Generally believed to span from mid-1940 to 1970, Mid-century modern was a design movement across America and Europe that influenced everything from architecture to textiles. Born from a spirit of post-war optimism, the movement evolved organically against a backdrop of cultural change as designers sought to deconstruct conventions and reinvent architecture, interiors and furniture for changing lifestyles and a consumer age.
Emphasis was put on ergonomics and efficiency; living spaces became open plan and homes were fitted with the latest appliances, while furnishings were considered an integral part of architectural schemes and were designed to enhance the space. Furniture, ceramics and soft furnishings were highly influenced by the art and sculpture of the time, as well as a fascination with space-age futurism, and are characterised by streamlined, biomorphic shapes, contrasting colours and abstract prints. Combining innovation with simplicity, utility, comfort and quality, the movement has gained a cult following and continues to influence designers today.
1. Statement seating
Although its aim was to bring good design to the masses, Mid-century furniture has become extremely collectable today, fetching high prices for pristine examples. If you’re lucky enough to come across a tired original at a bargain price, with covering beyond repair, why not revive it for 21st century living?
Soften the striking, biomorphic forms with the textured weaves of natural linen for a relaxed feel suited to a period home. Original Mid-century sofa in Plain Linen fabric in Saffron, and chairs in Plain Linen fabric in Turquoise, both £46 per m, all Vanessa Arbuthnott.
2. Teak and teal
From the 1950s onwards, limited paint palettes began to be replaced by new charts featuring a spectrum of intermediate tones, and bright colours were often used to enliven streamlined, rectilinear architecture.
Taken from its Mid-century paint range, Fired Earth’s South Bank teal/turquoise shade is a signature colour of the period, alongside buttercup yellow and flaming orange. Pictured here, it creates the perfect foil to the rich chestnut grains of an iconic teak sideboard. From £55 for 2.5ltrs of eggshell.
3. Mix it up
Just because you don’t have a Mid-century property, doesn’t mean you can’t embrace retro style, as this renovated farmworker’s cottage proves.
With an emphasis on simple lines and purity of design, combined with the enduring beauty of wood, Mid-century timber furniture, such as these original Ercol sofas, have a timeless appeal, which sit well with other styles both old and new.
4. Mid-century must have
A hallmark of Mid-century style, the chair was continually reimagined by designers seeking to marry form and function. As much a piece of sculpture as seating, an iconic piece will enliven an empty corner. Opt for plain walls in a retro shade to make the silhouettes of iconic pieces really pop.
Upholstered pieces were often stripped of excess padding to reveal their frames, just as the art world was stripping forms back into abstract shapes. Complement original furniture with retro-inspired homeware, such as Orla Kiely’s Giant Abacus cushion, £40.
5. The illusion of space
With their streamlined, paired-back designs this Ercol bench and these old ply stacking school chairs help keep this listed farmhouse feeling light and spacious.
Designed in the 1940s this Originals love seat in a Straw finish, made from beech and elm is £800 at Ercol.
6. Colour pops
Combine bright primary colours with ply furniture and a vibrant Formica desk, typical of the 1950s and 1960s, to create an inspiring and invigorating creative space.
7. Futuristic florals
Often reserved for special occasions, the dining room is a great space for making a design statement. This radical, stylised Starflower print, dating to 1967, has a kaleidoscopic quality undoubtedly influenced by the Op Art movement popular of the time.
Now reprinted in several colourways by Little Greene, including near to the original (as pictured), it will set the tone for a retro scheme, £74 per roll.
8. Retro revivals
Despite the development of innovative new materials such as plastic, fibreglass and laminates, timber sustained popularity throughout the mid-20th century, with furniture designers favouring durable hardwoods such as teak, cherry, maple and beech.
These streamlined timber pieces with tapered legs continue to inspire today, with retro designs readily available for those who want nostalgic but new. Bed in Acorn, £799; grand bedside table, £399; three-drawer chest, £699; tufted dining bench, £299, all from the Mid-century range at West Elm.