Cara Greenberg, a notorious writer and art historian, was the one who created the expression “Mid Century Modern”, in 1983. It was in the title of one of her most relevant books (“Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s”), which reflected what is now recognized as a global and iconic design movement. The movement spread to fields such as interior, product and graphic design, architecture and urban development, from about 1933 to 1965 and it is a style recognized today by scholars and museums.
The label is straightforward and easy to understand, as candid as the interior style it describes, which defended concepts of functionality, comfort and modern simplicity. When verbally spoken, the sounds that compose the words “Mid-century Modern” also have a satisfying melodic value to them, thanks to the mirrored, doubling ‘Ms’ which roll smoothly off the tongue, evoking the clean sculptural lines of a perfectly balanced aesthetic.
Bubble shapes, immaculate proportions and appealing colors made mid-century be appropriately defined as “furniture candy”. Nowadays, chic vintage stores and the mid-century modern furniture fairs bring back this historic movement which prevails in our sense of what contemporary means. This is a movement from the past that continues to adorn our homes in the present, specially our kitchens and living rooms.
Mid-century Modern is a furniture and interior design style which was a trend from the 1940s-1960s, being the natural descendant of Modernism. It was rooted in philosophies of functionality, elegance and simplicity, following the words of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier which declared: “a house is a machine for living”.
George Nelson’s “Platform Bench”(1946) is often mentioned as one of the first notable designs of the genre. It was created to be mass-produced in order to be affordable to the average homeowner, an ideal Nelson inherited from the Bauhaus mindset: a good design must be for everyone.
After Nelson’s casual, simple yet stylish bench, the movement continued to promote the romantic idea that good design could change everyone’s lives, not just the wealthy people’s ones. Design could change the entire world and improve it.
Ray and Charles Eames, a designer couple, created lovely Californian chairs which are now symbols of the movement. Their ideology was simple but powerful: “Getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least amount of money.”
Mid-century designers utilized materials according to their own specific, sometimes even artificial, qualities and never to imitate natural materials like wood or marble. They embraced new materials such as metal, glass, vinyl, and plywood, combining them with wood to create innovative and stimulating compositions. Often a piece of furniture would include only two materials or two colors, creating tension and harmony without any superfluous adornments.
The artist and architect Isamu Noguchi’s table made of walnut hardwood and glass demonstrates this: it was described as a “functional sculpture”, and its duality of two elements created something graceful and useful at the same time.
The Eames couple also mastered new technologies, creating plastic resin and wire mesh chairs that were produced by the manufacturer Herman Miller. Their “Molded Plastic and Fiberglass Armchair” was low-cost and had good quality, mixing several elements. The customer could choose from three plastic colors (elegant greige, elephant-hide, or parchment) and could select a metal, wood or rocker base. Materials that were once associated with cheap and industrial objects were becoming the standart in contemporary interior design.
George Nelson was the one who determined what were three main Mid Century Modern categories: the biomorphic; the machine; and the handcrafted.
Biomorphic Mid Century Modern is a term used to define furniture with organic, curved, smooth surfaces, often with designs molded into the shapes of kidneys and boomerangs. This furniture was more enjoyable and energetic than the harsh machine aesthetic of the Bauhaus.
Eva Zeisel, a talented artist born in Hungary and based in the United States, explored the natural world in her designs. Her famous salt and pepper shakers radiate personality, and her belly-button shaped room-divider combined human body forms with efficient division of space. Other biomorphic classics include the dreamy, cloud-like Eames’s “Plastic Chaise Longue” and Verner Panton’s elegant “Panton Chair”.
The machine Mid Century Modern style was created in Bauhaus. It is based on blunt, high-tech geometric forms that play with form and function. George Nelson’s “Associate’s Ball Clock” for the Howard Miller clock company is a great example. At the time of its birth it looked as if it had fallen out of the 21st century, although now it feels vintage.
Despite its designation, the third category of “handmade” Mid Century Modern Furniture was also designed for industrial production, and it expressed ideals of utility and minimalism in the sculptural lines of shaped wood. This style is mostly associated with the Danish vision of the movement. Denmark’s Finn Juhl was a pioneer, his “45 Chair” is a true classic, a perfect combination of graceful leather and finely sculptured wood that looks light and delicate.
