What is Midcentury Modern? How Can You Tell? Why is It Popular?

April 5, 2021

mid century modern drawers

“Midcentury modern” is a hot buzzword. So-called midcentury furniture and design are everywhere–on TV show sets, in fashion and hip restaurants. But what does midcentury modern really means?

The word is used very loosely to describe furniture, architecture and graphic design from approximately 1933 to 1957 (experts disagree on the exact years). The time period refers to the larger modernist movement, which had its origins in the Industrial Revolution, and later the period after WWI.

The Book that Sold America on the Style

The term was actually invented by author Cara Greenberg, for her 1984 book, Midcentury Modern: Furniture of the 1950s.

Greenberg’s book sold over 100,000 copies, and was said to capture the “verve, imagination and zaniness of the period” by The New York Times. The popularity of midcentury modern design that lingers today began with Greenberg’s book; most of the 1950s styles were out of fashion by the late 1960s.

Several events catapulted midcentury modern’s appeal beyond a small group of design fans to the mainstream in the mid-1990s:

  • Collectors drove up prices by orders of magnitude beyond the original value of items such as plywood folding screens, marshmallow sofas and pretzel armchairs.
  • While some midcentury furniture manufacturers were still in business, most had gone out of production by 1990. Even getting something still in production would have required an architect or designer to help you before 1992. But that changed in 1993 with the opening of a Knoll retail showroom in SoHo. Because of a decline in the office furniture market (more people were working at home), the company stopped giving architects and designers a 40% discount—selling their designs at trade prices to anyone who came into the store.

The showroom was a huge success, leading Knoll to convert other contract showrooms into consumer-oriented shops. As time went on, more and more pieces became available to average homeowners.

  • At the same time, many “iconic” midcentury designs were reissued by the likes of Herman Miller. The company reissued pieces from its archives. The new pieces stayed true to the original designs, with updated elements such as current fabric and material technologies. Customers welcomed the furniture, because other midcentury modern offerings were often low-quality knock-offs.

Herman Miller took a chance and launched a webstore in 1998. The rest is history: from that year, Herman Miller midcentury modern has been in high demand.

  • The sale of such reproductions got another boost in 1999 when Californian Rob Forbes launched Design Within Reach (DWR), a direct-mail catalog and online business. DWR gave consumers direct access to midcentury modern pieces that were once only available to the trade, and gave the masses a design education. Every piece of furniture was shown with a biography of the product’s designer.

Midcentury Today

Mass-produced pieces made in the ’50s still get amazing prices, even items made from inexpensive materials such as fiberglass and plywood.

But you have to be careful shopping for midcentury modern. Stores and websites carry both genuine items, and items that are of no design significance.

The market for midcentury pieces with documentation has exploded in the last 15 years. That phenomena started in 2005, when a Carlo Mollino table sold for $3.9 million at auction.

The media has helped keep midcentury modern in vogue. Magazines Wallpaper and Dwell, launched in 1996 and 2000 respectively, supported the look. Even House Beautiful has gotten in on the act with special sections.

Shopping Midcentury at Legacies

The volunteer salespeople at Legacies are well-informed about the value of our midcentury pieces and can steer you toward the style and price range right for your home.