Flickr Widget

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Defining "mid-century"

Jonathan Goldstein of Planner, Perimeter, Predictor, Paul McCobb (an expert on the design of McCobb, by the way) left a comment on the post about plinths and asked, to some extent playing the devil's advocate but nonetheless legitimately, "What is the definition of 'mid-century'?" I typed a quick (and somewhat half-baked) response, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the topic didn't need to be buried in the Comments section of an old post. I want to know what mid-century means to the rest of you. Here is the bulk of my response to Jonathan, along with some later thoughts/clarifications.

Great question, Jonathan. If you and I could answer that one today, we'd be famous, since so many before us have tried and failed to agree.

When I first became interested years ago, I thought mid-century meant 1950s and googie...hard to believe I was ever that green...but I daresay many of those "50 people on the street" (referencing the original post about plinths) might have just as narrow a view of the style as I did.

Today I tend to think of mid-century more in terms of a rejection of the superfluous ornamentation of "period" furniture in favor of clean lines, functionality and affordability...and a belief that less could definitely be more*. But then that would leave out Paul Evans, whom I consider a mid-century designer because of his work with Phillip Lloyd Powell, which is why I often include photos of his [highly ornamented] work done in the 70s. If I had to be pinned down on a time frame, I'd say 1930s through the mid-60s, but, on the front end, that leaves out [iconic] pieces like the Wassily and Basculant chairs [which were designed in the 1920s]. But, but, but. See I can't even agree with myself on a definition, and I'm starting to sound a lot like [Supreme Court] Justice Potter "I Know It When I See It" Stewart [in his famous opinion about pornography]. It's true though...mid-century to me is more about a feeling/mindset than a set of parameters, as obvious and lame a cop-out as that is. :)

I've effectively managed to erase the phrase "mid-century" from my vocabulary and substitute "modernist" or "vintage modern." That derives from the fact that I simply don't have the heart to leave out some of the work of designers like Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Russel Wright. I guess that's not unheard of, since Cara Greenberg, who is given credit for coining the phrase "mid-century modern" in her book Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, included photos of designs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

My ending date for "mid-century" comes from memories of when styles in both clothing and furniture shifted to the "mod" designs of the late-60s/early 70s, roughly from the time I graduated high school in 1966 till I finished college in 1970, a time that marked a huge social shift as well...and my own purchase in the early 70s of some of the Mediterranean-style furniture Jonathan mentioned. There are many pieces of furniture from the early 1960s (some Risom, Platner and Wegner pieces, for example) that I simply can't imagine putting into any category other than mid-century.

So now I'd like to hear how you define mid-century. It doesn't have to be long or involved (and my response proves it doesn't have to be brilliant or definitive either). Jonathan and I don't have definitions that are perfectly aligned, and you're free to disagree with both of us. We're not thin-skinned. :) Just shoot from the hip and tell me what it means to you. While you're thinking, I'll show you some of the photos I'd show a to a mid-century novice if I could do a "pictorial definition."

The Lake Shore Drive Apartments by Mies van der Rohe, 1948-1951
photographed by Michael Wolf, from The Transparent City

Le Corbusier's Basculant chair, 1928

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe, 1929

Paimio chair by Alvar Aalto, 1930

Eames LMC, 1946

Hans Wegmer's Papa Bear chair, 1951

Jens Risom sofa, 1950s

Paul McCobb Planner Group desk, 1950s

Calyx by Lucienne Day, 1951

Warren Platner lounge chair, 1966

George Nelson slat bench, 1946

Arne Jacobsen Ant chair, 1952

Lamps by Gerald Thurston for Lightolier, 1950s

Finn Juhl Poet sofa, 1941

Womb chair by Eero Saarinen, 1946

Eames lounge chair and ottoman, 1956

Coffee table by Isamu Noguchi, 1945

George Nelson spindle clock, 1957

Poul Henningsen PH5 light, 1958

Edward Wormley for Dunbar

Harry Bertoia Diamond chairs, 1952

Russel Wright Iroquois Casual carafe, 1946

*"Less is more," while often attributed to Mies van der Rohe or Walter Gropius, is from the poem "Andrea del Sarto" by Robert Browning. The English teacher in me just had to clear that up. :)


  1. The prevalence of mid-century modern right now hides the fact that the fiftes were also really about colonial and traditional styles. Far more houses held those styles, but it's the modern ones that capture our interest. So Mid-century modern is an emphasis on the modern.

