Why the Obsession with Mid-Century Modernist Furniture?

Design trends come and go, but our obsession with mid-century modernism has been going strong for a good twenty years and shows no sign of letting up. It’s certainly been boosted by exposure in the media, especially on the TV show Mad Men, though it could also be argued that the iconic look contributed to Mad Men’s success.

Mid-century modernism (a label created in 1984 by Cara Greenberg) developed out of earlier phases of modernism such as the Bauhaus and flourished roughly from 1945-1965. While it’s applied to a wide range of fields, the term is associated most with furniture and interior design.

Major mid-century designers, such as Hans J Wegner and Charles and Ray Eames, emphasised functionality, clean lines, simple colour schemes and a light, uncluttered environment. Most, including the Eameses, experimented with new materials, such as fibreglass and plastic resin. Wood wasn’t forgotten, especially by Wegner, but was used in a clean, simple way.

From the later sixties, fashions in design moved on, often reinterpreting key mid-century values. During the nineties, however, interest in the period began to grow. After classic mid-century pieces started going at huge prices in auction, some of the original manufacturers (including Herman Miller, who were later to advise on design for Mad Men) reissued original designs, including some by the Eameses, and were joined by new entrants. These new pieces inevitably included cheap imitations, but also many excellent new additions to the style, and you can find a wide range of original and new Mid-Century Modernist Furniture at The Kairos Collective.

So why hasn’t this trend palled and given way to the next big thing, as conventional wisdom would have expected? Houzz.com explain the love behind the genre, ascribing it in part to the attraction of minimalism and simplicity in an overloaded world.

Jill Singer, founder of the American design magazine Sight Unseen, points out that “When this stuff was designed, it was specifically made to be democratic and to be lived with. It makes sense that it has a wide appeal.” Perhaps it also suits a world becoming more crowded — as Jim Brett, president of West Elm, puts it, “It’s intuitive to smaller spaces.”

It helps, too, that mid-century modernism covers so many different approaches, although they share the key ideals of the style. The Kairos Collective’s mid-century range, for instance, includes everything from the classic functional beauty of Wegner’s Armchair to the playfulness of the “Lips” Sofa. Designers can mix and match, either with the varying elements of mid-century or with other complementary styles, to create an interior that isn’t just a Mad Men lookalike.

As always, for some people mid-century is nothing but a fad, but for the discerning there’s a very good reason why it’s timeless. As Frances Merrill of Reath Design puts it, “As long as it is being applied because it works, rather than because it is trendy, it will retain its classic appeal.”

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