Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (2024)

Home / Design

By Samantha Pires on January 16, 2021

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (1)

Mid-Century Modern is a term often used to describe the aesthetic of new products, particularly furniture. But using it that way is a misnomer. The term refers to a “golden age” of architecture and design; a generous timeline places Mid-Century Modernism from 1933 to 1965 or even beyond, but purists say it only lasted the ten-year period post World War II from 1947-1957. It can be summarized by the phrase “form follows function,” generally lacking ornamentation and solving design problems in minimal and clean, simple modes.

Mid-Century Modernism is a style that isn't easily defined. One of the many reasons for this is because the works conceptually overlap other styles of the time. It is often viewed as the American response to European, South American, and other global types of modernism like the International Style or Bauhaus movements. Its post-war timeline was an important factor in the design typology of Mid-Century Modernism as designers were racing to house and modernize American suburbs.

The names and design examples on this list of graphic design works, furniture, industrial design pieces, and architecture are by no means exhaustive. Many familiar with Mid-Century Modernism may even believe that some of the below works do not fit the “criteria” of the style and may instead fit better as International or Bauhaus style works of architecture or design.

Read on see how Mid-Century Modern made its way into the fabric of all types of design.

Mid-Century Modern Graphic Design

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (2)

Rudolph de Harak, “Personality and Psychotherapy Paperback” for McGraw Hill (Photo: AIGA)

Graphic design may be the most difficult form of Mid-Century Modernism to define. How do the qualities and ideals of buildings and structure translate to a work of art?

The Bauhaus had the largest influence on graphic design. Lessons in minimalism and typography carried over when the New Bauhaus School of Design was established in the early 1940s. Design everywhere was also abandoning decoration or any unnecessary lines or patterns. The resulting work is typically abstracted or simplified forms that no longer tried to achieve realism. The design process was an iteratively subtractive method where work became “purer” and simpler as it improved, instead of more detailed or busier.

Flat graphics and Minimal Color

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (3)

Josef Albers, Painting (Photo: Josef & Anni Albers Foundation)

If you tried to imagine what minimal graphic design would look like, this is probably the most obvious characteristic. Images are “flattened” into 2D compositions. A small range of colors are used to demonstrate only the most critical variation in shadow or changes in material. Every new shape or color is only added if it serves an important purpose, sometimes to contrast another or sometimes to add a new relevant layer of information.

Simplified or Abstracted Shapes

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (4)

Joao da Camara Leme, “The Last of the Mohicans” Posters (Photo: Envato)

Instead of intricate posters or logos, many Mid-Century Modern graphic works broke down images into shapes or abstractions of the original image. For example, Joao de Camara Leme's poster for The Last of the Mohicans featured a man in a horse who is simplified into dynamic triangles and rectangles. While slight curves are still used, large areas of detail are simplified into recognizable geometries. For example, the horse's body is simplified into a rectangle, the eagle is a pyramid with slices cut out to signify wings, and the feathers on the man's hat are ovals rotated along the black shape of the headpiece. Though much detail is lost, the image remains clearly understood in an elegant composition.

Clear and Prominent Typography

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (5)

Paul Rand, Assorted Logos (Photo: paulrand.design)

With a style so influenced by the Bauhaus, typography is sure to be an important component. Many designers were also influenced by the Swiss International Typographic Style which resulted in simple sans serif text with neat organization. Much of these influences can be seen in certain lowercase sans serif logos for companies that still exist today like ABC.

Those designers whose style were closer to Bauhaus ideals tended to have more unique typefaces that played with shapes and unique serif styles. In this style, the text could begin to take some of the characteristics of the works they were describing and even paint mini pictures within titles. This is a further example of the subtractive process that tried to fit information into a minimal design move.

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (6)

Saul Bass, Anatomy of a Murder Poster (Photo: The Saul Bass Archive)

Furniture

Industrial design products, including furniture, had a similar design logic to the architecture of the time.Designers tried to create pieces best suited to a new adapting post-war world. It may be best summarized by Cara GreenberginMid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s which explains, “multipurpose became a catchphrase… This new furniture stacked, folded and bent; it was rearrangeable and interchangeable; it nested and flexed. Chairs were designed to be pressed into service for a dozen different reasons. Tables were nonspecific, for eating, writing, or playing cards.”

