a mid century modern interior design with a chair, couch, and dining table

Key Elements of Mid Century Modern Interior Design

If you are curious about mid-century modern interior design, you are in luck because I know more than a thing or two about it. The style has had a front-row seat in every aspect of my life. I worked with it often as an interior designer, as a marketing manager for a mid-century-style furniture manufacturer, and as a salesperson at Design Within Reach – a leading seller of mid-century modern classics (and now owned by Herman Miller, a top manufacturer.) I even grew up in a Richard Neutra-style home and watched TV in an Eames Lounge Chair as a kid.

I’m not the only one who loves the style. It was all the rage when it arrived on the scene, and though it fell out of fashion for a while, the blend of beauty and functionality brought it back, and it has stuck. It remains one of the most popular design styles today. Many contemporary designers and manufacturers still follow its aesthetic principles. The style works beautifully in homes and offices, which also makes it a smart choice for today’s home office setups.

What is mid-century modern interior design, exactly? I lay it out simply, which is appropriate since simplicity is a dominant trait.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the history behind mid century modern design.
  • Recognizing the unique characteristics that define midcentury modern style.
  • Identifying elements commonly used in mid-century modern interior design.

What is mid century modern interior design?

photo of living room with mid century modern interior design

Mid-century modern interior design isn’t just a style; it’s also a story with a rich history. It began in the early-mid 1900s, encompassing architecture and interior design.

The Historical Roots

The seeds of mid-century modern design were sown in the 1930s thanks to two innovators. One was Frank Lloyd Wright. He was the first to steer away from formal floorplans to more open floor plans and simpler architectural forms while maintaining a tight connection to nature.

The second innovator was the Bauhaus, an art school in Germany. It dove deeply into product design and featured many legendary mid-century modern designers and architects. Mies Van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius taught there. Richard Neutra, a brief employee of Frank Lloyd Wright, also taught at the Bauhaus as a visiting professor. Le Corbusier’s design theories were closely followed. At Bauhaus’s core was challenging traditional design norms, steering away from ornamentation toward sleek, minimalist design.

America embraced and evolved the style after World War II. There was a massive boom for homes after the war, and US and international architects jumped to help; after all, architects love building booms because there is big money in them. They used the style to design simpler, tract-made homes for easy construction, some with potential for mass production, like the infamous Case Study Houses.

The mid century modern home designs also featured similar interior design treatments. The aftermath of World War II brought together material innovations and improvements in mass production, both of which were used for furniture, lighting, and accessories. Examples include the bent wood used on the Eames Chair, inspired by leg splints for soldiers, and the self-webbing plastic shade material used in Nelson lamps, which was used to wrap naval ships in storage.

The rise in popularity of plastic coincided, and combined with the other technological advances, designers salivated at the potential of creating new furniture, lighting, and accessories. They tested the limits of materials, pushing them to the limit to create unique designs that excelled at simplistic beauty while showing the designer’s talent with the effect of a magic trick. This time was a creative feast.

Scandinavian Influence

brown wooden Wegner chair beside plant

As if this and preceding modern design revolutions weren’t enough, Scandinavian design hit. Also commonly referenced as Danish design, but not limited to it, the Nordic influence shared Wright and the Bauhaus values of simplicity, and it connected even further with Wright by staying closely connected to nature. The style was evident in the extensive use of wood and a blend of indoor plants and large windows to invite in the outdoors.

More Focus on Fun

Mid-century modern design was born from new technologies and approaches, as well as more focus on natural materials and aesthetics in its architecture and interiors. Still, it went a step further by incorporating fun. The designs are sophisticated yet playful. The human-centric approach was beautifully illustrated by the era’s dynamic duo, Charles and Ray Eames, who saw design as “serious fun.” As Charles Eames said, “Toys and games are the prelude to serious ideas.”

Characteristics of mid century modern style

To use a Mad Men analogy, which only seems appropriate since the mid century modern was a hit then, the style was like a well-made cocktail – a blend of different elements that create something delicious. Here is the recipe.

Function Over Form

At its core, mid-century modern design prioritizes functionality. Every piece, whether a sleek sofa, desk, or coffee table, was designed with purpose in mind. The items were meant to be used in homes and to help with home life. The designers also designed them beautifully so users enjoyed using them even more. For instance, a record player might be designed into a low cabinet for an ultra-clean presentation once opened, all while offering easy and entertaining access. Interacting with the furniture was part of the fun.

mid century record player 1st dibs

Organic and Geometric Shapes

The style beautifully marries organic forms with geometric patterns for a simple and more natural aesthetic. Examples include organic chairs paired with angular, geometric coffee tables.

Minimal Ornamentation

With function and organic characteristics in mind, designers took a less is more approach by stripping away unnecessary elements. Simplicity was, and is, a core value of mid-century style. The fun for the designers lies in ensuring the piece is functional and beautiful. The focus on clean lines and minimal fuss allows the design and materials to shine in all their natural beauty.

A Blending of Materials

Mid-century modern items often mixed materials, such as rich woods, with metals, glass, and marble. Some designs would focus on one material, but mixing materials was common, especially with solid wood or veneer.

