What is Mid Century Modern Style?

Matthew Baines

How do you describe Mid-Century Modern? What does it mean exactly? How is it different to Modernism? In this article we are going to examine Mid-Century Modernism in the fields of interior design, notably furniture, and graphic design.
By the close we will be able to see just how one complements the other.
Just like Art Deco, the Mid-Century Modern movement did not actually call itself that during the time it was originally active. Mid-Century Modern is a broad term that describes the period between about 1935 - 1965 in the fields of Modernist architecture, furniture and graphic design. It was coined by the author Cara Greenburg in 1984 to describe a collection of furniture from the 1950s and it is probably fair to state that it is a term that references furniture and interior design more than anything else.

It is this publication that led to a revival during the 1980s of what was an out-of-fashion period. Vintage was back in the mainstream again.

These days, those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, and who remember the stainless steel accessories and teak furniture of our parents, have a soft spot for this, still, contemporary looking style and still get that vibe of optimism and modernity that must have infused this period so much. But this style has roots much further back.


Mid Century Modern Furniture Design

During my twenties, I spent many an hour, wandering around the Conran Shop in South Kensington. Looking in awe at the Eames Lounge Chair or Eileen Gray's tubular Bibendum Chair, displayed like fine art, it always seemed so lovely, yet so expensive. Indeed, the original furniture is often ridiculously priced. Some of the items on 1stDibs.com go for tens of thousands of dollars. Luckily, from the 1990s onwards, these original classic designs became more affordable to the masses as they were reproduced once again by companies such as Design Within Reach. By the way, Houzz has a great page list all the best repro MCM furniture you will ever need.

Mid-Century Modern, or MCM, came about partly from the Bauhaus movement of Weimar Germany in the mid 1930s, which was based around the principle of making use of the clean lines and forms of industrial design. By decluttering all the unnecessary, design is stripped down to the bare essential, to create purely utilitarian furniture.

MCM, by now based in America, took these ideals, making full use of emerging technological advancements, such as in molding of plastics and other non-traditional and industrial materials, but then mixing them up with natural elements such as wood, cane, leather and other organic forms and materials.

At the same time, a parallel movement, emerging out of Scandinavia, with designers such as Alvar Aalto, put more emphasis on the natural, rather than the industrial. Yet the principle was the same: clean lines, simple design for affordable products that were attainable by the masses.

Here is a great blog with examples of iconic Mid-Century furniture design.

Following the Second World War, the middle classes started to expand into the American suburbs. There was a huge demand for homewares to suit these relatively small, suburban properties that were inexpensive but stylish and modern. MCM filled the demand here with its affordable materials and ability to mass-produce the products.

It is fascinating the see that these simple designs still look great in the 21st century. Simplicity is a style that lasts forever, although these days it has started to compete with Maximalism and Post Modernism, including Memphis design

Mid Century Modern made use of Modernism, yet kept a link back to the traditional. Using Mies van der Rohe's mantra "less is more", from Bauhaus, together with natural elements and shapes, MCM strived to develop designs that reflected the modern world and its changing demands. 

For those of us enjoying an urban living, Mid Century Modern is perfect. The clean lines and industrial heritage match perfectly with our surroundings, yet give us a link back to the natural world with the wood and leathers and all the shapes that go with it. We don't have to live completely submerged by it and what is more normal practice is to choose one or two pieces to complement the tone of the room, whether that be furniture, upholstery, wallpaper or even paint colors.

When it came to color, Mid Century Modern marked a shift away from the more earthy tones of the 1950s. Color developed into much brighter, bolder pantones that eventually ended up in Pop Art and psychedelic of the 1960s and 1970s.

Atomic Style and Mid-Century Modern

The mid 20th century was an age of space discovery and molecular advancements. This inevitably influenced the fields of design, in both furniture and graphic design.

With the threat of nuclear war constant during the Cold War period, the invention of the atomic bomb led to a fascination with all things molecular. These organic shapes influenced the designs that were created at the time, by the likes of George Nelson with his atomic wall clock surrounded by electrons.

Whilst technically not Mid-Century Modern, the two design movements share so much that Atomic Style deserves a mention here, more so because of the development of Atomic Style in the fields of graphic design in the 21st century. Geometric shapes, vibrant colors, futuristic motifs and light-hearted humor all work perfectly with contemporary surface pattern design.

Mid Century Modern Graphic Design

Just like with furniture, MCM graphic design came out of Bauhaus in the 1930s, although it lasted slightly longer in popularity until the mid 1970s with the Swiss Style, or International Typographic style.

Like with furniture, Swiss Style used clean lines and simplicity to enable as easy to read and ability to convey its message clearly, in a grid structure. The design was aided by geometric shapes (taken from Russian Constructivism), bright, vivid colors and clear visual messaging. Use of photography was preferred over drawing.

Typography was bold and clear. It wasn't unheard of to mix serif and sans-serif fonts together, just like wood and steel might be used together in the parallel furniture designs. Fonts like Helvetica, Futura and Akzidenz Grotesk were developed with this in mind.

Boiling down complex concepts into simple design in order to convey a clear message was key.

3 Key Mid-Century Graphic Designers

I've picked out three influential designers in their own right who helped define what Mid-Century Modern might mean during the 1935-1965 period. These designers provide an insight into the optimistic and intriguing vibe of the Post War period where tradition was cast aside, almost, and we started to look towards the future. 

Saul Bass (May 8, 1920 – April 25, 1996)

Saul Bass is one huge example of Mid Century Modern graphic design. In fact his work is ubiquitous amongst mid-century American film promotional material. Spikey, jarring and brightly colored images that provide an instant feeling of unease, dynamism and movement.

Making full use of geometry, Bass, like many graphic artists of the time, was able to arrange simple flat shapes into reduced constructions to form an almost abstract composition, again removing any ambiguity in order to convey a message in its most simple, reduced form.





Paul Rand (August 15, 1914 – November 26, 1996)

Famous for designing the IBM logo, Paul Rand, the "Rebel of Design", is a significant Mid-Century graphic artist who needs a mention here. His use of white spaces, simple, overlapping, geometric shaped collages, spacing and contrasts with a much reduced amount of font, meant that it was the images telling the story rather than the words.



Alex Steinweiss (March 24, 1917 – July 17, 2011) 

Famous for coming up with some of the first contemporary record covers, Alex Steinweiss is known for his garish colors, rich type font, odd lighting and visual puns. Prior to this records were just sold in plain covers.







What does Mid-Century Modern mean in the 21st Century?

Mid Century Modern style patterned throw blanket by BillingtonPix

These days Mid-Century Modern graphic design is just as in vogue as it was in the post war years. With the development of the internet, together with advancements in graphic design techniques it fits perfectly into the needs of contemporary design/ Think lots of white space, geometric patterns, custom illustrations and vintage style colors and fonts.  

BillingtonPix has a selection of super Mid-Century Modern graphic designs that we have applied to a number of homewares, such as cushions, pillows or couch throws. We believe that the nostalgia of retro style is a rich, cultural nod to our heritage that we should embrace. We should never be slaves to a particular design movement, but rather curate pieces that work well together. The simplicity of the MCM style is perfect for providing the baseline to that, on top of which we can inject in some more fun and frivolous colors and shapes to enrich the entire style experience of our own personal interior design space.

For our complete range of vintage style surface pattern designs, head to Billingtonpix.com/patterns


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