One need only to browse Pinterest for “interior design inspo” to be baraged with hundreds of pictures of perfectly curated shots of living rooms. What is peculiar, however, is that many of the furniture designs that are marketed as the most trendy and modern pieces actually are the legacy of mod furniture from 50 years ago. Millennials love Mid-Century Modern furniture. The fact that the style has seen a sustained resurgence over several years suggests that this isn’t just a passing trend.
Before we truly dive in, it is worth mentioning that many architects also designed their own furniture (which blew my mind in my first architecture class). This crossover is a testament to the fact that architects not only design the physical spaces like the walls, window, or doors of a house, but also have a vested interest in the designed space as a whole. From the cabinetry to the color scheme to the chairs, everything in the space falls within the purview of the architect’s design. The question on many designers’ minds was how to create spaces and furniture for the modern American family. In what ways would it eschew the (literal) weight of the past?
In the years following WWI, Modernism first sprung forth as a reactionary movement against the heavier and more elaborate styles of previous decades in Europe. The style that preceded it was named the Beaux Arts, after the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. As the name might suggest, designers from this era prioritized beauty, ornament, and gilding and an iconic example of this it the Paris Opera House. After World War I though, many European’s outlook on history and the traditional way of craft had fundamentally and radically changed. International Style Modern architects had been making chairs for several decades. Many viewed their domestic designs as a way to change the entire European way of living from the bottom up. The two most famous examples of chairs from this era are the Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer and the Barcelona Chair by Mies Van der Rohe.
Deeply philosophical and academic, these designs were unfortunately not readily accessible to the average American consumer. The European version of Modernism was too avant-garde and radical to be attractive to most families-they were luxury art pieces. So while the designs might have been popular in elite academic circles, you would be unlikely to find them in the average home. In the 1950’s and 60’s however, came the American response to the European movement. American designers saw the need to design furniture that would suit the lifestyle of the modern American family and came up with a softer solution-literally.
Enter Mid-Century Modern. Mid-Century modern furniture as a style is somewhat heterogeneous but it instantly calls to mind a “California Cool” vibe. The spaces and furniture call to mind a life of leisure, rooms filled with sunshine and conversations with friends. Iconic architects like Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, and Richard Neutra fall into this category pretty neatly.
But by far the most ubiquitous designs still today are derivative of the Eames Studio, run by husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames based in Pacific Palisades. The Eameses designed furniture that combined natural textures with modern shapes. Their most iconic design is of course the Eames lounger but they were also responsible for several other famous chair designs and their home and studio is still functional today. The chairs you see today are not likely true Eames designs (the originals are still worth a very pretty penny) but manufacturers like West Elm, Wayfair and Ikea have clamored to design chairs that invoke that sense of leisure and nonchalance that was so characteristic of the era in design.
International Style Modernism always struck me as being deeply entrenched in philosophy and more cerebral. It focused on the best way for all modern people to live going forward, one completely divergent from the past. That is to say, the design of the space and furniture is intended to shape the user’s life into a Modern Ideal, somewhat specific to Europe. American Mid-Century Modern designs do the opposite; they accommodate the ideal user–a lower-case M modern American family. And having visited Europe, I have a deeper awareness for the fact that Europe and the United States experienced World War II in drastically different ways. While Europe faced the choice (and challenge) of rebuilding itself in the historical image or embracing modernity, this was different than the way things played out in America. After the War, the United States wanted to establish itself as a world power and leader in science and technology. Mid-Century Modernist designs also played to an ideal, but one linked to the material needs of a modern and stylish family in the suburbs. The needs of this user shaped the design of the space and object.
Aesthetically, the style of furniture evokes a simple sophistication but is also practical. Simple lines and shapes also happen to be easier to mix and match and that still holds true today as well. They are less likely to clash with other decor so they can be styled in infinite ways (as evidenced by the design magazines). But having one of these chairs also brings about cultural cache of knowing the historical design influence and thinking it important enough to put in your own home. Some of linked the renaissance of the style to the rising popularity of period shows such as Mad Men. The early 1960s have been romanticized as a time of glamourous clothes (and furniture), financial prosperity in the United States and an era of huge technological advances a la Space Race. Mid-Century Modern designs blend modern form with natural materials and are in some ways less jarring and clinical than the chrome and black leather chairs of the International Style.
Logistically, this particular style happens to suit the lifestyle of millennials pretty well. The average millennial lives an apartment (rather than a house) in a city. With limited space in urban settings, it is no wonder that simple lines and light furniture are the millennial’s style of choice. The aforementioned ability to mix and match furniture and decor is important as well since a limited amount of expendable income means the millennials are less likely to buy sets of furniture that go together. My personal experience was that I had to cobble together pieces from different vendors into a cohesive (rather than perfectly matched) unit.
For me personally, Mid-Century designer chairs hold a special place in my heart because they feel like such a real and tangible way to have design history in your home. Unless you’re a Vanderbilt, it is highly unlikely that you have a chair from Versailles (or even a replica!) in your living room. But not only are they a piece of history, they have been made contemporary and still fit a contemporary millennial lifestyle. But having Mid-Century inspired furniture is an inherited design that can become part of our legacy as well (no really, I ripped a small patch of the wood paneling on my parents’ Eames chair off when I was 5 so it’s mine now).