    I say that mid-century modern comes after world war II. There were modern designs before then, and they were still in vogue, but I wouldn't call them of the era. One article I've read discussing the Womb Chair as a response to the cold war: that in a state of fear an paranoia, you needed something to curl up in to feel safe. So I'm putting WWII as the beginning for mid-century modern.

    The end date is a little fuzzier. I wouldn't put it any later than 1976. With some certainty, I'd set it at roughly 1966, but that's a guesstimate.

    I hesitate to include any pieces that are plastic-based as mid century modern. For me, it's been about simplicity and purity of line and form, but just as strongly about celebrating natural materials like fabrics, leather, wood and metal.

    One of the movements that, to me anyways, is decidedly not midcentury modern, but also reflects a shift away from midcentury modern is pop art. At the point when you get Warhol's soup cans which keep the purity of clean lines and no ornamentation but which translate the colors into something far from the original, that's a point when you move away from midcentury modern. Wood should be wood and shouldn't be something it's not. The other example that comes to mind is Aicher's posters for the 72 olympics. Again, very distinct in form, but the colors have been translated into something far removed from the original. Now, I'm not sure if art or graphic design can be lumped into furniture, but there's a definite linkage between the two.

    The fact that I'm able to string together words into something vaguely resembling a coherent argument amazes me at this hour.

  2. @Nick Klaus: I think you make some very good points. I was just coming to adulthood in the mid-to-late 60s, and I remember decorating my first apartment with Peter Max "cosmic art." What we generally all agree is "mid-century" was considered out of vogue by then, so I think pop art is a good indicator of the shift. That's also about the time my parents, who were post-war newlyweds, got rid of the "modern" furniture they had bought to furnish their first home and replaced it with "Early American."

  3. I'm not sure that thinking mid century means 1950's and googie is in any way "green".

    I've debated this myself on my blog, and it's been MY opinion mid century stopped at the mid to late 60's. Why? Because the style changed in a significant enough way to make it something different. Colors and styles changed. There is a significant difference between most things made in the 1950's, and most things made past 1969.

    So this notion that mid century encompasses everything to the 3/4 century still seems odd to me. Perhaps the late 60's-70's needs it's own definition, but you can't convince me that harvest gold and avocado green is "mid-century". Or green kitchens with white lattice. Or the colors purple, red and bright pink. That's something ... Different. That's 70's style.

    Sure, if you want to be "loose and fast" with terms, no big deal. But just because no one defines the 70's as different, in MY opinion, doesn't mean it isn't. :)

    Just an opinion.

  4. @1950sarh: I think the color change is very significant too. My daughter defines a certain late-60s/70s look in harvest gold and avocado green as "Greg Brady's pants" style, and I think there's something to that.

  5. Another couple of things that make me include the 30s...Russel Wright's American Modern lines and his "open stock" approach, rather than selling in suites, along with Gilbert Rohde's almost single-handed rescue Herman Miller from the brink of bankruptcy by designing simple, modern furniture to replace their period reproductions.

  6. lol sorry I didn't express myself well, it's early.

    I think the Viet Nam war had a lot to do with it, and the whole "free love" hippy movement. Breaking from the 50's conventional ways both socially, politically and design-wise.

    But there is overlap too, the same way Art Nouveau and Art Deco overlapped.

