Mid-Century Modernism – Fresh Optimism in Design

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Mid Century Modern Chair with Molded Arms and Wood Legs, Black
Mid Century Modern Chair with Molded Arms and Wood Legs, Black

Designers were motivated by a fresh optimism after WWII and the new materials, production techniques, and colours arriving in unique shapes. In more inexpensive and easily mass-produced designs, a more relaxed, fleshed-out style of Modernism began to develop.

A Time of Recovery

Although World War II ended in 1945, its impact on the industry and the design world, in particular, lasted far into the 1950s. Frugality was maintained during the war, as practically everyone came out of it poorer than they had been before the war began. There was also a strong sense that returning to normalcy was necessary, and the Rational style prevailed.

Because it had survived invasion, occupation, or bombardment, the United States was the first country to recover financially. Televisions and other discoveries aided in creating a new sense of possibility, and American companies began to achieve productivity levels previously unheard of. Designers like Charles and Ray Eames arose from this setting. Charles had invented a method of moulding plywood in several directions in 1942, and he and his wife used the technology to create a variety of creative furniture.

Photo of Ray and Charles Eames
Photo of Ray and Charles Eames

Between 1948 and 1951, the Marshall Plan was enacted, and the United States used its significant financial strength to aid Europe’s recovery. Approximately 13 billion dollars (nearly $100 billion at today’s exchange rates) were thrown into Europe. By 1951, almost every country that had joined the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) had developed considerably above pre-war levels and had continued to thrive. Throughout the 1950s, Italy, in particular, experienced significant industrial progress, which benefited designers such as Gio Ponti, Carlo di Carli, and the Castiglioni brothers, who developed their own individual designs. Dino Martens continued his thrilling reinvention of classic processes into wholly original creations on the Venetian glass-making island of Murano.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the 1951 ‘Festival of Britain’ fostered a break from tradition, starting the careers of a slew of new designers. The new alternatives to the conventional utility furnishings were a revelation for consumers who had spent years confined by rationing and government limitations.

Artist’s view of the Festival on London’s South Ba
Artist’s view of the Festival on London’s South Ba

Economies rose all across the world, and as they did, so did the demand for commodities. People desired new styles and a more comprehensive range of options. Meanwhile, the designers were enthralled by the plethora of new materials at their disposal, as well as the possibilities that even larger mass manufacturing afforded. To encourage national development, councils and design bodies were established all around the country. A consumer society grew to prominence.

A Material World

The designers of the 1950s had more freedom because of techniques and materials developed for military purposes (mainly by aircraft designers). Aluminium, which was lightweight and sturdy, had been utilised in the interiors of military transport trucks and was plentiful. Designers such as Harry Bertoia and Warren Platner were motivated to create lightweight wire-rod furniture by the increasing availability of narrower and lighter steel. Designers who were enthralled by the possibility of new ways for glueing wood embraced them as well.

In the 1950s, a slew of new upholstery styles appeared. Tyre manufacturers created rubber padding in Italy. Meanwhile, the Scandinavians discovered a method of heating polystyrene pellets to make foam padding. These could then be moulded into shape and put into a framework, allowing designers to create items like Arne Jacobsen’s “Swan” chair.

Matched Pair of Vintage Diamond Chairs by Harry Bertoia
Matched Pair of Vintage Diamond Chairs by Harry Bertoia

However, the most significant development was the widespread availability of petroleum-based polymers, which became reasonably affordable during the 1950s and 1960s oil glut. Injection moulding processes gave designers more flexibility, allowing them to use plastic’s capacity to hold any shape and come in a rainbow of colours. The introduction of plastics also signalling a shift in consumer attitudes. The era of timeless designs was coming to an end by the end of the 1960s, and the age of disposability was on its way in. Items were manufactured for the moment and then discarded when the fashion trend shifted.

Modernism’s Softer Side

Scandinavian designers developed a distinctive, curving style, often known as ‘Soft Modernism,’ throughout the 1930s. It adopted modernism’s essential simplicity while eschewing the coldness of mass-produced materials like plastic and steel. According to Alvar Aalto, a Finnish designer who was one of the first to experiment with the new style, modernist furniture was “unsatisfactory from a human point of view.” As a result, he and other Scandinavian designers, such as Bruno Mathsson, set out to use natural materials, particularly those abundant in Scandinavia (such as wood), and develop natural forms in response.

Meanwhile, many furniture designers were experimenting with the new materials that were becoming available. Scandinavian glass designers, such as Per Liitken, embraced an organic style in soft, calming colours by the 1950s. They were particularly enthusiastic about the new foam padding, which could be used to soften the chilly and unwelcoming surfaces of sheet metal. Arne Jacobson’s work, including the ‘Swan’ and ‘Egg’ chairs, typifies the field with attractive designs.

Cylinda-line, tea and coffee set (1965) designed by Arne Jacobsen
Cylinda-line, tea and coffee set (1965) designed by Arne Jacobsen

Soft Modernism’s cosiness drew admirers from all over the world. Gio Ponti was adding sensuality into his furniture in Italy. Local styles were combined into a hybridised version of modernism in Japan and Germany, and French designers embellished the basic style with ornamental elements.


Miller, J. (2009). 20th-century design: The definitive illustrated sourcebook. Miller’s.

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