Though difficult to separate from the qualities of Mid-Century Modern architecture, furniture and other products of the time were designed with a similar minimalistic ideology. For many, design was not necessarily about creating a piece of art, it was about solving a problem in the best way and doing so elegantly and honestly. Here are some general characteristics of the furniture of this time.

Lack of Ornamentation, Minimal Pieces

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (7)

Eames, Eames Shell Chair (Photo: Artsy)

As is always a part of minimalism, these pieces all lack unnecessary decoration. In fact, many pieces even begin to eliminate or minimize existing layers or pieces of a traditional piece of furniture. For example, many chairs are simplified from a seat and a back into one continuous surface that serves as both (think the Eames shell chair). Still, others minimize structural elements so that the piece appears to float, creating a hierarchy between different pieces of the product.

“Pure” or Honest Materials

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (8)

Hans Wegner, CH07 Shell Chair (Photo: Danish Design Store)

With simplicity in execution also came a simplicity in materials. Wood became a popular choice in part from the Scandinavian furniture influence popular in Mid-Century Modernism. It was also popular because it was a natural material. Finishes were also natural and helped tie together spaces that were designed to reflect and connect to nature.

Bold Form or Shapes

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (9)

Arne Jacobson, Egg Chair and Ottoman (Photo: Hive Modern)

As demonstrated by the Eames' iconic Shell Chair of Arne Jacobson's Egg Chair, bold or unusual shapes were common for Mid-Century Modern furniture. This may be the case because designers were attempting to rethink each piece and redefine the necessary pieces that make up a chair, a table, or any other design problem. This resulted in a shape that does not quite look like a “normal” chair or table.

Focus on Function

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (10)

Pual Evans, Evans Table (Photo: 1st Dibs)

Though form was important, designers would not sacrifice the quality or function of the piece for a gimmicky form or shape. These pieces were designed to be flexible and adaptable. They often fit into each other or folded for easy storage. These were examples of the popular design adage, “form follows function.”

More Examples of Mid-Century Modern Furniture

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (11)

Eero Saarinen, Tulip Chair (Photo: steelform)

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (12)

Florence Knoll, Knoll Club Lounge Chair (Photo: Modern Hill Furniture)

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (13)

Irving Harper, Marshmallow Sofa (Photo: Herman Miller)

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (14)

Marcel Breuer, Wassily Chair (Photo: Eternity Modern)

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (15)

Noguchi Table (Photo: Herman Miller)

Architecture

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (16)

Mid-Century Modern architecture is probably the easiest category of the design movement to define. Architects were inspired to reimagine the way we live after the horrors of WWII. Ideas were quickly spreading and being shared; designers were trying to define the perfect way to solve problems, create a new and exciting way to appreciate space, and to give everyone access to good design.

The resulting formula made for living spaces that are still popular today and many of the ideals like transparency, openness, and a connection to nature are still considered pillars of good residential architecture. However, Mid-Century Modernism was not just for the post-war American suburb. It had an effect on public buildings, infrastructure, and so much more. It still inspires architects today as we define our brand of “modern” buildings. You may recognize some of the following qualities as things you still see today.

Transparency and Openness

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (17)

The Eames Foundation, previously the residence of Charles and Ray Eames (Photo: Stock Photos from Stephanie Braconnier/Shutterstock)

Large horizontal windows are a pillar of Mid-Century Modern design. They were often used in the main living space and further reinforced the other important characteristic of the style: a connection to nature and the outdoors. Since these designs often had little ornamentation, light played a key role in how the space was experienced. The contrast between solid and void or heavy and light demonstrated in the opaque versus the transparent pieces of the façade has also become an iconic characteristic of the style.

Flat Roof

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (18)

Richard Neutra, Lovell House (Photo: Michael J. Locke/WikipediaCommons)

Flat roofs are one example of how important clean lines were in this design style. Since spaces were considered individual and often boxy volumes, the roof was typically a flat plane that simply closed off an interior volume. Though not all projects used flat roofs, they were very common and tended to reinforce the horizontality present through the large windows and the vertically shifted horizontal boxes that composed some Mid-Century Modern buildings.