  7. @1950sarh: Yes, that's exactly the social shift I was talking about...and one of the reasons I include the early 60s. By the time I finished high school in the last half of the 60s and my husband came home from Viet Nam in 1968, much of my generation was moving away from the ideas and styles of our parents, which my Peter Max art symbolizes in my decorating history...clearly part of my hippie lifestyle.

  8. I'm loving this! These are exactly the kinds of comments I was hoping the post would get.

  9. this saturday's atlanta journal featured an article on Antique roadshows coming to our city, and they spoke about how people are not just Mad Men obessed, but also look at the late 1800 upto 1940 for inspirations, so I percieved that anything after the 40's until the hippy movement happend, were all mid century. Dana's inclusion of designer stuff from a time frame little earlier than that blurs a lot of things for Being a child of the 80's I have been exposed to lot of florescent and hypnotizing images in the name of art. Most important part of being able to understand design and its basic need to break away from the predecessor ideologies matter more than the time frame. So is it not more to do with the original design aesthetics rather than the time period which should matter. What came in as a first of its kind marks the beginning of a design era. End, I am not sure I am educated enough to comment.

  10. @Sudha:I think it's interesting that several of us are viewing the pop art or hippie era as signaling the end of mid-century.

  11. With all due respect to Cara Greenberg, I think a lot of debate could have been avoided if she had just called the style "20th Century Modern." :)

  12. Cara Greenberg is part of the problem, "Mid-Century Modern" was not the term at the time, it is something recently coined and not very clearly defined.

    Though the term "modern" was used early on in the marketing of what would ultimately become the American Contemporary movement it was very quickly abandoned, most likely due to it's connoting the earlier deco/modern movement.

    And I don't think that the term "20th Century Modern" would solve the issue either since then you would be lumping Deco and Modern (and possibly Arts and Crafts as well) in with Contemporary...

    There is no simple answer, we each have made our own estimations and that's OK.

    What I do find very interesting is that the youngsters amongst us have a very different view of the time frame.

    1. "Mid-century Modern" is not a recently coined term. It's at least over 60 years old. The John Stuart company offered a line of furniture called the "Mid-Century Modern" group in a 1952 catalog. They even used the abbreviation "MCM" in their description of the line. The usage of the term seems to have been uncommon in the day. Cara Greenberg certainly popularized it with her book of that name, but she is not the originator of the phrase.

  13. A lot has been said already but I tend to lean towards a descriptive rather than a prescriptive view of mid-century modern so that it isn't too dogmatic.

    One thread (among many!) that I identify with a lot, like Dana, is the more organic design perspective where utility lays down a bridge for design, which is not a diminishment of design in favor of function because the solution is precisely by way of the design. Like the work of the Eames couple, design, in the process, breaks old forms.

    While the time period is broad and debatable, I identify more with the era of the mid 50s to late 60s.

  14. All good points and cool topic...

    When I think about the terminology "mid-century modern," I go strait to architecture as the foundation and more permanent evidence of what was shaping design as a whole, and furniture and other objects as a companion to architecture.

    It seems that the formative years of modernism in the 20's and 30's, the international style, set the stage for what would happen after WWII. The pre war era of high modernism was very ridgid, clean, no ornamentation-very serious stuff. The post war on the other hand got much more organic and goofy-very daring and futuristic largly due to all the cool new materials and technology like the concrete shell.

    Then Brutalism came along in the 60's and the public declared they have had enough of modernism (along with plenty of other factors I'm sure)

    So to me there are clear differences in design after the war into the sixties that I think is safe to call "mid-century." That said, pre war modernism shaped what was possible after the war.

  15. Wow! Great comments here today.

    I don't think my generation puts a specific time frame on the term. I would argue it is the reason Cara coined the term as recent as the 80's and so many people accepted it. It may be a bit of misnomer to the purists, but that's ok. I'm a descriptive instead of prescriptive person like lo-tech.

