The above photograph from a 1961 Playboy Magazine article features only a several of the masters of the mid-century modern design, a movement whose practitioners had a large and significant impact on design and décor from the mid 20th century to the present.
This seemingly plain style has a remarkable allure; it’s clean, simple, and functional, and for many it’s a bit nostalgic. Mid-Century Modern, or MCM, is essentially a design style that encompasses interior and furniture design, modernist architecture and industrial design. It is most often associated with the 1950′s although it spanned several decades. It was largely influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles of nature, simplicity, and organic form combined with industrial advances in materials and construction and elements from both the Bauhaus aesthetic and Industrial movements. Function and form had equal weight in design and there was an emphasis on fulfilling the new needs of the average American and European households.
When talking about Mid-Century Modern its important to mention that there was an American Style and a Scandinavian Style. The Scandinavian aesthetic took the clean lines of modernism and paired them with softer, more traditional properties of wood and innovations in fabrics resulting in what was a familiar and comfortable alethic. These innovative pieces introduced the use of new color combinations such as bright red and gold, blue and green, Scandinavian harvest gold and avocado green and also soft pastels of pink, light yellow, sky blue and turquoise. Black and white checkerboard floors and stark white or brightly colored walls were a popular backdrop to show off the new colors.
Finn Juhl was one of the most influential of all the Scandinavian furniture designers and is recognized for his sculptural forms. He was inspired by abstract paintings and African sculpture. We can see this influence extended to textile and rug makers such as Marta Maas Fjatterstorm. Juhl’s chieftain chair, a signature piece, would go well with so many of the mid-century vintage rugs, like this beautiful Scandinavian rug designed By Klockaregardens Hemslojd.
One of Denmark’s finest cabinetmakers, Hans Wegner, combined traditional craftsmanship with modern needs in order to create functional classics. This teak credenza is a beautiful example of Wegner’s expert craftsmanship.
The American interpretation of mid-century modern design put emphasis on producing furniture that was contemporary in design, yet highly durable, made with the latest technology and affordable all at the same time. American cabinet designers followed the tenents of form follows function, but created a form less austere than the Scandinavian’s.
Frank Lloyd Wright is considered the father of American modernist architecture. Following the earlier Bauhaus aesthetic, he believed form and function should be balanced, however his use of curves and his love of wood reflect his known aversion toward the more rigid and impersonal design of the German Bauhaus design. Wright felt that good design could connect people to their surroundings, especially to nature. His organic designs blended into their landscapes — natural or urban — and would greatly impact generations to come.
Charles and Ray Eames helped shape post war America with their pioneering contributions to architecture, industrial design, and popular culture. Together they expressed the modernist aim of combining industry and art for social good. With a common potato chip as their inspiration they devised a unique chair design: a separate back and seat both made from gently curving plywood. This ergonomically comfortable piece was designated the “LCW”, or Lounge Chair Wood. The furniture manufacturer Herman Miller put it into production immediately and it was a hit and remains an iconic symbol of Mid-Century Modern.
George Nelson was an industrial designer and served as director of Herman Miller. This furniture company commissioned works by leading designers of the period like Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Issmu Naguchi. Nelson first caught the eye of the founder of Herman Miller with his creation of the Storagewall, the first modular storage system.
Eero Saarinen was a Finnish-American architect and designer. In 1932 he was appointed director of Cranbrook Academy of Art, considered to be the “cradle of American Mondenism. His most recognized furniture designs, like the aptly named Tulip and Womb chairs, were carried by Knoll, applied sculptural curves that hugged the body. These chairs were introduced by Knoll Company and are still available today. Saarinen’s studio also designed important architectural works, most notably the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the former TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Other designers like Vladimir Kagan, Paul McCobb, George Nakashima, and many more all deserve honorable mentions, there are so many remarkable designers of the era that there just simply isn’t room to list them all.
For a great read and update about Vladimir Kagan, check out this article by young interior designer Sarah Baynes.
But it doesn’t stop there and it just wasn’t the furniture and industrial designers that have had a lasting affect on MCM. Textile and carpet makers from this era are just as important and were influenced by the new adventurous modern art, scientific discoveries of the era, and many of the same things that influenced furniture designers. Furniture designs and textile motifs were coordinated with the parallel lines and grid patterns of the architecture and the interior décor required careful laying of colors, textures, patterns, and soft furnishings to prevent a sterile look. The motifs and designs of these rugs reflected key elements of the movement. This is where the mid-century modern rugs come into play and Scandinavian designers were influential in the textile and rug design and produced carpets that are highly sought after today.
Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter and an art theorist and although he was a precursor to the mid-century modern movement, later textile and carpet weavers were influenced by his abstract creations. This extraordinary modernist / Bauhaus French flat weave above taken from Wassily Kandinsky’s watercolor “Horizontales,” is a masterpiece of Abstract Expressionism and a precursor to what will be seen during the mid-century modern period.
Marta Maas Fjatterstorm is one of the most well known and prolific of the Swedish rug creators. Her carpets designs include clean lines, bold colors, and have heavy tribal influences. Her use of bold color, abstract forms, and pattern offset the simple lines of the furniture that surrounded these pieces.
The rug above, designed and woven by Marta Maas Fjatterstorm circa 1950, and this vivid flat woven Scandinavian carpet tapestry embodies the uninhibited spirit of abstract impressionism and expressionism. Kandinsky’s influence is clearly seen here in her work.
With coffered squares decorated with crenellated lozenges and stripe details embellish the low-chroma field of Marta Maas-Fjetterstrom‘s Swedish rug . The rug mimics the clean and simple lines of mid-century aesthetic and both these rugs go fantastically with the Eames Lounge Chair.
This Vintage Swedish Rug below, with warm earth-tone colors, features a carefully composed pattern consisting of layered geometric motifs and would have been a perfect match with the Wegner “ Papa Bear Chair” and Japanese American Designer George Nakashima’s for Widdicomb Occasional Table.
This delightful rug features the joyfully symbolic, beautifully colored, innocent and playful designs of the renowned Dutch artist Corneille. The set of Eero Saarien’s Tulip Chairs looks great with the bold colors in the carpet, as does Vladimr Kagan’s Serpentine sofa.
Rendered in a retro pairing of woody brown and citrine, the Scandinavian vintage Rya rug below features a clustered abstract composition embellished with geometric runes. These George Nakashima English oak burl wood nesting table, and this Ico Parisi Teak Cabinet seemed to made for this bold carpet.
These innovative designer’s original designs and creations were coveted and copied around the world then and now. MCM still inspires so much of our current décor aesthetics.