A Look at Mid-Century Modern Furniture

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Mid-century modern furniture pieces have recently been beautifully recreated for television shows like The Queen’s Gambit and Mad Men. The latter being famously styled by the Herman Miller Company, one of the foremost manufacturers and producers of the MCM style.

But what exactly is mid-century modern and when did it take place?

Classifying the Mid-century Modern Movement

Mid-century modern, or “MCM”, is currently the most recognizable American furniture design of the 20th-century. The “MCM” era generally started between 1933 and 1965. Although its popularity peaked in the decade immediately following the World War II.

However, it was not until 1984 that people started using the term “mid-century modern”. Journalist and author Cara Greenberg examined the post-war period’s furniture and design in her book “Mid Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s.”

Sawhorse Easy Chair
Sawhorse Lounge Chair (CH28), 1952. Oiled oak. Dimensions: h 30 x w 26.5 x d 20 in. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Frans Drewniak, Copenhagen, Denmark:

Modernism, Migration and Massachusetts

Essentially, MCM does not refer to a single organized movement or producer. In fact, it is primarily an American phenomenon because many of its most iconic designs were manufactured in the US. However, these items were often designed by leading European Modernist designers and architects who fled Europe during the war.

Massachusetts was a major center for the development of mid-century modern furniture designs and architecture in the US. Historically, the renowned German architect, designer Walter Gropius (1883-1969) fled Germany in 1937 to emigrate to Lincoln, MA. He joined Harvard’s Graduate School of Design as a professor of architecture and became chair of the department the following year in 1938.

The glory of Bauhaus objects

At the time, the key Modernist players in architecture and design made the journey to Cambridge, MA. Among them was Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), who also joined the Harvard faculty in 1937. Later in 1938, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York dedicated an exhibition to Bauhaus artifacts. As a result, it solidified Walter Gropius’ reputation as household names in 1940s America.

Breuer, Marcel, Wassily Chairs, 1925-26. Tubular steel and leather. Dimensions: h 28.57 x w 31 x 28.57 in. View of four Wassily Chairs in the Bauhaus Building, Berlin. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, photo by Kai Oswald Seidler,

Bauhaus objects were directly made into mid-century modern design production. Especially, ‘Wassily Chair’ (1925), designed when Breuer was in Dessau, Germany is still produced today. The chair is a simple metal frame inspired by the tubular steel of bicycle handles and its seat. A monochromatic fabric strapped minimally across the steel.

Design with Purpose in Mid-century Modern

Mid-Century Modern designs on display at MoMA, New York, 2005. In this image: a commercial period poster for the Eero SaarinenTulip Chair and Armchair (1955-1956); an Eames Storage Unit by Charles and Ray Eames (1951), a Saarinen Tulip Armchair (1955-1956), the Ray and Charles Eames fiberglass La Chaise (1948),and an Isamu Noguchi, Noguchi Table (1947). Image source: Wikimedia Commons, photo by Petri Krohn

After the war, America demanded ground-breaking and cost-effective design solutions. This was to balance the needs of an expanding human population and its increasing diverse lifestyles. Consequently, there was a continued emphasis on the belief that modern design should strive for practical simplicity and a seek aesthetic.

In general, Mid-century modern furniture prominently featured materials like wood, metal, glass, concrete, plastics, and resins. These materials were preferred for the inherently simple and artificial qualities. Like the architecture which inspired it, MCM valued function and streamlined design. Think geometric shapes, minimal components and simple cost-effective materials.

The Scandinavian Influence on Mid-Century Modern Furniture

Mid-century modern also benefited from the influence of Scandinavian design. The most famous early exports were designers Kaare Klint (1888-1954), Hans Wegner (1914-2007), and Finn Juhl (1912-1989). The simple lines and expert craftsmanship of Danish-modern furniture also owed much to the Bauhaus’s insistence on functional, clean design.

This Chair is a prototypical example of the early Danish Modern style which would later shape the aesthetic of the Mid-Century Modern in North America. Kaare, Klint. Chair Commissioned for The Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1923. Burled oak, caning, leather. Dimensions: height 30.5 x width 21 x depth 23.5 in. Produced by N C Jensen Kjær. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons:

The Danish use of luxurious dark or deeply hued woods, like old-growth teak. They aligned with modernist views that materials speak for themselves in good design.

Unfortunately, this resinous tropical wood was eventually over-harvested to the point of disappearance. Therefore, authentic period pieces of Danish Modern teak furniture are much darker in color and grain. This is due to the fact that access to the old-growth wood was still possible when these pieces were made. 

Moreover, Younger teak is lighter in color and more porous. It made the later 20th-century use of the material in furniture a typically much lighter surface.

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Continued Presence & Demand

The frequency of mid-century modern continues in our culture and auction markets. Mid-century modern design has been consistently on-trend since its revival in the late 90s. From high-end retailers of modern furniture to magazine publications, all show high interest in MCM. As a result, original pieces from the era remain highly desirable and continue to get impressive results at auctions. A recent example is from a Christie’s 2019 auction lot. A single Teak and Cherrywood chair by Hans Wegner sold for USD$30,000.

Some other well-known designs include Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic luxurious leather Lounge and Ottoman set. This style has been in continuous production by Herman Miller since 1956.

Another example of this period’s timeless appeal is the Florence Knoll Sofa (1954). Named after the co-founder of the Knoll Company, the Florence Knoll Sofa has still echoed in every IKEA couch since the 90s.

Eames, Charles and Ray. Eames Lounge Chair, 1956. Molded plywood and leather. Chair Dimensions: h 31.5 x w 32.75 x d 32.75 in; Ottoman Dimensions: h 17.25 x w 26 x d 21.5 in. Image source: Wikimedia Commons: courtesy of https://emfurn.com/collections/charles-style-chairs
Wegner, Hans. Wegner Furniture on Display at Linds Bolighus on Torvegade 10-12 in Vejle, Denmark. September, 1964. Items featured: CH25 lounge chair; Getama GE 258 Day Bed; AT-10 Coffee Table; CH24 Wishbone Chair; CH36 Dining Chair; Wall Unit Cado (Possibly), by Poul Cadovius. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, original source uncredited

Identifying Vintage Mid-century Modern Pieces

When identifying vintage mid-century modern furniture pieces, attention to detail is the key. Because the period is endlessly reproduced, the risk of acquiring a copy is a concern. This is further complicated by the fact that many designs have been in production for decades.

Firstly, the level of craftsmanship of these period pieces is exceptional. Second, stamps and other identifying physical details can help date pieces and authenticate the history of their origin. Finally, identifying marks are often inside drawers, on the back or even underside of furniture.

Any pieces related to an early object release or limited production tends to secure higher prices. Of course, anything with a unique and documented origins is greatly on demand.

The Legacy of Mid-century Modern

In short, the mid-century modern design moment is largely cast through an American lens. Nevertheless, its legacy is one of the immigration of early 20th-Century European Modernist movements. When faced with the challenges of a post-war age, architects and designers embraced industrial materials and new technologies. Perhaps, its reconciliation of the human and machine as well as its faith in the future continue to resonate with us more than 90 years later.

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