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What is Mid-Century Furniture?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2016
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Mid-century furniture is a term usually applied to a furniture style developed in the early 20th century but that was adapted and gained worldwide attention after World War II. Also referred to as modern furniture, the most celebrated of mid-century furniture styles was a simple design option known as Danish modern. While the popularity of this design waned considerably after the 1960’s, mid century modern furniture is still available today.

The origins of what would become known as mid-century furniture are found in the designs developed by Alavar Aalto and known generally as Scandinavian Modern. Using bleached plywood and other wood elements, Aalto created settees and chairs with relatively simple lines that were the opposite of the heavy, dark, and carved furnishings common to the day. As the line was refined, decorators and others around the world began to pay more attention to Aalto’s designs. By the time of the New York World’s Fair in 1939-1940, interest was sufficient to include an exhibition of the modernist design.

World War II brought about changes in the basic design, due to shortage of materials. The newer designs of modern furniture made use of whatever types of wood and other products were available. A result of this thrifty use of various elements was the creation of the mid-century furniture design that would come to be known as Danish modern.

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The clean lines of this modern furniture were created using various types of wood. Oak, birch and even teak furniture were created in this style. The coloring usually remained bleached or blonde, drawing a clear distinction from the dark woods common before the War. For upholstery on the thin pads for the back and seat cushions, materials such as light colored linens, new heavy duty vinyl, and even bleached leather were used.

During the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s, mid-century furniture designs, especially Danish and Swedish modern furniture, became all the rage among people who wanted to be on the cutting edge of new decorating trends. Discount furniture makers began to copy the designer editions, making it possible for people of just about any economic bracket to purchase furnishings in this design.

While the initial pieces were usually confined to simple seating and accent table designs for living rooms, the mass production effort swiftly led to the creation of modern wood furniture for other rooms of the home. By the early 1960’s, modern bedroom furniture was as readily available as living room pieces. In short order, the mid-century furniture design was used as a boilerplate for the creation of dining room furniture as well.

While Swedish and Danish modern pieces remained popular through the entire decade of the 1960’s, signs that the look was waning in popularity were clearly evident by 1969. By the early 1970’s many of the major design houses had ceased to manufacture mid-century furniture. Within a few years, most of the discount furniture makers had also ceased production of this design, focusing attention on newer designs borrowing from the Mediterranean style and utilizing a range of synthetic fibers in a blend of earth tone colors.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a minor revival of mid-century furniture designs. While replica editions of original pieces are still somewhat rare, the basic idea of light coloring and simple lines does influence several design options that are popular today.

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