Mid-century Modern Furniture in Our Days
Despite the passing of time, this furniture designs from the past that tried to predict the future are still being made by manufacturers such as Herman Miller and Knoll. Eames’ “Lounge Chair” has never even gone out of production since it was first released. However, ironically for an artistic movement that prided itself on its accessibility, many of its iconic pieces, such as Eames’ “Molded Plywood Folding Screen” or the “Marshmallow Sofa” by George Nelson, are now being sold for extremely high prices.
Mid-century Modern in Scandinavian Design
Scandinavian design was very influential in Mid-century Modern Furniture, with a unique style characterized by simplicity, design “for everyone” and natural silhouettes. Glassware (Iittala – Finland), ceramics (Arabia – Finland), tableware (Georg Jensen – Denmark), lighting (Poul Henningsen – Denmark), and furniture (Danish modern) were some of the product designs affected by this influence.
Danish modern is a style of minimalist furniture and housewares from Denmark associated with the Danish design movement. In the 1920s, Kaare Klint embraced the principles of Bauhaus modernism in furniture design, creating clean lines based on an understanding of classical furniture and craftsmanship united with a careful research of materials, proportions and the necessities of the human body.
With designers such as Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner and associated cabinet makers, Danish furniture flourished from the 1940s through the 1960s. Adopting mass-production techniques and concentrating on form rather than just function, Finn Juhl also contributed to the style’s success. Danish housewares also adopted a similar simple design such as those produced in Denmark for Dansk in its early years, expanding the Danish modern aesthetic beyond furniture.
Incredible Designers of Danish Modern Style
Kaare Klint (1888-1954)
Thanks to the furniture design school he founded at the Royal Academy in 1924, Klint had a strong influence on Danish furniture, shaping designers such as Kjærholm and Mogensen. His wisely studied designs are based on functionality, proportions in line with the human body, craftsmanship and the use of high-quality materials. Noteworthy examples of his work include the “Propeller Stool” (1927), the “Safari Chair” and the “Deck Chair” (both from 1933), and the “Church Chair” (1936).
Poul Henningsen (1894-1967)
Poul Henningsen, an architect with a strong belief in the functionalist ideology, was a vital member of the Danish Modern school, not for furniture but for lighting design. His attempt to prevent the blinding glare of the electric lamp bulb succeeded in 1926 with the creation of a three-shade lamp, known as the “PH lamp”. The curvature of the shades allowed his hanging lamp to illuminate both the table and the rest of the room. He went on to design many similar lamps, some with frosted glass, including desk lamps, chandeliers and wall-mounted fixtures. Though he died in 1967, many of his designs have remained popular to this day.
Mogens Lassen (1901-1987)
In addition to his architectural work, Lassen was also a talented furniture designer. Influenced both by Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, he developed a unique approach to Functionalism. Thanks to his fine craftsmanship and his search for simplicity, his steel-based furniture from the 1930s added a new dimension to the modernist movement. His later designs in wood are still part of classical Danish Mid Century Modern, especially his three-legged stool and folding “Egyptian coffee table” (1940) originally produced by A. J. Iversen.
Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971)
Jacobsen graduated from the Royal Academy in 1924 and quickly proved his mastery in both architecture and furniture design. With the accomplishment of his Royal Hotel in Copenhagen and all its internal furniture in 1960, his talents became widely recognized, especially due to his chairs “Egg” and “Swan”, now considered universal icons. His stackable, three-legged “Ant Chair” (1952) with a one-piece plywood seat and back and its four-legged counterpart, the “7 Chair” (1955), were also particularly popular all around the world.
Ole Wanscher (1903-1985)
Inspired by Kaare Klint, Wanscher later followed his footsteps, becoming a professor of the Royal Academy’s furniture school. Particularly interested in 18th-century English furniture and in early Egyptian furniture, one of his most successful pieces was his carefully designed “Egyptian Stool” (1960) crafted from exquisite materials. Another successful work was his “Colonial Chair” in Brazilian rosewood. He was awarded the Grand Prix for furniture at Milan’s triennale in 1960.