    Pioneers would include Micheal Thonet playing with bentwood in the late 19th century and include Bauhaus in the early 20th century. Then the Scandinavian movement, Rhode and Russell Wright and on and on.

    Anytime I look at Risom Sofa or an Eames chair or a Baughman table it looks like something made in a time machine. Elements from the past and the future constructed in the mid 20th century. That's why it seems so nebulous and hard to pin down. Its tentacles reach as far back as the 19th century and as far foward as now, yet somehow those pieces still give you a glimpse of what's to come.

    That's why I love MCM. It's for dreamers!

    In my dream Mart Stam and Marcel Breuer are the closest of friends. In fact they live in the same house as a thousand other designers and still no-one really knows who came up with the idea of that funny looking clock on the wall. It doesn't matter. They did it together.

  16. BTW... No Wormley Pics? Really?

  17. @Phillip: I think looking at the subject from an architectural perspective is very beneficial, since many of the furniture designers considered themselves, foremost, as architects. In architecture as well as interior design, I do see a clearly defined pre-war period of early modernism, followed by a post-war heyday in the late 40s/50s/early 60s, and a rejection in favor of "anything different" by the late 60s.

  18. @joeegg007 (aka The SIL): Good points from you too, sir. Aren't you loving the comments today? With sincerest apologies to Ed, I'll post a photo right away. Any favorites?

    When I think I have all the major players represented, I realize I left someone else out. I didn't have anything by Noguchi either, and you know how I love him.

  19. I think a lot of us confuse Mid Century Modern with Vintage Modern. Mid Century Modern is a slightly finer distillation (time wise) of Vintage Modern. I don't consider pieces like the Wassily B3 chair to be Mid Century Modern. How could I? It's Early 20th Century Modern. It's just easier and more accurate to think "Vintage Modern" which covers all of it! I for one have tried to loose the use of "mid century" in favor of "vintage modern".

  20. @Mr.Modtomic: I agree that the biggest problem seems to be the labels that have been arbitrarily attached to the style. We all seem to recognize it, from the earliest forerunners to the latest incarnations. Like Climate Change, it got pinned with a name that causes confusion.

  21. I am often shocked to see things I'd call classically mid century in the advertising of magazines in the 40s through 70s (though I understand your including the 30s).

  22. Well, as a modern novice, I think I may be a bit out of my league here amongst all of you having years of experience with and actually having lived through, at least part of, the modernist movement and/or who are educated in architecture and design. Being a Gen X'er, I wanted to gag myself with a spoon in the '80s anytime I heard mention of the word modern. Images of black-lacquered headboards and side tables along with red chairs shaped like lips or hands would come to mind and I would hate on them with a purple passion. It was only a few years ago, while playing The Sims 2, no less, that I began seeing what contemporary modern had become and fell head-over-heels with all it entailed. I have, however, had a love for all the "retro" decor and furnishings my parents grew up with in the '50s and '60s since my late childhood. I just had no idea that those things fell under the guise of modern, much less MCM. Only since I began helping my parents with research for their estate sales have I really grown to appreciate and love the craftmanship of these vintage furshings and have become familar with names like Eames, Nelson, McCobb, Noguchi, etc.

    I do think it's like Joe said about those of us from his generation (Gen X, I'm guessing) who do not tend to think of the style in terms of a specific time period and I am one of those for whom Mr. Modtomic referred to as confusing, or rather equating, MCM to vintage modern. Items from the 20th century that were made before I was born in 1970 are what I tend to think of as MCM and I associate "mod" with late '60s early '70s design. I do not understand the reasoning behind (and maybe it's due to my lacking a formal education in the design field) so many in, and associated with, the profession attaching specific labels and time periods to pieces. Does the time period in which Eames created his lounger have to be given a title? Is it for identification purposes? I really am interested in knowing. I love to learn, especially when related to anything modern and this post has been very enlightening, as well as educational and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading everyone's responses.