Natural Colors and Textures

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (19)

Eero Saarinen, MIT Chapel (Photo: MIT)

As is obvious from much of the furniture of the time, this design style used natural or pure materials. This is partially an extension of minimalism and partially inspired by Scandinavian furniture that helped define these interiors. Bringing nature indoors was also an important idea in this style since designers hoped to encourage the users of the spaces to spend more time in nature.

Shifting Levels

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (20)
Though not accessible to everyone with mobility issues, homes were designed as a series of shifting volumes sometimes separated vertically. Small elevation changes were accommodated by a few steps between rooms or between entire portions of the home. These did not constitute entirely new levels but added complexity and layering to the separation of different rooms.

Integration into Nature

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (21)

This point is often closely connected to the idea of transparency. Rooms were integrated into nature by preserving views of the outside world and orienting the room towards this direction. Living spaces were often designed to encourage users to go outside and to appreciate the natural world in order to lead a healthier life.

More Examples of Mid-Century Modern Architecture

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (22)

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (23)

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (24)

Alvar Aalto, University of Technology (Photo: Aalto University)

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (25)

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (26)

Related Articles:

Bauhaus: How the Avant-Garde Movement Transformed Modern Art

11 Architectural Styles That Define Western Society

How Impressionism Changed the Art World and Continues to Inspire Us Today

Iconic Modernist Buildings Reimagined Inside Idyllic Thomas Kinkade Paintings

Become a
My Modern Met Member

As a member, you'll join us in our effort to support the arts.

Become a Member
Explore member benefits

Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts

Mid-Century Modernism: A Brief Overview

Mid-Century Modernism refers to a "golden age" of architecture and design, with a generous timeline spanning from 1933 to 1965 or even beyond, although purists argue that it only lasted the ten-year period post-World War II from 1947-1957. This design movement is characterized by the phrase "form follows function," emphasizing minimalism, lack of ornamentation, and problem-solving in clean, simple modes. It is often viewed as the American response to European, South American, and other global types of modernism like the International Style or Bauhaus movements. Mid-Century Modernism had a significant impact on various design disciplines, including graphic design, furniture, industrial design, and architecture.

Mid-Century Modern Graphic Design

Graphic design during the Mid-Century Modernism era was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus movement, emphasizing minimalism and typography. The resulting works typically featured flattened 2D compositions, a small range of colors, and simplified or abstracted shapes. Typography played a crucial role, with a focus on simple sans serif text and unique typefaces that played with shapes and serif styles.

Mid-Century Modern Furniture

Mid-Century Modern furniture was designed with a minimalistic ideology, focusing on solving problems in the best way and doing so elegantly and honestly. Characteristics of this furniture included a lack of ornamentation, the use of "pure" or honest materials such as wood, bold or unusual shapes, and a strong focus on function.

Mid-Century Modern Architecture

Mid-Century Modern architecture aimed to reimagine living spaces after World War II, emphasizing transparency, openness, flat roofs, natural colors and textures, shifting levels, and integration into nature. Large horizontal windows, flat roofs, natural materials, and an integration with nature were key features of this architectural style.

This brief overview provides a glimpse into the diverse and influential aspects of Mid-Century Modernism across various design disciplines, showcasing its enduring impact on the world of design.

Mid-Century Modern: How the Post-War Movement Transformed Design (2024)

FAQs

How did design change during the post-war period? ›

New materials and technologies, many of which had been developed during wartime, helped to free design from tradition, allowing for increasingly abstract and sculptural aesthetics as well as lower prices for mass-produced objects. The most marked changes occurred in America, Italy, Scandinavia, and Japan.

How was mid-century modern design affected by World War II? ›

After World War II, there was a surge in the construction of affordable housing and the need for functional, accessible furniture and design solutions. Mid-Century Modern style embraced the optimism and innovation of the post-war era, and its influence quickly spread across the globe.

What design movement had a big influence on mid-century modern design? ›

The Bauhaus movement was an important stepping stone leading to the midcentury-modern period, as was MoMA's 1932 International Style exhibition.

Who was known for mid-century modern design? ›

Eero Saarinen was a Finnish-American architect and designer known for his distinctive contributions to Mid-Century Modern Design. He was the son of renowned architect Eliel Saarinen.

