Design Styles Defined: Your Guide to Mid-Century Modern Interiors

Christyanne Wheeler
Feb 17, 2022 8:30:00 AM

Your home is your shelter, your family’s nest, and your place of respite after a hectic day; it’s also your very own environment to create and infuse with personality. Just as your fashion sense tells the world a bit about who you are, your interior design choices reveal something about your aesthetic sensibilities. 

Mid-century modern interior design illustration featuring modern geometrical art, a sleek-lined low profile credenza with a mix of natural wood and colored cabinetry doors and drawers and a tangerine modern shell-shaped chair

And as you probably know all too well, there are a lot of different choices you can make. 

From Scandinavian décor and modern farmhouse interiors to traditional, contemporary, and transitional design styles, our most recent blog series has been exploring the quintessential elements and standout features that define the most well-liked and enduring interior spaces.

So what’s next in our lineup? Let’s explore mid-century modern design, an ever-popular post-war style that has continued to resonate across generations — and is undoubtedly here to stay.

Mid-Century Modern Interior Design 101

As its name implies, mid-century modern design emerged in the middle of the 20th century, during the vast suburban and middle-class expansion that followed the second world war. Also known as MCM or “midmod,” this distinctive style is broadly characterized by:

  • Sleek lines juxtaposed by organic silhouettes
  • Ergonomically designed, functional furnishings
  • Minimal embellishment and ornamentation

Mid-century modern design emerged as a direct response — and a restart of the senses, so to speak — to the elaborate, decadent, gilt-adorned, stuffy, and otherwise traditional interior aesthetics that were common from the latter part of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century.  

Like contemporary design, mid-century modern design has a core identity that remains intact, even as the style fundamentally evolves over time. An article by the design team at Décor Aid says it best:  

“Though the term mid-century modern wasn’t coined until the mid-80s, and though no one really knows it’s true timeline, the era represents a combination of post-WWII practicality, 50s-era optimism, 60s-era earthiness, and 70s-era tones and textures neatly wrapped up in a stylish ode to Scandinavian simplicity.”

Elements of Mid-Century Modern Design

Mid-century modern décor ranks as one of the most prolific and streamlined interior styles of all time: Form follows function as it borrows the best from the 50s and 60s to create a clean, retro-tinged, Danish-inspired feel that’s fresh, poppy, and completely alluring. 

Mid-century modern interiors offer comfort and practicality wrapped up in stellar design that’s always en vogue. Here are four hallmark features of this timeless style: 

1. Grounded by neutrals, defined by color

As an interior style that comes from the same side of the design spectrum as minimalism, modern farmhouse, Scandinavian, and contemporary style, mid-century modern design uses a neutral, muted backdrop to showcase a well-curated blend of moody hues and playful colors. 

To that end, every mid-century modern space should be grounded with soft whites and warm neutrals. A kitchen or dining room may be energized with scattered pops of playful primary colors like turquoise, lime, blush, red, bright orange, and sunny yellow, while a MCM living room or bedroom is more likely to feature moody, earthy hues like terra cotta, ochre, grey green, olive, khaki, and burnt sage.  

The color schemes of today’s MCM interiors are drawn straight from the kicky bright colors of the optimistic 50s and the natural hues and earthy tones of the sophisticated 60s and 70s.  

2. Clean lines mixed with organic shapes

The opposite of formal and fussy, mid-century modern design is all about clean lines, low profiles, simplicity, and practicality in the form of stunning silhouettes. Functional, streamlined wood furnishings made from teak — prized for its rich caramel color and exceptional durability — are quintessential MCM anchor pieces.   

In midmod design, straight-edged case pieces like tables, desks, storage cabinets, consoles, and dressers, along with unusual, geometrically shaped accent tables that feel angular and clean, are juxtaposed by curvier furnishings with more organic silhouettes — think low and curvy C- or S-shaped sofas, round or oval coffee tables, and ergonomic, shell-shaped chairs.

Created by furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames, the Eames lounge chair is a hallmark of MCM style. Wanting to construct a chair with the feel and aesthetics of a well-used baseball mitt, the husband-and-wife team ended up inventing an iconic chair made with a molded plywood shell, headrest, and ottoman, all upholstered with tufted, sumptuously soft leather.

Mid-century modern kitchen design featuring neutral black and white modern cabinetry with rich wood and leather accents

3. A myriad of materials used in concert

Given that the mid-century modern aesthetic emerged in the booming post-war years, it makes perfect sense that the materials which emerged around that era — materials like chrome, plastic, acrylic Lucite, and Formica — were wholly embraced by the design style. 

At the same time, advances in manufacturing technology allowed for a more nuanced design approach, and midcentury architects and designers took full advantage. Round-backed upholstered chairs could be set up on hairpin legs, clear acrylic could be molded into a set of nesting tables, and wood could be shaped to curvy precision.  

Along with wood furnishings made from teak, rosewood, or oak, MCM furniture design makes excellent use of this myriad of materials. A typical midmod space features a well-curated mix of wood, metal, glass, plastic, vinyl, and leather, used in concert — and in tension — with one another to create a harmonious, streamlined space with no shortage of visual interest.

4. Well-curated spaces with a minimalist bent 

MCM interiors are largely defined by a neutral palette, bold colorful accents, and furnishings made with bent, curved, and organic shapes juxtaposed with Danish-inspired pieces that boast clean lines and flat planes. 

They’re also defined by wood floors and textural area rugs, large, minimally dressed windows, dynamically sculptural light fixtures, bold, eye-catching geometric patterns (used sparingly), and uncluttered surfaces that hold simple decorative (and often functional) accessories.  

Choose your midmod anchor pieces well, and don’t be tempted to overfill your space with a large collection of vintage and/or current MCM furnishings; you want your home to feel functional, beautiful, comfortable, and modern — not like a mid-century modern museum. 

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