With the coming of the 21st century, there has been a renewed interest in furniture designs from a bygone era, specifically those from the mid-40s to the early 70s, collectively known as “mid-century modern”.
While the term “Mid-Century Modern” was already being used as early as the mid-50s, it gained attention when author Cara Greenberg mentioned it in her 1983 book, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s as a descriptor of the design aesthetics at the time. This movement was so influential that it changed the visual landscape very significantly, especially interior and industrial design. When you look out at any city skyline, buildings created during that era can still be seen.
The Origins of Mid-century Modern Design
Mid-century modern is a design movement that began in the early 20th century. Some say that it all started in Europe, most notably from the Bauhaus School of Design. While its origins are sometimes the subject of debate, the mid-century design movement truly gained traction in the years after the Second World War. It was a movement that included all forms of design from architecture, interior, graphic, product (of which furniture design is included) and even urban development. Mid-century modern is often seen as a direct reaction or a moving away from the Victorian sensibilities of the previous era, replacing ornate overstuffed furniture with streamlined and minimalistic pieces.
Another factor was the rapid industrialisation and the influx of new materials and new manufacturing processes. At the time, materials like fibreglass and polyurethane were first discovered and used. Processes like moulding were also put into practice. The economic boom that the world experienced post-war also contributed to spread of the movement. People had money to spend and they spent them on their homes, the interiors and furnishings.
Finally, the reason that mid-century design became so popular was the fact that people wanted something that would help them forget the horrors of the past war. Shoppers wanted fresh, innovative designs and a glimpse of a more optimistic future, one that had never been imagined before. This is why most designs from that era show the influence of science fiction and the space age, so unlike the more traditional designs of the past.
Recognising Mid-century Design
We’ve talked about how the movement came about, but we’ve only touched upon what makes mid-century modern design what it is.
In other words, how do we know if a building, house, exhibit, or piece of furniture is part of that movement?
As a general rule, any design that came from that time frame, from the end of the Second World War to the early 70s, falls under mid-century design. Granted, such a definition is very broad, but it has to be since the designers at that time were not shackled by one design aesthetic. In those three decades, designers and manufacturers were creating their own styles.
That is not to say that there are no common factors that tie the whole movement together. We had stated before that mid-century design was a step to move away from designs from the previous era. While previous generations tend to overdecorate, the mid-century designers opted for a more minimalist approach. They did away with the frills and intricate details and focused on more functional pieces. They were also more aware of the role of space in interior design.
New Materials and Methods
Another unifying factor was the use of innovative materials and technology, paving the way for designers to create ground-breaking designs. They used new effects, new textures, new colours and even new forms. Products such as plastics, polyurethane, and synthetic fabrics were explored and maximised during that time. Often, designers would combine contrasting materials and elements into one design with striking results.
American industrial designer George Nelson has stated that mid-century design can be categorised into three categories: bio-morphic, machine, and handcrafted. For us to better recognise mid-century modern design, let’s define these three categories.
Mid Century Glass-Top and Walnut Biomorphic Coffee Table at 1stdibs
These designs are inspired by the organic and feature curved, smooth surfaces. Pieces in this category are often shaped like parts of the human body, animals, plants, and other life forms. This particular style gives a stark contrast to the next one.
Machine / Futuristic
This aesthetic more closely follows the Bauhaus Style from Europe. Instead of organic curves, it has a more space-age geometric form. This style, more than the other two, embraces a more futuristic look, or at the very least, what the designers at the time thought of what the future might look like.
The third style grouping is often called handcrafted, although that really is a misnomer. Handcrafted designs are made to look like they were created at home by a craftsman but are, in reality, designed for mass industrial production. The main focus of this style is minimalism and practicality. This style is the one most influenced by Scandinavian culture.
These three styles are the most obvious features of mid-century modern design. However, not all designs fall neatly into one of these categories. After all, mid-century modern design is also known for the juxtaposition of diverse materials.
The Growth of Mid-Century Design in Australia
Just like the rest of the world, mid-century modern design grew to prominence in the years after the Second World War. What was the impetus behind the popularity of the modern design movement in Australia? Aside from the reasons mentioned previously, several other factors contributed to the rise of the movement in Australia.
Architects of Mid-Century Modern
As early as the late 1940s, architects like Robin Boyd and Harry Seidler were designing and creating houses all around Australia. Boyd came to the forefront with his focus on partially prefabricated houses, which were functional, inexpensive, and made with mid-century modernist aesthetics. Seidler, on the other hand, designed more than 180 buildings in his career, contributing greatly to the architectural aesthetics of Australia and was a leading exponent of modernism, and it showed in his work.
It’s the Economy, Obviously
The mid-century modern design got an unexpected boost from the post-war economic upswing. What added fuel to the fire was the influx of new immigrants from war-torn Europe, especially skilled workers and furniture makers. The first factor meant that people had the funds to get new homes; the second meant that with the growth of population, people needed somewhere to live. Voila, new houses!
This sudden rise in demand was quickly answered by a housing boom, with thousands of structures built within a few years. Of course, new homeowners wanted to decorate and furnish their house. They would buy furniture, but not just any furniture — it had to match the house’s modern theme. Thus, the mid-century design movement was firmly established in Australia.
Furniture Designs and their Designers
So, let’s pretend that we are living in the 50s. You have recently acquired your new home and you wish to furnish it. What items would you get? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the prominent furniture designers of that time.
Grant Featherston’s name is a household word in Australia, thanks to his Relaxation and Contour series. He created other furniture designs such as the Stem chair and the Obo chair. The Contour chair is made out of moulded plywood that matches the natural curves of the human body. Not only is this chair elegant, but it is also very comfortable. Grant often collaborated with his wife, Mary Featherston, a fellow designer. Together, they have won quite a number of design awards in Australia.
