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Mid-Century Modern Interior Design: A Timeless Style for Contemporary Living

Mid-Century Modern Interior Design: A Timeless Style for Contemporary Living

In our ongoing series about interior home decor and architectural styles, we would be remiss if we didn’t write about one of the most elegant and timeless interior design trends, mid-century modern. Perhaps you’ve seen it before, but didn’t know what to call it. 

Emerging out of America’s juggernaut industrial capacity in a post-WW2 landscape, mid-century modern was an energetic and optimistic view of what the future could hold. Famous for creating the visual style of Golden Age Hollywood and Palm Springs, the Space Race, and beyond. The style saw a resurgence of popularity in the wake of AMC’s prestige drama, Mad Men in the mid-2000s.

Mid-century modern’s turn of the century elegance and sleek yet tastefully refined visual style still dazzles today, and with just a few simple tweaks (and a canvas print or two!) you can create a room that is bursting with class and elegance only mid-century modern can lend!

What is Mid-Century Modern?

Mid-century modern is a design philosophy and a set of aesthetic principles that influence interior design, graphic design, architectural design, product development, and even urban development from around 1949 up until the 1960s. Put simply, mid-century modern dominated post-WW2 America.

As an interior design style, it's rooted in functionality, clean lines, and simplicity but marries mass production techniques and materials used during the war such as plexiglass, wood, glass, and metal to create elegant furniture and furnishings that use bold colors and feature organic, sinuous shapes.

It attempts to present a dynamic, youthful, almost optimistic tone of the future given the ever-looming threat of nuclear war that pervaded the Cold War era, while at the same time itself a reactionary backlash against the ornate and rococo design aesthetics that dominated popular culture that preceded it.

As mid-century modern began to fade as new decor trends arose, it did see two separate resurges in popular culture; the first during the late 80s and early 90s and the second in the mid-2000s. 

It was Cara Greenberg’s 1984 book Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s that saw the name “mid-century modern” earn its moniker. An editor at Crown urged her to write a book on the topic. As for the phrase "midcentury modern," Greenberg "just made that up as the book's title," she says in an interview in 1983 for a piece in Metropolitan Home about 1950s furniture. From then until the mid-1990s, mid-century modern became fashionable again, but it was just a momentary blip.

The second, and more recent, time mid-century modern became popular during the television run of AMC’s hit period drama show Mad Man, which focused on advertising executives during the 1960s and 1970s. 

With its brilliant dialogue, Prestige-era TV season-long story arcs, and sumptuous set design that reveled in its mid-century modern motifs, viewers couldn’t get enough and soon saw the revitalization of mid-century modern as a decor trend that reflected the chic coolness that the show strived for.

Influences and Forerunners

Like all artistic trends, mid-century modern didn’t simply spring into existence, but rather was influenced by and emerged out of countless other artists, interior designers, and art movements that came before it.

Perhaps the three most influential to mid-century modern that of Germany’s Bauhaus movement, the interior design trends that later became lumped together as “Scandinavian” and the architectural style known simply as “Internationalism”.

Bauhaus Movement

Emerging out of post-WW1 Germany, the Bauhaus School of Design is perhaps the most important forerunner to most modernist movements. Its DNA can be seen in nearly every modernist movement that emerge from the carnage of WW1. 

The Bauhaus school’s principles laid the foundation for much of modern design theory in the early 1900s. The school’s avoidance of ornamentation and embrace of mass replication and function dominated this school of design, laying much of the “aesthetic data” that movements like minimalism, mid-century modern, and other styles drew upon.

Scandinavian Design

While not entirely influenced by this school, there is a surprising amount of overlap between mid-century modern and what is now called Scandinavian design. 

Both styles emerge in their respective countries (Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland respectively) during the 1950s as the Second World War ended, and both design philosophies share a love of clean lines and a stylized take on minimalism’s emphasis on form and function. Yet differ in Scandinavian’s more cozy, less bold sensibilities, in contrast to the bright dynamism found in Mid-Century Modern. 

Interestingly, where Mid-Century Modern found itself relegated to interior design and architecture, Scandinavian designers ended up applying their principles to cars, consumer electronics, and more during this time and even today Scandinavia’s attention to “lifestyle” is most exemplified in the global Swedish brand IKEA.

International Style

Lastly, we turn to what is either referred to as the “International Style” or “Internationalism” depending upon whom you ask.

While primarily an architectural style, much of it borrows and influenced the way mid-century modern took shape. Emerging in Europe after WW1 in France, Belgium, and other countries, it soon became the dominant form of building style up until the 1970s. 

Like the other two styles mentioned above, Internationalism focused on lightweight, mass-produced materials like glass, a rejection of ornamentation, and a preference for soft, more rounded shapes used in repetitive, yet modular patterns. 

At least within the United States, the three most prominent examples of this style include the PSFS Building in Philadelphia, the McGraw-Hill Building in NYC, and the Lovell House in Los Angeles, however, it should be noted that even the Bauhaus School of Design building is designed in this architectural style!

Design Aesthetics

As previously mentioned, mid-century modern relished in using then-new materials like plexiglass, plastic, metal, and even vinyl. However what most people associate most closely with mid-century modern interior design and decor is the organic and sensuously shaped coffee and kitchen tables, as well as, chairs made from wood like teak, rosewood, and oak. 

