You see them popping up in contemporary home design magazines, furniture catalogs, and in your local trendy coffee shops. Their raw, exposed material finishes are just the cherries on top of their inherently stylish low-angled forms. There is no denying it – slowly and steadily, Mid-century Modern sofas are making a comeback. There is an undeniable charm in the sleek, retro looks of these slanted, low-set couches - byproducts of the Mid-century Modern movement that, as the name suggests, made its way into mainstream pop culture at the middle of the 20th century. But what exactly is Mid-century Modern design? What are the humble beginnings of this timeless aesthetic? How did it get so popular? And exactly why do Mid-century Modern sofas look so stylish?
Before diving into the rabbit hole that is Mid-century Modern design, it is wise to take a brief glimpse at where this design style branched off from – Modernism. The Modernist movement was a counter argument to the prevalent Art Deco style of design in the early 1900s. Art Deco had an aesthetic characterized by ornamentation, stream-lined curves, and elaborate, superfluous forms. Modernists of that era thought it outdated to be using such “obsolete” ways of thinking in design, especially with the advent of new production technologies and construction methods.
Le Corbusier, one of the frontrunners of the movement, felt that buildings and spaces should be viewed as “machines for living in”. Just as the automobile had replaced the horse, he felt that Modernism should rightfully replace Neo-Classical or Medieval concepts as the main design typologies of the time.
The result was a design style that very purposefully did away with ornamentation and decorative motifs, with a preference of using the innate materiality of design elements to create texture and contrast. Marble countertops, wooden floorboards, raw concrete walls – these would all be left as untouched and untreated as was practical to showcase the innate beauty of the materials. Design forms were also equally as simple and sincere. Flat, simple geometric forms became prevalent; function, first and foremost, would always dictate form.
The whole movement had lasted well into the 1930s, and with decades worth of development and usage under its belt, Modernism gradually became more complex and prolific across the globe. Many sub-genres and offshoot design styles would be born from the style.
The Bauhaus movement of Germany was one such design style. The name comes from the school that started the movement and literally meant “construction house”. It was founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar and was a style that was founded on the idea of creating “total” works of art. It was holistic in that it focused on art, graphic design, typography, architecture, interior design, and industrial design as merely parts of a whole. Even after World War I, the style retained its roots in the collective minds of designers around the world.
The International Style was another historical landmark in the story of Modernism. It emerged in the 1920s and 30s and was a style that focused more on the architectural and built concept of Modernism as opposed to the social aspect of it. Weightlessness was a common motif of the International Style. It achieved that through its use of rectilinear forms, plane surfaces, and open interior spaces, all of which were possible through the innovative use of glass and steel as building materials. After World War II, the International Style’s simple and striking design methodologies made it an almost natural way to rebuild and redesign torn-down urban centers.
Mid-century Modern was a style that was born and grew into popularity from the early 1930s to the late 1960s. The design movement was an American interpretation of the Bauhaus and International movements, but is more closely associated to the International Style movement than any other design style. Like the International Style, it had a preference for cleaner, simpler forms, albeit more organic than those of the International Style. It was the design style that was introduced into Western homes post-World War II, and what really introduced Modernism into North American culture. Like the International Style, it utilized ample building fenestrations, spacious floor plans, and a feeling of openness in the space.
Mid-century Modernism took root in plenty of aspects of design. It had an undeniably significant impact on architecture and interior design, but probably its most relatable and long-lived claim to fame is its influence in industrial and furniture design, specifically in lounge chairs, armchairs, and sofas.
There were numerous key proponents in the Mid-century Modern sofa and furniture design scene, each having made some defining impact on the movement with influences that can be felt even today.
There was Le Corbusier, a household name in architecture. Born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, the Swiss-French designer was a well-known architect, urban planner, furniture designer, and writer. As a designer of fine-crafted interior furniture, Le Corbusier favored rare and exotic wood species and valued craftsmanship and quality above all. A lot of his most popular designs were the results of amazing collaborations with great designers such as Charlotte Perriand and his cousing, Pierre Jeanneret.
Charles and Ray Eames were also popular American designers with long-lasting contributions to the Mid-century Modern design scene. A husband and wife duo, these two worked in the fields of graphic design, art, film, and industrial design. Their most notable work is the Eames Lounge Chair.
George Nelson was another big name in Mid-century Modern furniture design and is widely considered to be one of the founders of American Modernism. He played the role of Director of Design for the Herman Miller furniture company and designed so many of the most iconic designer furniture still being sought out even today.
There are key characteristics that differentiate vintage Mid-century Modern sofas from their contemporaries. The first thing worth talking about is the forms of vintage Mid-century Modern furniture. When it comes to form, Mid-century Modern sofas value these key elements: functionality, shape, ornamentation (or lack thereof), innovation, and contrast.
Like any sub-genre of Modernism, functionality is at the front of the pack with regards to design considerations. In Mid-century Modern design, form follows function. Every curve has its purpose; every angle, its reason for being. As such, ergonomic design concepts and design features that are pleasing to both the eyes and the human body are key components of Mid-century Modern design.
