey

    Reply

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