Meadmore is best known for his imposing outdoor sculptures, but the artist also designed furniture in his early years. His furniture designs were usually inspired bycommon materials such as metal and plywood. These early designs often made use of fine metal rods, a material that would feature prominently in his later works.
The eponymous Snelling chair is this designer’s most distinctive piece. This unique chair made use of synthetic parachute webbing over a curved timber frame and proved quite popular in its heyday. Although British-born, Snelling eventually become one of Sydney’s celebrities because of his contributions to interior design.
While Ward is not as celebrated or known as the others on this list, he was one of the loudest champions of the use of locally resourced timber. Australian wood such as blackwood, myrtle back and white gum were mainstays in his furniture collections. Like his name, his designs were understated, simple and elegant.
Andrews is credited as the creator of the Rondo chair, which is made with the back and the seat created from a single scooped shaped piece. This chair is upholstered with a vertical seam prominently showing in the middle of the seat. Some versions are supported by a splayed four-legged aluminium base. Not only did Andrews make furniture, he was also a graphic and industrial designer of repute. In fact, he was commissioned to design the first decimal banknotes of Australia.
McLay is best known for his use of unconventional materials like glass, concrete, steel, and aluminium. His most known achievement is the Kone chair, made from a pre-cut piece of plywood that is shaped into a cone and inserted to a steel base. This chair won the Interior Design award in 1950.
Robin Boyd was an Australian architect, teacher, writer, and social commentator. He is considered one of the foremost proponents of the mid-century modern design movement in Australia. His book The Australian Ugliness would eventually change the Australian design landscape of the 60s. During his career, he designed over 200 houses and buildings, most of which incorporated modernist aesthetics. In his lifetime, he also helped promising modernist designers by granting them commissions, including the likes of one Grant Featherston.
Parker Furniture is an Australian furniture company that was started in 1935 by Jack Parker and Alf Dagger. Jack’s son, Tony Parker, followed in his footsteps to become a well-known designer. Initially, the company focused on creating traditional furniture. However, this changed as soon as Tony Parker became involved in the business. The company expanded during the mid-century modernist period and produced streamlined furniture by the thousands, reaching many homes all throughout the country. Parker Furniture still designs and creates pieces to this day and has become an icon for Australian furniture.
TH Brown was an Australian furniture company that was founded by Thomas Howard Brown in the late 1940s. His son, Peter was a gifted designer who joined the company shortly after the Second World War. Due to Peter’s innovative designs, the company created and produced elegant modernist furniture that was well accepted by the Australian public. By the 1960s, TH Brown was one of the country’s leading contemporary furniture makers. This company produced iconic pieces like the Danish Bar Stool and the Martelle Bar Stool, both of which are highly coveted by collectors.
Fred Lowen was a Jewish German-Australian designer forced to flee Germany in 1938. By 1940, he found himself in Sydney, Australia. A few years later, Lowen started designing in collaboration with Ernest Rodeck, creating wooden salad bowls and trays under the name Fler Furniture. He designed many things afterwards, including the SC55 and the SC58 chairs, the Aluminium Shell Chair, and many more. He also created a desk and a chair for the Australian Exhibition at EXPO67 that was held in Montreal, Canada. Lowen is a member of the Order of Australia and is an inductee of the Design Institute of Australia Hall of Fame.
Schulim Krimper was an Australian furniture designer and cabinet maker. Born in
1938 in the Austria-Hungarian Empire, Krimper migrated to Australia in 1939 and was naturalized in 1945. Krimper is best known for his exquisite use of wood, revealing the beauty of the timber in his finely constructed furniture. By the 1950s and 60s, he was known as Melbourne’s premier supplier of custom furniture made in the modernist style. This cabinet maker’s pieces are now considered works of art.
Robin Day was one of the most significant furniture designers of the 20th century. Aside from furniture design, he was also into industrial and interior design as well as graphics and exhibitions. During his long career (70+ years!) he had many contributions to the field of design. Some of his notable projects include the interior of passenger aircraft such as the Super VC10 as well as designs for the furniture company S. Hille and Co. Day designed furniture that now graces numerous important buildings in Australia, including concert halls, theatres and sports stadiums. He also pioneered the development of the injection-moulded plastic one-piece chair.
Lester Bunbury was a furniture designer and industrial design lecturer who was active in the middle part of the 20th century. In the 1940s, he worked for the Myer Emporium as an in-house studio designer with Fred Ward. Some of his most notable works were interior designing for the Atomic Age exhibition in Sydney Australia in 1947 and being the chief designer of the Australian Fashion Fair held at the Melbourne Exhibition Building in 1950. Lester Bunbury was a founding member of the Society of Designers for Industry, which was established in 1948.
Always in Style
By the time the 1980s came along, mid-century modern designs were replaced with postmodern aesthetics. Instead of minimalism, bold patterns, asymmetrical shapes and vibrant colours were the order of the day. Fortunately, mid-century modern never truly went into a decline. Countless designers and artists continue to draw inspiration from the mid-century modern aesthetic.
The mid-century modern design movement definitely left its mark on Australian culture. You can still see remnants of it in homes and buildings built during the period. After all, the most famous Australian man-made structure is a product of that era: the Sydney Opera House.
Nowadays, mid-century pieces from the era go for exorbitant prices in auctions and sales, while authorised reproductions are in high demand. Mid-century design is also featured prominently in media, from TV shows like Mad Men to the numerous interior design blogs that proclaim the gospel of minimalism. After more than 60 years, mid-century modern design has reclaimed its spot in the limelight.