Midcentury modern is a design style that arrived in the mid-20th century. Defined by simple, functional, and wooden furniture, midcentury modern still remains a popular interior design choice today. Now, we see many replicas of midcentury modern furniture on the market, but the real deal is still extremely popular (and valuable!), too.
We spoke with designers about the history, key characteristics, and popularity of the midcentury modern style (which is often referred to as “MCM”). These pros also shared their tips for styling one’s home with MCM pieces and what to keep in mind when shopping.
MEET THE EXPERT
- Liza Kuhn is a designer and the founder of Liza Kuhn Interiors.
- Amanda Thompson is a designer and the principal and CEO of ALine Studio.
- Eleanor Trepte is a designer with Dekay & Tate.
What Is Midcentury Modern Style?
Midcentury modern style defined the mid-20th century—simple, functional wooden pieces made from teak and curved designs reigned supreme.
“Midcentury modern design evolved in response to a post-World War II environment,” designer Liza Kuhn explains. “Designers and architects were eager to develop new ideas that married the mass production and technology invented during the first half of the 20th century with a more optimistic outlook for the future.”
Midcentury modern style originated during the middle of the 20th century and embodied the needs and wants of the population of that time.
“Midcentury modern design is rooted in functionality, clean lines, and simplicity, which reflected the world at that time,” designer Amanda Thompson explains. “Homes were more linear, focused on maintaining a nuclear family unit and as such, the furniture design echoed this environment.”
Unlike frillier pieces or those with ornate detailing, midcentury modern furniture is much more straightforward.
“The need and desire for functional, simplistic furniture and decor in our homes was a rebellion against the ornate traditions from decades before, and a way for families to embrace a more modern, organic way of living,” designer Eleanor Trepte comments.
Midcentury modern can be considered a subset of modern design, defined as the style that became popular in the early 1900s. However, when compared to the traditional definitions of modern design, midcentury modern design tends to be unashamedly retro and often makes use of bright accent color to emphasize this point. Modern design, by contrast, typically has a more understated, utilitarian, industrial look.
The key characteristics of midcentury modern include:
- Furnishings emphasize function over ornament
- Lack of ornate frills in favor of simple geometric lines
- Frequent use of teak, rosewood, and oak
- Use of metal, glass, and vinyl
- Bold accent colors (popular midcentury colors include reds, sages, yellows, blush pinks, and more)
- Organic shapes and patterns, as shown in midcentury modern architecture
- Mixed materials and textures such as wood frames for a couch with upholstered seating
Most authentic midcentury modern furniture is made from teak.
“Teak was preferred for its richness in color and durability,” designer Rozit Arditi explains. “Rosewood and oak were the other commonly used woods, mostly in case pieces like tables, desks, and storage cabinets.”
But wood was by no means the only material present in the creation of midcentury modern pieces.
“Materials were critical to midcentury design,” Thompson notes. “We saw a lot of wood, metal, glass, and vinyl, often used in tension with each other to create a unique look.”
These materials were often used to create furnishings in curved shapes.
“The famous Eames chair is a hallmark of this look,” Trepte shares. “Other unique shapes took hold through curved and almost round sofas, odd-shaped coffee tables, and even geometric shapes that felt angular and clean.”
Color was also a major component of midcentury style and was used in ways we had never seen before, often either as a bold accent or as a way to make a piece of furniture stand out singularly in a room, Thompson says.
Is Midcentury Modern Still in Style?
Midcentury modern is still in style, as its elements of functionality, clean lines, and natural materials are very popular in today’s designs.
“I appreciate the rise of multipurpose furniture, which was adopted in this design ethos and is something we still promote as designers today,” designer Becky Shea says. “Every piece serves a purpose and beyond, casting shadows on the days where rooms were beholden to being used once a year for a special occasion due to their ornate, elaborate design.”
When decorating with midcentury modern style, you will want to let the wooden pieces shine. Make sure the woods you select work together, and do not contrast each other, Arditi explains.
Keep in mind that the furniture pieces of yesteryear were not made to accommodate today’s households. While many people enjoy using midcentury modern credenzas as TV stands, for example, furniture designers at the time did not create these pieces for this purpose, meaning there may be some imperfection.
“Understand that the case pieces were made decades ago and people’s needs were different,” Arditi comments. “Not all your tech equipment can fit in the sideboards or the bookcases.”
Finally, you’ll want to strike the right balance when it comes to incorporating MCM pieces into your space.
“You want your home to feel modern, not like a museum of the 1960s,” Thompson urges.
An Eames chair or a glass-topped table with chrome legs can contrast nicely against a more textural rug, industrial-style cabinet, or transitional couch. Your home certainly shouldn’t resemble a museum, but it also shouldn’t act as one.
“The entire heart of the MCM movement lies in function, so if you acquire gorgeous antique MCM chairs, for instance, make sure they are sturdy enough to handle daily use,” Thompson adds.
- What time period is midcentury modern?Midcentury modern was a popular design movement in the mid-20 century, from around 1945 to 1969.
- How do I know if my furniture is midcentury modern?The trademarks of midcentury modern furniture include sleek, functional design. This includes soft curves, minimalist materials, and pops of personality with bold colors or geometric prints. Most midcentury modern furniture will also have wood or metal frames with upholstery.
- What style is closest to midcentury modern?Design styles that share similar elements to midcentury include Scandinavian, minimalism, and contemporary.