Imagine this sharp split – between the plush, upholstered, submerged-in-cushions interiors reminiscent of Victorian eras, and the epitome of sleekness, of furniture made in single curves and angular lines, spare and functional. Furniture made from (gasp!) plastic - that we see everywhere around us today, whether on spectator seats in stadiums, office chairs or airport seating rows.
In the world of interior design, this jarring transition is mid-century modern design – or design deemed modern in the 1950s, born of a post-World War II age of mass production and plastic’s entry into interiors. It was inspired by the German Bauhaus style and emphasized simplicity, elegance and functionality using new materials such as plastic, fibreglass and moulded plywood.
What’s astonishing is that this transformation was actually powered by the work of one extraordinary couple – Charles and Ray Eames, designers with backgrounds in architecture and art respectively. Along with a few others, they did pioneering work in moulding plywood, plastic and other materials to make futuristic, streamlined furniture that we still see around us every single day.
Their company, the Eames office’s mission statement summarised the era’s mass production: “We want to make the best for the most for the least.”
Mid-century modern is a design movement defined by simple forms, clean lines, organic curves, high functionality, rich colors and passion for different materials and shapes. The quality of this style is that it is timeless and appreciated until our current days.
Rym Turki, interior designer and founder of Dubai-based interior design studio, Rym Turki Designs, says, “Mid-century modern is a design movement defined by simple forms, clean lines, organic curves, high functionality, rich colors and passion for different materials and shapes. The quality of this style is that it is timeless and appreciated until our current days.”
Dr. Ra’Ed QaQish, Associate professor of Architecture, Canadian University Dubai, designer and artist, adds, “Such architecture highlights minimalism and exterior spaces, defines the area’s functionality with super-functional interior design spaces complementary to Nature, and angular shapes.”
Mid-century modern in today’s world
Enter a warm brown world, courtesy of the favourite wood materials of the time, with angular, streamlined furniture on tapered legs, often steel. There are staunch pops of earthy hues such as orange and olive, or even bright primary colours and statement pop art on a couple of walls… maybe that famous one of Marilyn Monroe in neon shades. Scattered around are sculptural décor pieces of various materials. Also, think the interiors of the TV show Mad Men - these are classic mid-century modern looks.
Some designers and their work are known for being symbols of the era – such as Eames chairs, the Noguchi table, the Florence Knoll sofa, the Bertoia chair, the Tulip chair and Saarinen armchairs. These are timeless pieces still used in contemporary homes and interiors – from the pictures, look around you today to see where you can similar pieces.
You might be surprised to know that mid-century modern architecture and furniture has also been used in UAE from the 1970s onwards. Dr QaQish says, “In Dubai, the movement of mid-century modern architecture or style came late, some of the buildings were erected in the 1970s or later 1980s such as the Córdoba Buildings by Spanish architects Tecnica y Proyectos (TYPSA) in 1977 in Sharjah.”
In Dubai, the movement of mid-century modern architecture or style came late, some of the buildings were erected in the 1970s or later 1980s such as the Córdoba Buildings by Spanish architects Tecnica y Proyectos (TYPSA) in 1977 in Sharjah.
Other mid-century modern landmarks he mentions in UAE are the Abu Dhabi Main Bus Terminal, designed by BulgarConsult Architects and Engineers and built in 1983, and the old quarter of Dubai along the creek. These also include Rashid Hospital, designed by British architect John R. Harris in 1977, and Dubai Petroleum by architect Victor Hanna Bisharat.
The Al Ibrahimi Building, and the current Waldorf Astoria DIFC hotel also has many mid-century modern style spaces.
“This is a reflection of the simplicity of this design impression and how these features were applied on furniture throughout the Gulf area and the Middle East area,” says Dr QaQish.
When asked about her favourite Mid-century modern interiors, Turki reminisces on her education in Paris, saying, “There is a hotel that I used to love and try to go to as soon as I have the possibility; it is the Hotel Henriette Rive Gauche.” The 32-room hotel located near the city’s Latin quarter was redesigned by its owner to include Scandinavian mid-century elements.
