A quick lesson on mid-century modern style, including its advent, evolution, and defining traits.
At first glance, a mid-century modern home or building may seem fairly straightforward with its simple lines and low profile. Look closer, though, and you'll quickly see that this style has a way of seamlessly connecting to nature and infusing playful touches throughout. There’s also great appeal in its timelessness, versatility, and strong functionality.
“Mid-century modern’s minimal look and clean lines allow for the design to transcend time,” says interior designer Adriana Hoyos. “It also allows for the design, whether it’s a building, an interior design concept or a furniture piece, to blend well in different places and with different personalities.”
Below, we’re offering a quick history lesson on mid-century modern design and architecture, how it’s changed over the years, and what characteristics set it apart from other types of design.
History & Evolution of Mid-Century Modern Style
Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about mid-century modern architecture and design is that it didn’t truly originate in the “mid-century.” The style actually dates back to Germany’s Bauhaus era, which was founded by architect Walter Gropius in the late 1910s.
This newfangled “modern style” emerging from Germany slowly began catching on. Scandinavian designers helped catapult it to greater fame in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and by the time the true mid-century hit it was wildly popular across the world.
“Both mid-century modern architecture and interior design became popular during the mid-20th century,” says Hoyos. “They share similar aesthetic goals and traits, characterized by minimalistic designs, and a focus on functionality. They both also emphasize the use of natural materials like wood and an integration with the surrounding environment.”
Chris Kinlaw, furniture designer and founder of MIXMA Studios, adds that mid-century modern interior design very much drew inspiration from the architectural movement. “It focuses on clean lines, minimalism, and a functional approach to design, incorporating similar elements into interior spaces," he says.
United States architect Frank Lloyd Wright also played a key role in the development and continued evolution of mid-century modern architecture and design, Hoyos adds. The defining hallmarks of his projects are still considered integral to mid-century modern style to this day. These include the fusion of geometric and organic forms, through-lines into nature and across interior spaces, and intriguing but functional details.
“The principles of mid-century modern architecture [and design] are very relevant today—especially the connection to nature, which is very relevant with the wellness trend and the importance of sustainability practices in design,” Hoyos says.
Key Traits of Mid-Century Modern Interior Design
Here are some of the defining hallmarks of mid-century modern interior design, according to Hoyos and Kinlaw.
Clean Lines: This design style prioritized clean and straight lines, often with gentle curves to create a sleek look.
Geometric Patterns & Shapes: Furniture pieces often include geometric shapes, such as the use of ovals, triangles, and other non-traditional forms.
Natural Materials: Wood, especially teak and walnut, are widely used in mid-century modern design. These natural materials are often left exposed or minimally finished.
Minimalist Approach: The goal is simplicity and functionality with mid-century modern design.
Bold Colors: Though natural materials are broadly incorporated into mid-century modern design, this style also embraces vibrant colors via accent pieces.
Functionality: This design prioritizes functionality, often with modular or multipurpose furniture.
Defining Traits of Mid-Century Modern Architecture
While every mid-century modern home has its own nuances, there are some defining traits across this architectural style.
Simplicity Via Clean Lines & Low Profiles
While Victorian-style homes embrace a “more is more” mantra when it comes to detailing, mid-century modern architecture does the opposite with its non-embellished framework. “The minimal aesthetic emphasizes the geometric shapes and creates a simple look,” Hoyos said. “This clean style allows for a timeless appeal.”
Asymmetrical Front Entries
Though mostly streamlined, many mid-century modern homes have entries that are shifted slightly off-center, recessed, and protected by the roof overhang. “I really enjoy an unobtrusive entry like this,” says Anna Garcia, lead architect at Forge & Bow, says. “It creates a thoughtful transition passing through a cozy threshold before entering into the home. This type of treatment also provides some relief across what tends to be a long flat facade.”
Lots of Glass For an Infusion of Light & Views
Today, we take glass doors and floor-to-ceiling windows for granted, but in the early 20th century, these larger glass details were new and exciting.
“Early modernist architects were mesmerized by sliding glass doors,” says architect David Mann of MR Architecture + Decor. “These doors, now a common element in many present-day homes, reinforce the basic ideas behind mid-century domestic architecture, allowing people to transform spaces from inside to outside.”
With the same intent in mind, larger windows and more windows overall were added to homes. “Homeowners tended to opt for large picture windows at the front and/or back of the house," Garcia says. "This allowed for the framing of expansive views to the exterior afforded by the orientation of the house spanning across the width of the site.”
Sprawling, Open Floor Plans
A combination of higher home loan limits during this time period—and a desire to simply spread out a bit more—led to big, ranch-style floor plans. “Residences could sprawl out within a single story, spanning the width of the lot,” Garcia explains.
Inside, floor pans remained wide and open to create easy flow from one space to another. This approach creates a more communal feel, but also improves light flow throughout the house and allows for better sightlines outdoors.
While not every mid-century home has an indoor atrium, many do—it's considered a defining trait of the architectural style. Like many of the elements of mid-century modern architecture, atriums are an obvious way to bring infuse nature into home interiors. “For example, I’ve seen a home have a planting atrium that landed partially indoors and partially outdoors to break down the barrier between inside and outside more seamlessly,” Mann says.
How to Decorate Your Home in Mid-Century Modern Style
Showcase an Iconic Piece of Furniture: Modular forms, clean lines, and soft curves are all indicative of mid-century modern design. Splurge on one or two furniture pieces that fit the theme and make them the focal point of your space. This might be a classic Eames-style chair or sofa.
Incorporate Real Vintage: “The most interesting way to mix mid-century modern pieces into a curated collection is to source vintage pieces with unique patina and a story behind them,” Kinlaw says. ”This can add more layers of character and history to a space than only buying new pieces or replicas.”
Use Light, Natural Materials: Hoyos says to incorporate quality wood and light finishes in furniture and flooring. From here, you can experiment with colors and patterns as accent pieces.
Add Indoor Plants: Marrying the outdoors with the indoors is a key facet of mid-century modern architecture and design. Incorporating real plants into your home is a beautiful way to embrace this natural aesthetic and breathe more life into your space.
Leverage Geometric Patterns: Along with natural materials and pops of color, Hoyos recommends including geometric patterns or abstract prints via your textiles or small pieces of decor.
Keep It Open: “Arrange furniture to allow for open and airy spaces,” Hoyos advises. “You can also integrate minimalistic shelving and storage options that allow for clean looking spaces.”
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