Modernist design and furniture is known for its squat, rectilinear volumes and shapes. Mid-century Modern takes it a bit further and incorporates sleek and subtle curves to their forms. The result is a style that is known for its beautiful, clean look that incorporates both organic and geometric forms – two seemingly opposite interpretations of form that somehow complement each other when mixed right.
As previously mentioned, vintage Mid-century Modern sofas try to keep ornamentation to a minimum since any excess, superfluous details have the potential of mucking up the key functions of a chair. What we get are uncluttered, neatly composited vintage sofas that are stark and bold with their minimalism and simplicity.
As far as the Modernist movement went, a premium was given towards looking to the future for ambitious inspiration on furniture and sofa designs. Conservative concepts are left to fall by the wayside in favor of experimental ideas that challenge the functions and forms of a Mid-century Modern sofa. As such, it is not uncommon to see Mid-century Modern sofas incorporate an eclectic mix of traditional and experimental materials, commonly contrasting forms and elements, and otherwise completely unheard of design concepts.
A key element in Mid-century Modern design is its emphasis on the materiality and innate texture of its design elements. As such, contrast was a key feature in most Mid-century Modern sofas. This was founded on the fact that juxtaposing two opposing, contrasting elements next to each other would make their individual textures pop out even more. In their contrast, they complement each other.
All in all, the forms of Mid-century Modern sofas have variations limited only to the imagination of designers. But its characteristics can be felt in their clean lines, natural and geometric shapes, and their low tapering looks. In a nutshell, it’s all about minimal, clean aesthetics made of classic, subtle, and unornamented elements.
New developments in building technology and production were the main prompts in the conception of Modernist and Mid-century Modernist designs. Plastic was a game-change for example. Ergonomic, curvilinear planes were now possible through the molding and casting of thermo-plastics. The colors and end textures of plastics were also so versatile that they could very much be made to imitate wooden furniture.
Aside from that, liberal use of other traditional materials is also thrown into the Mid-century Modern mix of furniture and sofas. Wood is used extensively, as well as more contemporary materials such as metal, glass, and vinyl. Different types of fabrics are also used and can vary in texture and softness, although tweed, leather, and suede are popular choices.
As years passed, Mid-century Modern design slowly grew into an institution, with standards and archetypes that can be carefully documented, studied, and built on. Here are some types of Mid-century Modern sofas that can commonly be seen in use today.
The Mid-century Modern sectional sofa is unique for its detachable, individual parts. It usually has 3 to 5 pieces but can have as many as 19 in some extreme cases. Its detachable nature makes it ideal for cases where you would like to be able to reconfigure your sofa as you please. Two common configurations are the L-shape sectional sofas and the U-shape sectional sofas.
Chesterfield Mid-century Modern sofas are characterized by their tufted backrests. These tufts can also be included in the seating or bench portions of some variations of the sofa. Its quilted aesthetic gives it a classic, luxurious look that is popular with designers and homeowners alike.
Lawson sofas are couches designed specifically for comfort. Its signature characteristic is a backrest made of cushions that are completely separate and detachable from the sofa frame. With literal large pillows as their backrests, Lawson Mid-century Modern sofas are popular for their soft, cushioned, and comfortable sit.
Mid-century Modern chaise lounges are unique in that unlike most other couch archetypes, these ones are known for having only a portion of a backrest or none at all. These types of sofas are most commonly found in master bedroom suites as well as on open decks or patios.
The defining element of cabriole sofas are their continuous or near-continuous back and arms. The backrest and the armrests are put at an equal height, making the whole elevated support look like a singular element instead of separate individual parts of the sofa. This results in a sleeker, more minimalist look which resonates with Mid-century Modern sofa design concepts.
If you’re having a bit of trouble figuring out how to effectively use the Mid-century Modern look of your sofa in your home interiors, the number one thing to consider is how it “communicates” with the rest of the space. Break the sofa down into its base characteristics, figure out their individual nuances, and conceptually put those next to how you want your room to look and feel. If you want your living room to feel cozy and welcoming, consider getting a sofa that looks inviting and has subdued, neutral tones. If you want your living room to be more of a design statement, go for a sofa that looks more sleek and stylish. In a nutshell, just try to consider the elements of your sofa’s design - its form, colors, and potential as an accent piece.
One example is how you can utilize the curves of your Mid-century Modern sofa. Keep in mind that a key characteristic of Mid-century Modern sofas are their organic and tilted aesthetics as well as its unadorned, minimalist design elements. This is in contrast to most Modernist spaces as Modernism typically incorporates only rectilinear shapes and straight lines in its interior spaces. As such, the curves of Mid-century Modern sofas and furniture can effectively break the uniformity of the space and provide you with some much needed contrast. It also adds an extra level of character and depth that you would not otherwise get with other more straight-edged, rectilinear sofas.