Finn Juhl (1912-1989)
Although he studied architecture at the Royal Academy, Juhl was a self-taught designer as far as furniture is concerned. In the late 1930s, he created furniture for himself but from 1945 on he started to become notorious for his sculptural designs, placing an emphasis on form rather than function, breaking the tradition of Klint’s school. His successful interior design project at the UN Headquarters in New York spread Danish Modern, paving the way for the international recognition of his colleagues. Two key pieces of his furniture, in which the seat and backrest are separated from the wooden frame, are “45-Chair”, with its elegant armrests, and “Chieftain Chair” (1949).
Børge Mogensen (1914-1972)
After studying at the Copenhagen School of Arts and Crafts and at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Mogensen adopted Klint’s approach to simple, functional furniture design. Taking an almost scientific approach to an object’s utility, most of his furniture is characterized by strong, simple lines and was designed for industrial production. Famous pieces by him include oak-framed “Hunting Chair” (1950) with a strong leather back and seat, his light “Spokeback Sofa” (1945), and the low robust “Spanish Chair” (1959).
Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
Known as the “Master of Chairs”, Wegner created charming furniture with clean, organic and aesthetic lines, balanced by a minimalist and serene aspect. He was a modernist with emphasis on the practicality and elegance of each piece he crafted. He believed the versatility and usability of his designs were as vital for him as their aesthetics.
After graduating in architecture in 1938, he worked in Arne Jacobsen and Eric Møller’s office before establishing his own office in 1943. Striving for functionality as well as beauty, he became the most prolific Danish designer, producing over 500 different chairs. His “Round Chair” (technically Model 500) in 1949 was called “the world’s most beautiful chair” before being labelled simply “The Chair”. His “Wishbone Chair”, also from 1949, with a Y-shaped back split and a curved back, was inspired by a Chinese child’s chair. Wegner’s designs can now be found in several of the world’s best design museums including New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Grete Jalk (1920-2006)
After training as a cabinetmaker, she studied at the Danish Design School in 1946, while receiving additional instruction from Kaare Klint at the Royal Academy’s Furniture School. Inspired by Alvar Aalto’s laminated bent-plywood furniture and Charles Eames’ molded plywood designs, she began to develop her own boldly curved models in the 1950s. In 1963, she won a Daily Mirror competition with her “He Chair” and “She Chair”. With the help of the furniture manufacturer Poul Jeppesen, she designed simpler models with comfortable lines, which became popular both in Denmark and the United States thanks to their competitive prices. Jalk also edited the Danish design magazine Mobilia and compiled a four-volume work on Danish furniture.
Verner Panton (1926-1998)
After graduating from the Royal Academy in 1951, Panton worked briefly with Arne Jacobsen. During the 1960s, he designed furniture, lamps and textiles with an imaginative combination of innovative materials, playful shapes and bold colors. Among his earliest designs were the “Bachelor Chair” and “Tivoli Chair” (1955), both produced by Fritz Hansen. His “Panton Chair” (1960) was the world’s first one-piece molded plastic chair. Sometimes seen as a pop artist, unlike most of his generation, he continued to be successful in the 1970s, not only with furniture but also with interior designs, including lighting.
Poul Kjærholm (1929-1980)
In addition to an academic career at the School of Arts and Crafts and at the Institute of Design at the Royal Academy, Kjærholm always understood the importance a piece of furniture has in its surrounding architectural space. Functionality was the second most important thing in his artistic approach, which was centered on sophisticatedly clean lines and attention to detail. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he worked essentially with steel, combining it with wood, leather, cane or marble.
Kjærhom developed a close relationship with the cabinetmaker E. Kold Christensen who produced most of his designs. Today a wide selection of his furniture is produced by Fritz Hansen. Kjærholm’s work can be seen in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Jens Risom (1916-2016)
Often credited with having introduced Danish Mid Century Modern design to America, Risom was a graduate of Copenhagen School of Industrial Arts and Design. He emigrated to the United States in 1939 to study American design, working first as a textile designer and later as a freelance furniture designer. In 1941, he joined Hans Knoll at the Hans Knoll Furniture Company, and together they explored the country promoting Risom’s designs. A true minimalist, Risom worked mainly in wood because it was cheap, and one of his most successful pieces, “Knoll Chair #654” was made with a seat of nylon webbing that was discarded by the army.
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