Why Is Everyone Obsessed With Mid-Century Modern Design?

Oct 29, 2019

Iconic images of Mid-Century modern you may recognise from Mad Men or old magazines: leather cushions snug in a wooden frame, rattan bedheads, drink cabinets hidden in a teak bookcase, all against big windows and timber details. Or Featherston chairs, like the ones picked up by Head of Interior Decoration Jenni Woods’ student 10 years ago.

“I remember in the early days when I was teaching, I had this student who said, ‘Oh, I just picked up some Featherston chairs off the side of the road.’ She had got herself an amazing bargain.”

Now, these images are everywhere— Pinterest, Instagram, and filling up the front page of online marketplaces. Mid-Century modern (MCM) has been building momentum alongside minimalism since the dawn of the 2000s, but its presence is undeniably loud right now. Why?

MID-CENTURY MODERN AT FIRST

Alistair McLean from Secret Design Studio, a Mid-Century focused building and interior design consultancy, says when MCM arose, it was a very democratic time period.

“During the war, a lot of builders were fighting as soldiers overseas, and it was a matter of survival rather than planning for the future. Coming out of the war, there was a shortage of building materials, but we had a lot of labour and a lot of people that needed new houses.”

Companies like AV Jennings built thousands of brick post-war homes across Victoria with generally no architect involvement. The result was a conservative and one-size-fits-all vision of family living — until Mid-Century modern entered the picture.“It was a way to give the population small homes that were elegant, well-designed, compact, and cost-effective, which is something that we don’t have today,” Alistair says.One champion of this design democracy was Australian architect Robin Boyd, who started the Small Homes Service in 1947, selling hand-drawn floor plans of modern homes to the public. Each would cost only four dollars in today’s money.

Alistair X Boyd-1LEFT TO RIGHT: Robin Boyd's House of Tomorrow (Source: National Library of Australia), Alistair McLean (Source: Secret Design Studio)


Inside, MCM homes were “pared back and understated”, avoiding clutter and embracing clean, light environments. Following Modernist principles, Alistair says there was never any applied decoration that wasn’t necessary to the home’s form and function.

“They tend to be fairly simple and honest spaces, expressing honesty in materials and lighting.”

THE NEW CLASSIC

Jenni and Alistair both claim it’s this simplicity and minimalism driving most of MCM’s popularity, elevating it to become the new classic. While traditional Modernism verged on clinical, MCM furniture tends to have a comforting and timeless warmth.

“You don’t need to be highly educated to understand the beautiful lines of Mid-Century furniture,” Alistair points out.

Take Eero Saarinen’s womb chair, Jenni mentions, one of the most recognisable pieces of the Mid-Century era. It’s the type of chair, lined with soft cushion, you can imagine reading a book in. Funnily enough, it was Florence Knoll, another Mid-Century design pioneer, who asked Saarinen for exactly that; a chair that was like “a basket full of pillows” and something she “could curl up in”.

“It’s the actual elegance of the forms and that ergonomic appeal of the furniture itself. It's so liveable: you can basically put it into any space and it will work,” Jenni says.

Jenni x womb chair
LEFT TO RIGHT: Head of Interior Decoration Jenni Woods, Eero Saarinen's Womb Chair (Source: Bukowskis).


But these silhouettes couldn’t have been possible without the refined workmanship available at the time, which is valuable in the age of flatpack furniture and explains why more people are hunting originals. 

“It has those natural elements: timber, leather, and high quality fabric upholsteries that were often in subtle colours that you can put just about anywhere,” Jenni suggests. "There’s a durability that often real ‘60s furniture, with a lot of plastic coming in, just doesn't have.”

OPEN PLAN LIVING

If you live inner-city, or even in one of the many apartments popping up across Victoria, Mid-Century modern also comes in handy: a core facet of the style was using design to create an open, free-flowing space and make rooms seem larger than they were.

Alistair mentions that whenever he walks into one of Robin Boyd’s famous Small Homes Service houses, his jaw drops because of this. “It’s the generosity of light and the clever use of space. They’ve often got a very small footprint, but the way they arrange the space means that they feel larger than individual rooms.”

Rose Seidler HouseRose Seidler House in Wahroonga (Source: Michael Wee Photography)

Designers knocked down barriers between living and kitchen or outside and inside, embracing a social way of living. Rather than have “one good room”, this openness encourages a flow of energy that mirrors the current popularity of open plan offices and homes. Jenni points out that the furniture fell in line with these values too, especially the chairs being made “specifically to be seen through”.

“They would have a skeletal frame and wouldn’t be huge in scale, so that it appeared light in the space and physically light,” Jenni says.

Skinny legs and slim forms on every table, chair, and sofa means that light is unobstructed, easily travelling through furniture and filling up a cramped room instead of blocking it — perfect for a trendy tiny house.

STAY CLOSE TO NATURE

Of course, all that hasty post-war construction wasn’t great for the environment. But Mid-Century modern had an active respect for the natural world, making it an attractive choice for this sustainable-focused generation. Modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright (who influenced many MCM designers) would even encourage his students to “study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” For most outdoors-loving Australians, this ideology resonated strongly.

“These homes were completely different in that they worked better with the Australian climate and our indoor/outdoor lifestyle that these houses didn’t have previously,” Alistair adds.

Glass connected the interior to gardens and landscapes, and windows would look into courtyards. Furniture leaned towards anthropomorphism as well, such as Arne Jacobsen’s dining chairs that resemble butterflies, swans, and eggs. Most of all, materials were sturdy and craftsman-made; a contrast to today’s mass-produced furniture or McMansions that always need repairing.


heide X arne-1
LEFT TO RIGHT: Heide II House in Bulleen (Source: Christine Francis), Arne Jacobsen's Grand Prix award-winning dining chairs (Source: Vampt Vintage Design)


“McMansion-ism has no respect for the environment, and people are just shoving huge air conditioners on their roofs,” Jenni says.

What’s most similar, however, is that same post-war desire to reconnect with nature mirrored in our current, climate change-facing population. And as we scramble towards an eco-friendly future, MCM is becoming particularly relevant to our plight.

“One of Australia’s biggest challenges is to build sustainable housing that's beautiful and natural, and I think that's where Mid-Century can actually be a real inspiration.”

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