Design trends come and go, but is mid-century modern forever? The minimalist movement that first swept through U.S. suburbs in the 1940s and ’50s has gone through so many streaks of popularity over the years that it’s beginning to feel like a design staple. The current craze, which has lasted nearly two decades, is so overwhelming that mid-century modern dominates nearly every corner of the retail market, from Craigslist to West Elm to Sotheby’s.
So what’s behind our mid-century modern obsession? And how does a look so rooted in a specific time period evolve to stay current?
For one, the style’s simple and low-to-the-ground silhouettes are a perfect match for the real estate shift away from McMansions and toward smaller urban spaces. People want open floor plans, less stuff and room to breathe. Mark Riddle, an associate at Room & Board on 14th Street NW, says the style also has unusually wide appeal. Transient 20-somethings appreciate the light materials, slender frames and casual attitude, and older shoppers are drawn to its history and nostalgia. Anyone can appreciate its flexibility.
“Mid-century-modern-inspired pieces are versatile, so you can pepper them in without having to rethink the whole room,” he said. “And, especially these days, it’s not a look that needs to be implemented wall to wall, floor to ceiling. It should be mix-and-matched.”
Jessica Sutton, the lead curator for Dot & Bo, an online furniture company based in San Francisco that caters to millennial shoppers, says it took her a while to warm up to the look. She thought the furniture appeared uncomfortable (a common perception) and that the era’s signature colors — avocado greens, burnt umbers, mustard yellows — could make a room look dated or overly styled if they were employed too heavily.
“For years, I could not understand the obsession with mid-century modern,” she said. “Did people really want their homes to look like the set of ‘Mad Men’?”
Eventually, though, she found that she identified with the style’s less-is-more philosophy and began experimenting with accent pieces. As more products with a neutral, nuanced approach to mid-century style hit the market, she began to see the look in a modern context. When she moved to a different apartment earlier this year, she did what most of Dot & Bo’s customers do and opted for a few mid-century-modern-inspired pieces, her own accessories, and a palette of black, white and gray.
“For me, it was all about the silhouettes,” she said, referencing the low credenzas, arching floor lamps and heavy dressers elegantly lifted off the floor on skinny, quirky legs. “If you’re reluctant, go easy on the retro nostalgia. Skip the shag rug. At the end of the day, your home should feel like you.”
Indeed, just a couple of mid-century pieces can powerfully affect a room, so it’s good to start small. Mainstream retailers often use iconic pieces as inspiration, with modifications to fit today’s market for a fraction of the cost of an antique. CB2’s Sidera Chair ($249, cb2.com) is based on Harry Bertoia’s iconic Diamond chair from 1952. The Sabine Sofa ($2,299-$2,499, roomandboard.com), a longtime bestseller, is based on a geometric leather sofa designed by Florence Knoll in 1954.
If you’re not ready to swap out entire furniture pieces, consider lighting. The era was known for space-age sputnik chandeliers and artichoke lights (Dot & Bo sells imitations), but for something tamer, try placing an arching metal floor lamp, such as the Basque Steel and Brushed Nickel Arc Floor Lamp ($270, lampsplus.com), in the living room over a low sofa.
The movement’s guiding principles — that furniture should be simple, informal, functional and fuss-free — are still intact. It also made elegant, smartly designed pieces available to average American families, a major retail shift that really gained momentum in the 1990s.
Thrift stores also can yield exciting results. Along with occasional hidden treasures, many store owners have carpenters on call to whip up custom pieces at a customer’s request. After months of searching for a long wooden credenza for my entryway, a couple of thrift stores offered to make me one similar to some of their current offerings. I finally bought one from House Candy L.A. for $400 with exactly the specifications I wanted.
Even though many major brands use iconic designs as inspiration, it’s not unusual to see outright copies, which are a major source of frustration in an industry that offers little protection for furniture designers. Of course, for consumers, it can be tough to argue against interpretations that cost thousands of dollars less than the real thing.
“It’s important to experiment with budget-friendly stuff while you figure out what you like,” said Henry Johnson, a principal with Johnson Berman Architectural & Interior Design in Baltimore. “If the shoe fits, it can be a lifelong hobby.”
Johnson has spent the past 20 years helping two die-hard collectors find vintage pieces for their 1954 home in Roland Park. It has accent walls painted in burnt orange and bright navy, glass panels to bring the outdoors in (a trademark of 1950s architecture) and furniture from the late modernist architect George Nakashima, who was widely considered a master of mid-century modern woodwork.
Johnson, who has been an architect since 1976, says few styles have mid-century modern’s lasting power. He shuts down the idea that it’s another fad.
“It’s so much bigger than that,” he says. “That’s why it always comes back and it always gets better.”