The use of curved and tapered shapes was found elsewhere too from lamps to clocks, even to televisions. Interestingly, these more curved shapes were often counterbalanced by the crisp lines of the wooden furniture.

While these pieces still continue to stun today, mid-century modern also goes for bold accent colors usually not found such as teal, orange, green, and like. These colors could be featured on the flooring itself, the couch, chairs, or even a large wall decor piece, often of an abstract nature.

How to Get that Mid-Century Modern Look

For all its panache and style, achieving a mid-century modern look for any room (or even the entire house) is simple and easy. All you have to do is keep these few “north stars” in mind and soon enough, your house will have that effortlessly cool and timeless look from Mad Men.

No matter the room, the first thing to know about mid-century modern is that it loves big, unadorned windows that allow the sun and natural light to pour in. Now obviously not everyone has large windows, so to counterbalance this and spread what light natural light you do receive is to use large mirrors to bounce the light around the room. Additionally, regardless of window size, ridding yourself of curtains and blinds will also go a long way to achieving a bright room.

Secondly and previously mentioned, a lot of mid-century modern furniture pieces like the kitchen table or couch use warm woods like teak, oak, or rosewood. However, these woods are quite expensive, so more cost-effective wooden furniture that can be suitable swapped for are mahogany, walnut, or cherry. The use of wood didn’t just stop at the furniture however, mid-century modern uses wood even used wooden walls as an accent wall just as liberally!

Thirdly, mid-century modern is also about having a love affair with bright, warm colors as opposed to more modern designs trends of a love affair with white or beige. Mid-century modern leans into using colors like red, teal, earthy greens, and even warm yellows and oranges to pop and visually delight. Accent pieces are a great way to subtly introduce these types of colors. Whether choosing this for a carpet, a couch pillow, or even a canvas print

Finally, go for strong accent pieces like a geometric-patterned blanket or pillow. If pillows and blankets aren’t your style, you could opt for a large abstract art print that’s suitable hip and cool for your mid-century modern makeover. If you have a specific art piece or pattern in mind, can help you achieve the look you’re after easily and affordably!

Notable Mid-Century Modern Designers

Mid-century modern as a design trend has the unique position of having well-known and even famous designers that have contributed significantly to its popularity. Perhaps none more so than that of Herman Miller and George Nelson. 

Herman Miller originally founded his company as the Star Furniture Co. in 1905 which was focused on crafting and making pieces of the age, meaning historic revival styles popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Later in 1923, the company was renamed the Herman Miller Company and it was then a stroke of luck that Miller met the modernist designer Gilbert Rohde who convinced the company to make furniture that align with Rohde’s modernist vision.

After Rohde died in 1944, George Nelson became Rohde’s replacement as director of design and under his guidance, HermanMillerCo exploded into mainstream popularity with its modern furniture such as the Noguchi Table, the creation of the office cubicle, the Aeron Chair, and Marshmallow Sofa.

Other several notable designers contributed to the mid-century modern interior design movement, including Charles and Ray Eames, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, and Arne Jacobsen, with each leaving their own indelible mark on the trend. 

Charles and Ray Eames were a husband-and-wife design team that created iconic furniture pieces such as the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman and the Molded Plastic Chair. 

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a German-American architect and designer who is famous for his minimalist steel and glass buildings, including the Farnsworth House in Illinois. 

Eero Saarinen was a Finnish-American architect and designer who created iconic furniture pieces such as the Tulip Chair and Tulip Table. 

Arne Jacobsen was a Danish architect and designer who created iconic furniture pieces such as the Egg Chair and Swan Chair.

Palm Springs California and Mid-Century Modern

Given that mid-century modern was, for its time, a cutting-edge interior design and architectural style it's no surprise that the style found its way to define the visual style of the Golden Age of Hollywood. This is most evident in what was once the sleepy desert oasis town of Palm Springs, California.

The reason that Palm Springs become a hub for what become the largest concentration of mid-century modern houses in America boils down to the rather exploitative nature of acting contracts and the studio system that was entrenched in Hollywood during this time. 

Many actors and actresses alike were essentially held captive by their contracts, which usually stipulated that the actor or actress had to be at least 2 hours within the vicinity of the studio. Given this, the pressures of Hollywood often felt like prisons to their early actors, who fled to the sleepy town of Palm Springs (which just so happened to be 2 hours from Hollywood).

Because of its rural desert nature, the town attracted many A-list actors and other celebrities of the time and soon the townfolk and the Hollywood celebs developed an unspoken rule that the celebs were here to relax, and thus be treated as “normal people”. 

Due to this, many celebrities built second homes out here, and with plenty of cash to throw around they chose architects and designers who were on the cutting edge of trends for the time; mid-century modern. What developed, however, is usually called Desert Modernism which reflected both the natural desert landscape of Palm Springs combined with the flavors and aesthetics of mid-century modern.


In conclusion, the mid-century modern interior design style remains a popular style that has stood the test of time. Its sleek lines, minimalist approach, and use of natural materials continue to inspire contemporary designers and homeowners. The style's focus on functionality and simplicity has made it particularly appealing to those seeking a clean and uncluttered aesthetic. As we move further into the 21st century, it's clear that mid-century modern design will continue to be a source of inspiration for those looking to create a timeless, yet contemporary interior.