In any case, these types of stark, blocky color choices can be the difference between drab and fab in your living room space. The right color can add some flavor to an otherwise dreary, neutral-colored interior space.
Vintage Mid-century Modern sofas can also act as the proverbial cherry on top of the sundae that is your living room. This is especially true for homeowners that feel they might not be ready to commit to a full-on Mid-century Modern look for all the furniture and decoration pieces in their home space. Having one defining, designer affordable Mid-century Modern sofa piece at the center of the design can make all the difference and act as an accent piece as well as a comfortable, ergonomic place to lounge.
When it comes to the iconic furniture and sofas that came from the Mid-century Modern era of design history, there are simply too many great ones to count. Here are only a few of the most memorable Mid-century Modern sofa designs that impacted our view of furniture and interior design for the better.
The Robsjohn-Gibbings Widdicomb Chaise Lounge
This chaise lounge was designed by British-boren T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, widely considered to be one of the most important decorators of the 1930s. Robsjohn-Gibbings was sought after by high-end clients and had designed for Widdicomb Furniture with pieces that are considered classics today. Mid-century Modern furniture pieces like this are available in Canada by order.
The Harver Probber Cubo Sectional
The Cubo Sectional sofa is considered to be the first official sectional sofa of the Mid-century Modern design era. Harver Probber, the designer of said piece, was iconic such that he was known for creating modular seating and putting a premium on designs that exhibited a composite, assembly-driven quality.
The Edward Wormley Dunbar Sofa
Edward Wormley was best known for his work at Dunbar Furniture Co. in which he updated and the company’s product line. He was able to achieve an aesthetic that blended classical design elements with contemporary styles and looks. Wormley was actually know for numerous different sofa designs, the least of which is this Dunbar sofa and his Tete-a-Tete chaise sofa. Dunbar still produces his designed pieces and other classic Mid-century Modern furniture reproductions.
The Le Corbusier LC4 Chaise
In Le Corbusier’s collaboration with Carlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret, he set up a Le Corbusier furniture line that had a plethora of beautiful designer pieces that have cemented Le Corbusier’s status as a Modernist Renaissance man in the field of design. The LC4 Chaise was one of his more popular creations.
Interior design and furniture acts as a sort of cultural timestamp that dates the settings of films. It’s the little details like the design of a set that differentiates a neo-futuristic, post-apocalyptic science fiction flick from classic Elizabethan period piece. Creating that suspension of disbelief within the audience is only possible when the visual context that is setup is believable, accurate, and most importantly stylish. And as many designers and furniture lovers would say, what could be more stylish than Mid-century Modern design? With the right utilization of furniture styles, films can really set a scene. Here are some popular film sets that showcase Mid-century Modern design.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Fans of the 1998 cult classic might remember the residence of one Jackie Treehorn. The home featured the quintessential concrete roof found in many a Mid-century Modern house. Other Mid-century Modern elements include the roof overhang over the outdoor pool, the skylight in the ceiling of the home, and the indoor-outdoor living setup. The home was actually designed by John Lautner in 1963, an associate of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Diamonds are Forever (1971)
What better venue to showcase the sheer style and elegance of Mid-century Modern interior design than in a James Bond film? The iconic 007 and his series of movies has seen plenty of examples of luxurious interiors in the form of lavish bars and villainous lairs. Mid-century Modern, with its clean and sleek, almost sterile, aesthetic, was a perfect way to exude just a little bit of sociopathic style that went well with villainous stereotypes at the time. The Elrod House by John Lautner was used in Diamonds are Forever as the fictional winter home of Willard Whyte. With its circular shape, concrete construction, and indirect lighting elements, the Elrod House was one of the most major films to give Mid-century Modern the screen time it so truly deserves.
North by Northwest (1950)
Hitchcock films are well-known for their almost obsessive take on architecture in film, with frequent dramatic shots of building and building fenestrations. The film North by Northwest shot in 1950 was made in the actual era when Mid-century Modern was at its peak. The Wright-esque Vandamm house in Culver City was featured in the film with a set design composed of now vintage Mid-century Modern furniture and design elements.
The Incredibles (2004)
A certified commercial and critical success, the animated film The Incredibles was another popular film that showcased Mid-century Modern design. Albeit in animated form, the home of the Incredibles family was inspired by the works of Joseph Eichler, known for his Mid-century Modern homes. And even the villain’s lair had not-so-subtle nods to the Mid-century Modern movement.
There is no doubt that the Mid-century Modernist movement will last well after its conception at the middle of the last century. It has proven to be an example of timeless design that is deeply rooted in our contemporary culture. Very little else can truly be as long-lived as the low-set, sleekly angular, adventurously organic aesthetic of this masterpiece of a design movement.
Mid-century Modern design has various implications in how social, economic, and even political climates affect the aesthetics of the design. In all honesty though, one reason we could all agree to with why vintage Mid-century Modern furniture was, is, and always will be popular is for this simple fact – that it just looks really good.