What did post modernism bring to design? ›

One of the characteristics of postmodernist design is to emphasize the texture of materials. This design style likes to use natural materials, such as wood, stone, metal, etc., as well as modern materials, such as glass, steel, etc. Through the combination of these materials, create A unique artistic effect.

What is post-war design? ›

Increasingly abstract and sculptural aesthetics combined with a lower price for mass-produced objects defined a post-war era of design. This modernist movement emphasized functionality above all — minimalism respectful of post-war rationing and new beginnings.

What design style came after mid-century modern? ›

Postmodern design, on the other hand, emerged in the late 1970s as a reaction to the minimalist aesthetic of mid-century modern design.

What is mid-century modern design? ›

"Midcentury modern design is rooted in functionality, clean lines, and simplicity, which reflected the world at that time," designer Amanda Thompson explains. "Homes were more linear, focused on maintaining a nuclear family unit and as such, the furniture design echoed this environment."

Why is mid-century modern design so popular? ›

Midcentury pieces are simply well-designed objects, with a timeless look, says Sotheby's Holdeman. "[Midcentury modern designs] sit very well in contemporary homes and interiors—they still feel fresh today, they still feel modern. A lot of those pieces haven't been bettered. They still stand the test of time."

What influenced mid century modern style? ›

Mid-century modern home decor originated in America in the twentieth century. It was heavily influenced by the German Bauhaus design and architecture school of the early twentieth century, which emphasized clean lines, functionality, and a futuristic look.

What influenced mid century modern interior design? ›

Mid-century design was influenced by the sense that a new beginning was dawning while it was also inspired by pop culture and Hollywood productions. The result was interiors that embraced technology but still felt cosy and welcoming. Furniture and decorative objects assumed soft, round shapes .

When was mid century modern design popular? ›

MC: The mid-century modern design aesthetic is considered one of the classics. Popular from the 1930s through the 1960s, it has timeless appeal and is instantly recognizable with its contemporary – almost futuristic – characteristics.

What was the ideal of the mid-century modernist movement? ›

Although the designs of the mid-century era were wide-ranging in style, they often shared such characteristics as clean lines, organic shapes, and functionality. In the United States, designers adopted the improved technologies and materials coming out of World War II.

Who is the father of mid-century design? ›

One of the founding fathers of American modernism, George Nelson was part of a generation of architects who revolutionised product, graphic and interior design, transforming everyday objects into works of art.

What is mid-century design look like? ›

Midcentury modern style (also referred to as midmod and MCM) flourished during the mid-20th century when newly affluent post-War families began expanding into America's suburbs. “Midcentury homes are characterized by minimal fuss and ornamentation, along with sleek lines juxtaposed by organic shapes.

How did architecture change after the war? ›

Modernist architecture was the dominant architectural style after World War II. It was based on new construction techniques, especially the adoption of glass, steel, and reinforced concrete (“After World War II,” n.d.).

What is one change that came from the post-war era? ›

Following World War II, the United States began an economic boom that brought unparalleled prosperity to a majority of its citizens and raised Americans expectations, breeding a belief that most economic and social problems could be solved.

What are the characteristics of post-war design? ›

Often characterised by the triple fronted brick veneer, houses are comfortable and designed for family living. Although more traditional than Modern houses, Post-war design is usually single storeyed with interconnected living rooms. Mass produced windows foster a greater use of glass.

How did design change after the Industrial Revolution? ›

Graphic design and production became distinct during the Industrial Revolution. The nature of visual information was dramatically altered and the range of typographic letterform styles and sizes exploded. Larger scale, greater visual impact, and new tactile and expressive characters were demanded (Meggs and Purvis).

References

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Saturnina Altenwerth DVM

Last Updated:

Views: 5910

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (44 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Saturnina Altenwerth DVM

Birthday: 1992-08-21

Address: Apt. 237 662 Haag Mills, East Verenaport, MO 57071-5493

Phone: +331850833384

Job: District Real-Estate Architect

Hobby: Skateboarding, Taxidermy, Air sports, Painting, Knife making, Letterboxing, Inline skating

Introduction: My name is Saturnina Altenwerth DVM, I am a witty, perfect, combative, beautiful, determined, fancy, determined person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.