Neutral and Bold Color Palettes

Color for mid-century design falls into two categories: the natural and the bold. In most cases, the colors were used alongside each other. Neutral tones like beige, gray, and black dominate for a natural feel, and the black creates a handsome look. Pops of bold colors like mustard yellow and orange are often mixed in with early mid-century interiors thanks to Scandinavian design and mid-century art influences, such as Piet Mondrian whose use of primary colors was regularly discussed at the Bauhaus.

As time passed, colors became bolder, but the furniture and accessories they applied to retained an organic look.

Indoor Nature

One of the hallmarks of this style is the seamless integration of nature. Indoor plants, wooden elements, and floor to ceiling windows with views of the outdoors are standard features. The large windows blended the intelligent usage of glass from Scandinavian design with the minimalistic architecture of Mies Van Der Rohe, Philip Johnson, and many Case Study architects.

Furniture Arrangement

In true minimalist form, mid-century design prioritized open spaces, fluidity, and purposeful placement. Furniture pieces were arranged to spur conversation, provide ease of movement, and make the most of natural light. Sofas and chairs were positioned to face each other or centered around architectural focal points like fireplaces, large windows, or deep inside conversation pits. The “floating” furniture concept, where pieces were hung on walls, was a hallmark and created more spaciousness and flow.

Modular and multifunctional furniture, like nesting tables or room dividers, allowed for arrangement flexibility, catering to social gatherings of any size. The aim was always to craft a functional and pleasing environment where every piece stood out, and every arrangement told a story that encouraged interaction.

Elements of Mid Century Modern Interior Design

The following elements have become synonymous with mid century style. Many of the styles are still made by the original companies, and many new designers reference the styles in their work. They bring beauty, elegance, and fun to a home’s entrance, living room, dining room, bedrooms, and home office

Furniture

Mid-century modern furniture pieces are true works of art. Characterized by their mix of organic and geometric forms, the blend of intelligent functionality, clean lines, and curved shapes are the epitome of style. This also marked a shift toward low-profile sofas and chairs, often raised on slim legs, that let nature in and complimented the look and feel of the architecture.

The Eames Lounge Chair, Egg Chair, Noguchi Coffee Table, and Saarinen tables are all famous examples of the style in action. Many pieces are so beautiful and well-designed that they have become iconic, and vintage furniture fetches high prices. In many cases, productions are still done today. These pieces aren’t just furniture but also works of art and status statements.

Lighting

Lighting in mid-century modern design is a perfect blend of function and form. True to mid-century philosophy, many lights featured the latest technological advancements to create ultra-sleek, organically designed pieces that provide highly functional and downright gorgeous lighting. The Arc Floor Lamp and Sputnik Chandelier are iconic lighting fixtures of this style. They illuminate the space and serve as focal points, adding character and charm to the interiors. Every type of lighting followed the same attributes, from floor to table and desk lamps.

Accessories

Accessories were where the designers had the most fun, and no mid-century modern space is complete without them. From sunburst mirrors to bird figurines and abstract art pieces, the accessories add a touch of whimsy and personality – in other words, fun – to a home.

Rugs

In a mid century modern home, an area rug works as either a natural-skin element, such as cowhide, or as a large canvas to show off the design style. They draw inspiration from linear and organic shapes, featuring asymmetrical geometric patterns, sleek lines, and a harmonious blend of muted and vibrant hues. The rugs add depth, warmth, and a touch of retro charm to any space.

Art

Like all designs of the time, art was focused on exploration, experimentation, and expression, breaking away from traditional artistic norms, but the main focus was expression. The artists embraced abstract forms and bold color palettes.

The work featured geometric shapes, fluid lines, and a juxtaposition of organic and inorganic forms. Examples include Franz Klein’s flowing, minimalist black and white paintings, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, and Mark Rothko’s bold, color-blocked artwork.

The art had that rebellious spirit of mid-century design by challenging perceptions and pushing boundaries, eager to redefine itself in the post-war world.

Mid Century Modern Interior Design: An Enduring Statement

Mid-century modern design may have started as a trend, but it has become a permanent style and continues to show its influence in today’s minimalist and biomorphic styles. At the same time, it embodies an era that continues to inspire and captivate. The designs tell a fascinating story of innovation, creativity, and a deep appreciation for craftsmanship. The timeless appeal lies in its simplicity, functionality, and the perfect blend of form and function – foundations for today’s minimalist homes.

As someone who has lived, breathed and worked with this interior design style, I can say that it has an enduring draw as strong as traditional designs but without the stuffiness. The beautifully creative pieces draw the eye and tell fascinating stories that will make you want to throw a cocktail party just so people can interact with them. They will act like kids again.

What defines midcentury modern design?

It’s a harmonious blend of form and function, characterized by clean lines, organic shapes, and a nod to the innovations of the mid-1900s.

How to design mid-century modern interiors

Start with purposeful furniture arrangements, but use them sparingly to maintain maximum flow. Then, infuse with iconic pieces and embrace neutral palettes with bold accents while letting nature in.

What are the key elements of midcentury modern style?

Functional designs, geometric patterns, minimalist ornamentation, a fusion of materials, and a deep connection with nature.

What is midcentury modern style?

It’s a timeless design ethos from the mid-1900s that celebrates simplicity, functionality, and playful sophistication. The designs are both beautiful and meant to be used.