While Mid-century generally describes the Postwar Era from 1945 to 1965, the definition has grown to include the 1960s through the early 1970s. Encompassing such diverse fields as architecture, furniture and lighting design, mid-century modern style has ascended a steady rise in popularity and created a dedicated following through popular television shows such as cable tv’s Mad Men and websites such as MidCenturyMobler and MotleyLA. Springing out of a postwar boom which adopted technology and materials from the war era, designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Milo Baughman and Isamu Noguchi became household names while creating exuberant, organic designs for the rapidly proliferating, affordable and simply built one-story homes such as Gregory Ain’s Park Planned Homes, which were distinguished by strong horizontal lines, a smooth flow between rooms, an abundance of natural light, and little distinction between the indoors and outdoors.
Park Planned Homes, Altadena, California; Gregory Ain, Architect
Similarly, furniture designers’ new credo became “form follows function”– a phrase originally attributed to architect Louis Sullivan, and popularized by Germany’s Bauhaus School during the period after World War I.
“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.”
Principally, the shape of a building or object should be primarily focused upon its intended functional use. Where function does not change, form does not change. Employing playful curves and geometric shapes, mid-century furniture’s designers’ approach was in the appreciation of geometric forms, the limiting of one design into unity and an absence of ornamental features of previous eras’ heavy shapes and busy details. Historically, the only materials available in the production of furniture were wood, stone and metals. Production of furniture was a slow and expensive process, with the resulting piece affordable by few. The 20th century brought with it a rapid and revolutionary era in furniture design, the fundamental philosophy morphing aesthetically from visually heavy to visually light. This lighter esthetic—both conceptually and in practice—became the hallmark of mid-century design. By stripping down decorative elements and emphasizing simplicity, modernist design promoted the time-managing, efficient manufacturing ideals of the postwar era. Functionalism—the idea that affordable, mass produced design was accessible to everyone– spoke to the future– and not the past–as its touchstone. Materials such as plywood, fiberglass, chrome-plated steel and acrylic were now part of the designer’s vernacular. Authentic materials abound—and you won’t find an object masquerading as something it’s not. Even as a relatively unsophisticated child I instinctively responded to the simplicity and honesty contained within a pair of Robsjohn Gibbings side tables in our living room.
Single mahogany stepped end table by Robsjohn Gibbings
Early Noguchi Cyclone side table for Knoll Milo Baughman loveseat, 1970
Eames Chair and Ottoman of molded and shaped plywood and leather
Mid-century’s appeal, bridging the gap between the organic and the man-made, perhaps stems from a renewed desire for a simple, calming and direct aesthetic in reaction to a hurried, modern world.