When one thinks of Mid-century style, images of Mad Men —the seven-season series that premiered in 2007 and narrated day-to-day life at an advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York in the 1950s and 1960s— may come to mind. The warm palette of office furniture, accentuated by the significant presence of wood textures and straight lines, dominates the visual universe created by set designer Claudette Didul, who defined the television show aesthetically. Another series famous for its set design was the 1990s sitcom Frasier, where Mid-century-style design pieces like the Eames lounge chair and ottoman could be seen in psychiatrist Frasier Crane’s apartment. And in the second season of And Just Like That..., which is set in the present day, one of the show’s most important conflicts between two characters (Lisa and Charlotte) comes to light in a vintage decoration store, surrounded by Mid-century Italian glasses.
It is not a coincidence that all these characters belong to or work in environments frequented by the upper classes, where this aesthetic trend was also imposed in interior design. As real estate agent Monique Anton says in her podcast Mid-Century Modernism with Monique, where she “educates the masses in the wonderful world of Mid-century modernist style,” for some people, this trend transcends design and architecture to become “a way of thinking and being in the world.” Mid-century furniture refers to the style of the mid-1940s to the late 1960s but also includes its later impact in the 1990s and now 2023, is part of normative ideas of good taste and aligns with the widespread idea that, aesthetically speaking, less is always more.
There are seemingly endless references to Mid-century style in the suggestions of interior design publications and on social media pages. The success of Instagram pages like Mid-Century Home and the British real estate agency The Modern House phenomenon attest to that. Homes wrapped in wood paneling, with low-slung furniture, warm fabrics and shades and more muted palettes of green that appear alongside terrazzo floors: current interior design trends embrace the influence of the Mid-century style, which extends to this very day.
While television shows produced in the United States have done the most for aesthetic dreams of social ascent to take shape in the form of refined lines of Mid-century design furniture, this style originated in Europe in the mid-twentieth century, as the name indicates. It strongly impacted the generation of American designers and architects responsible for so-called Mid-century modernism who were influenced by Europe and even by the Bauhaus School and were thirsty for an aesthetic that would define the post-World War II era, but the style’s roots can be found in the Nordic countries.
The Mid-century style “influenced all European countries, to the point that Nordic cabinetmakers who worked in England or Central Europe left their mark,” explains Africa Salces, the person behind the selection of vintage objects and furniture in La Recova (in Chueca and El Rastro in Madrid, Spain), who has a vast knowledge of this furniture style: “That is the case of prestigious English brands like Gplan, the look of which is very, very Nordic.”
How to recognize this style
In terms of furniture design, Mid-century style is dedicated to practicality. Thus, ornamentation and any superfluous details are dispensable. The style “opted for functionality, hence the primacy of simple and very pure lines, free of ornaments,” explains Salces. “However, attention to detail was an obsession, creating works that were almost precious, with great attention to detail, even in the pieces’ less visible areas,” she says. According to Salces, this style’s use of fine woods in the furniture is fundamental; the material is “carefully worked for an attractive and cozy design.”
Cozy, welcoming spaces seemed to have grown increasingly important in a world that wanted to shake off the horror of World War II and see its forms and textures help usher in a new, more hopeful chapter in history. Undoubtedly, the materials, color palettes and textures contribute to this sense of warmth, ranging from mahogany woods in reddish hues to the feel of velvet and a range of earth tones, at times punctuated by intense but muted green accents. Perhaps because these finishes and textures can be intense, the furniture’s silhouettes compensated for it with lightness, reducing the lines to a minimum without overwhelming the space and making the low-slung furniture quite an emblem.
“The furniture is characterized by short legs, leaving behind those frames glued to the floor that were so uncomfortable to clean and adding lightness to them,” Salces explains. She lives in La Recova and has different pieces of furniture of this type, including sideboards, dressers, armchairs and tables. “The sideboards that serve both to hold the TV and as storage today are a clear example of functionality.”
Slightly inclined legs are another feature by which one can recognize this style’s furniture. They are “V-shaped, both in the case of wood and metal legs, with a finish known as ufo, [which is] iconic in Italian design,” says Salces. She adds that there are a number of objects that stand out when it comes to sketching this style of interior design. These include a pair of cocktail armchairs complemented by a 1950s plectrum table (its surface, like a triangle with rounded edges, is reminiscent of a guitar pick)—which the vintage furniture expert describes as a surefire hit—to handcrafted decorative objects that use glass, ceramics or textiles: “We always have a large collection of German and Nordic Mid-century ceramics at La Recova.”
Mid-century designers jettisoned lamps’ previous penchant for discretion by embracing emphatic shapes full of personality and indulged a taste for signature design and vintage jewels. In the case of Mid-century, Salces highlights Danish designer Poul Henningsen, “especially for his PH4 and PH5 series of lamps, which were released under the Louis Poulsen brand.”
Objects of desire
The style from the middle of the last century is not only associated with a cozy concept of home but also with a certain aspiration to meet with nature and the pursuit of peace. The convulsive first half of the twentieth century created this need, which emerged in its artistic and aesthetic dimension and also embodied an aspirational desire. Somehow, this meaning is reproduced in today’s taste for Mid-century objects.
In an interview on the Design Better podcast, Llisa Demetrios, the curator of the Eames Institute and Charles Eames’s granddaughter, confessed that she was still learning from her grandparents’ work: “You can appreciate an object for one reason, but then discover that there is a deeper message behind it. Demetrios explained the meaning and intent behind this style. “What was really interesting about the Mid-century movement was that it approached design as a way to solve problems. For designers, mass production could be a good thing, because it could raise quality standards for everyone, but that meant having the best possible prototype,” she explained. “Ray and Charles said that you had to anticipate the user’s needs before they realized them. That’s what allowed them to scale it. My grandparents never intended to make a design once but rather to create a system with which to produce a thousand, and I think that’s part of this movement: thinking at scales different from before. The world was changing; soldiers returning from the war needed housing, and they thought about how the production methods that were used during the war could be replicated to create houses.”
To the extent that objects that tell stories, Mid-century pieces say something about the desire for social mobility among those who seek to acquire the pieces. Today’s design is aware of this demand and continues to draw on it: “The 1950s and 1960s are attractive [to people], and the number of current brands that constantly reproduce the original design is proof of that,” says Salces. She cites Le Corbusier’s LC4 chaise longue, the Eames lounge chair with ottoman and Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair as pieces of modern design that are now part of the collective imaginary.
As the 2020 pandemic lockdown led us to redouble our attention to our homes, both in terms of function and aesthetics, our interest in creating a cozy and distinctive space has also increased. These are tumultuous times in more ways than one. In an increasingly (and furiously) hyper-connected global village, the warmth of spending time at home seems more appealing than ever.
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