How to Try Mid-Century Modern Design (And Not Look Dated)

April 29, 2015 by Joe Ness

“Mid-century modern” is a hot design buzzword. It’s been a major design movement for decades, of course. But as people embrace minimalism with a vintage flair, the style has seen a resurgence.

Mid-century modern describes Danish-inspired, streamlined, geometric designs from the 1930s to 1965, but it’s perhaps most associated with the 1950s. Think Mad Men. The dark wood, bar carts, and sleek furniture are both luxurious and unpretentious.

But taken to the extreme, mid-century modern style can make you feel like you’re trapped in the 1950s, suffocated by olive and orange in a wood-paneled basement. No one wants to feel like they’ve unwittingly stepped into a museum exhibit.

Fear not. If you want to dip your toe in mid-century modern design without recreating The Jetsons, here’s how.

mid-century modern design mad men

The set of Mad Men.

Photo: Eric Laignel, Interior Design Magazine

Choose Quality Materials

Teak wood is a staple of mid-century modern design. It’s usually harvested from old-growth forests, though, so it isn’t a sustainable choice. If you love teak’s strength, beauty, and durability, buy reclaimed teak furniture. Or look for Forest Stewardship Council-certified sustainable teak. Walnut, rosewood, and oak are also popular in mid-century modern furniture.

Other materials often seen in mid-century modern design are leather, glass, concrete, and metals like brass. Metal caps on your furniture legs are one way to experiment with this, even if you just DIY with gold spray paint, as seen below (full tutorial here). If it’s smooth and shiny, try it! Just leave cheap materials like plywood and plastic in the 1950s.

gold dipped barstools mid century design

Photo: Honeybear Lane

Give ’50s Designs a New Twist

Atom designs and geometric shapes were all the rage in design during the 1950s. This period is called the Atomic Age of design, as it mirrored Americans’ worries about nuclear war. Today, “retro futurism” describes our fascination with these designs, and more broadly, that era’s vision of the future.

You might not want a boomerang-shaped throw pillow, but you can incorporate geometric and atomic designs in a chic way. Neutrals like grays and cream play a bigger role, for one thing. Kirkby Design’s Atom collection is one example of a fresh update on mid-century geometric prints:

kirby designs mid-century modern pattern fabric

Photo: Kirkby Design

Another way to update ‘50s patterns is to give the classic starburst design a 2015 spin. Today, you can find mirrors, clocks, and even geometric pendant lamps with gilded sunburst rays. A metallic finish, rather than wood or pastel, will keep the design au courant.

retro sunburst clock modern mirrors

Photos: Tumblr, Ballard Designs

Or find a new take on the iconic Jacobsen egg chair, George Nelson bubble lamp, or Eero Saarinen womb chair. Let their form inspire you, then make it your own with updated colors and patterns.

mid-century modern furniture

Photo: Pinterest

Update the Colors

Orange, chocolate, and cerulean scream “mid-century modern.” Use them sparingly — too much can make it feel like a time warp. Pick one or two, then combine them with more modern colors like black, gray, marsala, or jewel tones.

phillip johnson glass-house mid-century modern

The 1949 Philip Johnson Glass house, a famous example of mid-century modern design.

Photo: Mark B. Schlemmer

Keep It Open and Airy

Mid-century modern design puts nature front and center, from floor-to-ceiling windows to earthy browns and greens sprinkled everywhere. Clutter-free, open layouts let nature in. Maximize natural light with minimalist window coverings and reflective surfaces.

If you do need a good room divider, Pacific Northwest design firm Build LLC offers a suggestion in “10 Forgotten Lessons of Mid-Century Modern Design,” a recent post on their blog: “Screen walls offer privacy without cordoning off the interiors.” Sounds like Fabricoil, doesn’t it?

fabricoil coiled wire fabric

However you choose to incorporate mid-century modern design, have fun making it your own, and it’ll look terrific. And for more on design styles, read about industrial chic, medieval-inspired design, and glam design.

Do you love or hate mid-century modern design?


Posted in Home Decor, Interior Design

Tags: decorative wire mesh, design trends, designing with metal, interior design, metal mesh, metallics, using metal in interior design

  • HollyR

    Oooh! I want to dip everything in gold paint!

  • GwendolynEP

    I’m going to turn my house into the Mad Men set!

    • Jake Braught

      Make sure to have a hefty mid-century modern drink cart with lots of booze!

  • Michelle

    Great article and loving the Mad Men set picture!

  • Bill Wilson

    In 1997 my youngest son found an Eero Saarinen Tulip chair with it’s matching ottoman on the final day of a garage sale for $10. He was 9 at the time and thought they looked cool, even though the worn areas in the Naugahyde was patched with grey duct tape. I didn’t know what he bought until driving over in my work van to pick those up and was shocked that nobody snatched them up earlier. They were in excellent condition except for the cushions so I removed those and took them to an upholsterer who had been in business for the past 50 years. He recognized them immediately and said I was lucky since he had enough remnants of the identical padding and vinyl from a recent job to recover those. That cost me $250 which was money well spent. I placed before and after photos along with the repair receipt inside a zip-lock bag and set that between the seat cushion and base so my son wouldn’t lose them. He still has them and keeps a ratty throw over those so their genuine simulated leather won’t wear thru again.

  • Bhavik Solanki

    Wow it’s wonderful information. In this post give good interior Modern Design and also give some information about it that helpful for many people. Thanks for sharing this with us.