What is mid-century modern style? Here’s everything you need to know

A quick lesson on mid-century modern style, including its emergence, evolution, and defining characteristics.

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At first glance, a mid-century modern home or building may appear somewhat plain with its simple lines and low profile. Look closely, and you’ll quickly see that this style has a way of seamlessly connecting with nature and adding playful touches throughout. There is also great appeal in its timelessness, versatility and powerful functionality.

“The simple look and clean lines of mid-century modern allow the design to transcend time,” says interior designer Adriana Hoyos. “It also allows the design, whether it is a building, an interior design concept or a piece of furniture, to blend well in different spaces and with different personalities.”

Below, we provide a quick history lesson on mid-century modern design and architecture, how it has changed over the years, and what characteristics set it apart from other types of design.

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History and development of mid-century modern style

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about mid-century modern architecture and design is that it didn’t really originate in “the middle of the century.” This style actually dates back to the Bauhaus era in Germany, which was founded by architect Walter Gropius in the late 1910s.

This new “modern style” emerging from Germany slowly began to spread. It helped Scandinavian designers become more popular in the 1930s and 1940s, and by the time mid-century was a real hit, it was hugely popular around the world.

“Mid-century modern architecture and interior design became popular during the mid-20th century,” says Hoyos. “They share the same aesthetic goals and traits, characterized by simple designs, and an emphasis on functionality. They both emphasize the use of natural materials such as wood and integration with the surrounding environment.

Mid-century modern interior design was largely inspired by the architectural movement, adds Chris Kinlaw, furniture designer and founder of MIXMA Studios. “It focuses on clean lines, simplicity, and a practical approach to design, incorporating similar elements into interior spaces,” he says.

Hoyos adds that American architect Frank Lloyd Wright also played a major role in the continued development and evolution of mid-century modern architecture and design. The distinctive features of his projects are still considered an integral part of mid-century modern style to this day. This includes incorporating geometric and organic shapes, lines extending into nature and across interior spaces, and interesting yet functional details.

“The principles of mid-century modern architecture (and design) are very relevant today – especially the connection to nature, which is closely related to the wellness trend and the importance of sustainability practices in design,” says Hoyos.

Key features of mid-century modern interior design

Here are some of the hallmarks of mid-century modern interior design, according to Heuss and Kinlaw.

  • Clean lines: This design style prioritized clean, straight lines, often with gentle curves to create an elegant look.

  • Geometric patterns and shapes: Furniture pieces often incorporate geometric shapes, such as the use of ovals, triangles, and other unconventional shapes.

  • Natural materials: Wood, especially teak and walnut, was widely used in mid-century modern design. These natural materials are often left exposed or minimally finished.

  • Minimalist approach: The goal is simplicity and functionality with mid-century modern design.

  • Bold colors: Although natural materials are widely incorporated into mid-century modern design, this style also embraces vibrant colors through statement pieces.

  • Careers: This design prioritizes functionality, often with modular or multi-purpose furniture.

RELATED: Learn about these 11 furniture styles before you shop for new pieces

Identifying the characteristics of mid-century modern architecture

While every mid-century modern home has its own nuances, there are some distinct features of this architectural style.

Simplicity through clean lines and low profile

While Victorian homes embrace the “more is more” mantra when it comes to details, mid-century modern architecture does the opposite with its unadorned setting. “The minimalist aesthetic emphasizes geometric shapes and creates a minimalist look,” Hoyos said. “This clean style allows for timeless appeal.”

Asymmetrical front entrances

Although most mid-century modern homes are streamlined, many mid-century modern homes have doorways that are slightly offset from the center, are recessed, and are protected by a roof overhang. “I really enjoy an unobtrusive entry like this,” says Ana Garcia, principal architect at Forge & Bow. “It creates a thoughtful transition that passes through a comfortable threshold before entering the home. This type of treatment also provides some relief across what tends to be a long, flat facade.

Lots of glass to bring in light and views

Today, we take glass doors and floor-to-ceiling windows for granted, but in the early 1900s, these large glass details were new and exciting.

“Early Modernist architects were fascinated by sliding glass doors,” says architect David Mann of MR Architecture + Decor. “These doors, which are now a common element in many existing homes, reinforce the basic ideas behind mid-century domestic architecture, allowing people to transform spaces from the inside out.”

With the same intention in mind, larger windows and more windows in general were added to homes. “Homeowners tend to choose large picture windows at the front and/or back of the house,” Garcia says. “This allows the expansive views to the outside provided by the orientation of the house extending across the width of the site to be framed.”

Sprawling, open floor plans

The combination of higher limits on home loans during this time period – and the desire to simply expand a little more – led to the creation of large ranch-style floor plans. “Residences can expand on one floor, spanning the width of the lot,” Garcia explains.

Inside, floor pans remain wide and open to create an easy flow from one space to the next. This approach creates a more communal feeling, but also improves the flow of light throughout the house and allows for better outdoor visibility.

Interior halls

Although not every mid-century home has an interior atrium, many do, it is considered a hallmark of the architectural style. Like many elements of mid-century modern architecture, lobbies are an obvious way to bring nature into home interiors. “For example, I saw a house that had a planting atrium located partly on the inside and partly on the outside to more seamlessly break down the barrier between inside and outside,” Mann says.

How to decorate your home in mid-century modern style

  • Display a unique piece of furniture: Modular shapes, clear lines, and soft curves allude to mid-century modern design. Splurge on one or two pieces of furniture that fit the theme and make them the focal point of your space. This could be a classic Eames style chair or sofa.

  • Incorporate real vintage: “The most interesting way to incorporate mid-century modern pieces into a curated collection is to get vintage pieces that have a unique look and a story behind them,” Kinlaw says. “This can add more layers of character and history to the space rather than just buying new pieces or replicas.”

  • Use light and natural materials: Hoyos says it incorporates high-quality wood and light finishes into the furniture and flooring. From here, you can experiment with colors and patterns as statement pieces.

  • Add indoor plants: The marriage of the outdoors and the indoors is one of the key aspects of mid-century modern architecture and design. Incorporating real plants into your home is a beautiful way to embrace this natural aesthetic and breathe more life into your space.

  • Benefit from geometric patterns: Along with natural materials and varied colors, Hoyos recommends including geometric patterns or abstract prints across textiles or small decor pieces.

  • Keep it open: “Arrange the furniture to allow for open, airy spaces,” Hoyos advises. “You can also incorporate simple shelving and storage options that allow for clean spaces.”

Related: 10 interior design styles and how to know which one is right for you

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