Getting to your perfect mid-century modern home
Considering that we’re nearing the first quarter of the next century, you might not be looking for a full mid-mod look for your home. Here’s a guide to the style, as well as options on if you would like to add a mid-century modern accent pieces to your contemporary home:
1. Earthy, vibrant colour palette
When you see a room filled with the medium brown colour of teak or rosewood, know that this is the most characteristic mid-century modern look there is. Along with this, earthy hues like burnt orange, olives and primary colours are very common. A good example is the 1968 depiction in the film 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'.
Turki says, “The traditional mid-century colors vary from bright hues to earthy tones, in general these colors are natural and warm like olive green, brown, beige, mustard, orange. Don't be scared to mix colours and patterns.”
You can express these colours through furniture, statement cushions with pops of colour and artwork. Turki adds, “Add a pop of light colour through your sofa armchairs, textiles or accessories.”
2. Statement op and pop art
Some styles of art were especially popular in the mid-century modern interiors, and these include op and pop art. Op art or optical art pieces are visual art that look like optical illusions, with dizzying designs of juxtaposed black and white, for instance. A classic example of this is the Mad Men character Roger Sterling’s office in Sterling Cooper’s Madison Avenue address.
Pop art, on the other hand, is art that features imagery from pop culture and mass media – something we’re quite familiar with on social media today. Remember the famous Hope poster featuring Obama, or the neon Marilyn Monroe portraits? The leading figure in the style is Andy Warhol who created the Marilyn Monroe work and that well-known Campbell’s Soup cans image.
Abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock’s iconic pieces are also considered mid-century mod style.
Turki says, “It should be a statement piece, bold rich and on big canvas to be the focus of the room.”
3. No frill, streamlined furniture with tapered legs
In mid-century modern furniture, the pieces are streamlined, often low with tapered legs – whether on sofas, armchairs or credenzas.
Turki says that wood is the ideal material to add warmth and a stylish look to the space. She says, “Use furniture in shades of dark or natural timber finishes or walnut.” Teak and rosewood are also very popular.
In this design, furniture pieces are art themselves, characterised by their practical design and beautiful craftsmanship. Apart from being functional and comfortable they are masterpieces that stand out for their futuristic aesthetic and impeccable composition.
“In this design, furniture pieces are art themselves, characterised by their practical design and beautiful craftsmanship. Apart from being functional and comfortable they are masterpieces that stand out for their futuristic aesthetic and impeccable composition,” adds Turki.
If you look at examples of a Panton chair, literally anything in the Eames collection or the iconic Florence Knoll sofa, you’ll know exactly what furniture to get. Turki advises that it should be in a neutral or vibrant colour, with interesting legs.
However, if you’d rather add an understated touch of the style, you can always include a classic Eames-style chair as shown below.
• The Noguchi table by Isamu Noguchi
• The Eames lounge chairs
• The Florence Knoll sofa
• CH 27 lounge chair by Hans Wegner
• Tulip oval table by Eero Saarinen
• Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer
4. Artistic, sculptural pieces (lighting, too!)
Turki says, “This style does not have a lot of accessories, it focuses more on heavy sculptural furniture rather than having small ornaments, only a few pieces here and there.
“Rather than a huge collection of accessories instead add one or two well-placed items that are statement pieces.”
She adds that the lighting is a sculptural piece too, a hanging feature with an artistic purpose. You can also include sculptural art pieces, perhaps of the sculptor and furniture artist Harry Bertoia, who also dominated the era.
5. Less is more, and biophilia
The 1950s marked the beginning of the Minimalist movement as well, and mid-century modern style is all about keeping things spare and spacious.
Turki says, “This style emphasizes creating structures with open windows and open floor plans with the intention of opening up the interior spaces and bringing the outdoor in. This style loves nature, expressive plants and mixed greens.”
If you want a classic mid-century modern house as a sample for inspiration, look no further than the Eames house, home to the Mid-century Mod titans themselves, Ray and Charles Eames.
Wishing you the best with your design journey - and even if you’re not redesigning, the next time you sit on a moulded plastic chair, see furniture with steel tapered legs or sit on those imposing rows of airport seats, you’ll know exactly where that’s from.
(NOTE: This article was first published on September 8, 2022)