Mid Century Modern Design: Know It, Find It, Fake It, Make It

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While browsing furniture recently, I was struck by how many mid century modern design pieces have been reborn into the mainstream, affordable furniture stores. It seems the craze of 1950’s style is showing no signs of dampening, and why should it… simple, clean and practical; yet delicate, considered and warm; it’s enough to make anyone fall in love with Grandma’s house. But what inspired mid century modern design in the first place? And what options do we have for bringing the style into our homes?

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**This post contains affiliate links. This means I get a small commission if you purchase through some of the links. This does not affect the price of the item.**

The Birth of Mid Century Modern Design

So often when I’ve read about mid century modern design, it’s straight into the furniture. Filling your home with expensive antiques in not going to instantly create a mid century paradise. To understand the style we need to look at the furniture in context… what did mid century homes really look like? What are the key concepts to a mid century dream home? Although opinion varies, the term ‘mid century modern’ tends to refer to designs between the mid 1940’s up to 1960. Take a look at these architectural classics… it was about so much more than furniture: 


glass house philip johnsonThe Glass House, Philip Johnson (1949). Source: inexhibit.com
Curutchet House CorbusierCurutchet House, Le Corbusier (1953). Source: arquimaster.com.ar
stahl house pierre koenigStahl House, Pierre Koenig (1960). Source: moderndesigninterior.com
mies van de roheFarnsworth House, Mies Van de Rohe (1951). Source: britannica.com
Miller House, Eero Saarinen (1957). Source: home-designing.comMiller House, Eero Saarinen (1957). Source: home-designing.com
kaufmann house richard neutralKaufmann House, Richard Neutra (1947). Source: archdaily.com
  1. The Glass House, Phillip Johnson (1949) – Top left.
  2. Farnsworth House, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1951) – Top right.
  3. Crutches House, Le Corbusier (1953) – Second row left.
  4. Miller House, Eero Saarinen (1959) – Second row right.
  5. Stahl House, by Pierre Koenig (1960) – Third row left
  6. Kaufmann House, Richard Neutra (1947) – Third row right.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when your look at these houses? For me, it’s not furniture… it’s light. These homes are all filled with light and have a fluid connection with the outside. These houses were all about the perfect setting, plenty of glass and an exceptional view. If you, like me, live in a house with a small yard overlooking the house behind you, an exceptional view may not be an option. But consider light, window treatments, and continuing your internal floor surfaces outside to make that connection. Indulge in large uninterrupted panes of glass,  sparsely populated open plan living – functionality over fuss. You’ll also see from these houses there was a color palette to the era – yellows, browns, orange, red and pink. Accents of blue and plenty of white.

Kitting Out a Mid Century Modern Home

When you’re ready to get hunting for furniture and accent pieces, there are a few options:

  • Hunt down an authentic mid century modern piece;
  • Buy a new but retro styled piece;
  • Upcycle an existing or cheaper piece of furniture to give it a mid century modern twist.

Although I would love to say you must only buy authentic furniture from the era, I also live in the real world. Antiques are expensive, and the mid century modern design craze has been running long enough that it’s rare to find a total gem before it’s snapped up by a savvy collector. So, let’s consider all options and not be a total design snob…

Identifying Classic Mid Century Modern Design

Mid-century modern furniture has a distinct look. Here are some of the classic styles and materials:

  • Thin legs that test the limits of engineering;
  • Low seating, ergonomic shapes, simple clean lines;
  • Teak, elm, beech and rosewood.
  • Molded plywood and fiberglass;
  • Sliding doors with minimalist hardware;
  • Leather, chrome and glass;

If you’re looking for the ultimate classics, some of them are still in production. These are new pieces of furniture, made to the original design and method, approved for distribution by the original designer. You will find many people offer cheaper alternatives with the same design, but they will likely be made with cheaper materials and craftsmanship. 

tulip chair knollTulip Chair, Eero Saarinen (1957). Source: knoll.com
eames lounge chairEames Lounge Chair, Charles and Ray Eames (1956). Source: hermanmiller.com
finn juhl credenzaCredenza, Finn Juhl (1955). Source: dwr.com
  • Left: Tulip Chair, Eero Saarinen (1957). Approved distributor: Knoll.
  • Center: Eames Lounge Chair, Ray & Charles Eames (1956). Approved distributor: Herman Miller;
  • Right: Credenza, Finn Juhl (1955). Approved distributor: Design Within Reach.

Sadly, most mid century modern designs are out of production, and you are left scouring flea markets, antiques stores and the internet to find original pieces… Don’t forget grandma’s garage, you never know what you might find! Here are a few beauties to look out for:

adrian pears all coffee tableAdrian Pearsall Model 893-TGO Coffee Table (1950s). Source: 1stdibs.com
Edward Wormley Open Back Sofa (1947). Source: 1stdibs.comEdward Wormley Open Back Sofa (1947). Source: 1stdibs.com
1950s Danish Modern Teak Hans Wegner Model 20 Hutch (1959). Source: 1stdibs.com
  • Left: Adrian Pearsall Model 893-TGO Coffee Table (1950s).
  • Center: Edward Wormley Open Back Sofa (1947).
  • Right: Hans Wegner Model 20 Hutch (1959).

New Alternatives in Mid Century Style

Pretty much all the big furniture distributors have jumped on the mid century band wagon in some way. Although frowned upon by die-hard collectors, these mainstream alternatives make the style more accessible to the masses. I personally would go for furniture which is inspired by mid-century, instead of what looks like a bad copy of an original classic. So spot those skinny legs on squared sideboards, the return of teak, and smooth clean lines. Here are some of my favorite budget pieces:


Xander ArmchairSlate Grey Xander Armchair, World Market
Porter TV StandPorter Mid Century Modern TV Stand, Target
mid century modern design style dining chairMorgan Dining Chair, Joy Bird
mid century modern design shelvesWalnut Brown Wood Ashlyn Bookshelf, World Market
mid century modern design coffee tableTwo-Tone Mid Century Modern Coffee Table, Target
Fairfax SofaFairfax Sofa, All Modern
mid century modern design style sofaChunky Woven Albin Upholstered Sectional Sofa, World Market
Embick Mid-Century Modern Dining ChairEmbick Mid-Century Modern Dining Chair, Target
mid century modern design style dresserAlton Cherry Dresser, Living Spaces

The top row are all from World Market, and although they don’t have a great selection of mid century modern design in my local shop, online they have loads of great pieces (grab the 10% coupon code at the end of the post or sign up for World Market emails and get 15% off). The second row are all from Target, who would have thought?! Again, a huge selection online compared with the stores. The bottom row are from Joy Bird (who specialize specifically in mid century modern but are a little more pricey), All Modern and Living Spaces.

DIY Mid Century Modern Design 

I don’t like waste, and I do like DIY. Those of you in my team may have trouble throwing out that 90’s pine dresser that’s been tucked in the garage for the past 10 years. Or maybe you spend your weekends trawling garage sales? Trouble is, this furniture is rarely winning style awards, so get your design cap on and up-cycle. The great thing about up-cycling free or cheap furniture – if it goes wrong, you haven’t ruined an expensive piece, so the pressure is off… have some fun!

DIY ideas to transform your furniture to mid century modern design:
  • Add tapered legs;
  • Change the hardware;
  • Wrap in wood veneer;
  • Stain a darker color – teak is classic;
  • Reupholster with a retro style fabric.
Hairpin Legs, AmazonHairpin Legs, Amazon
tapered mid century modern legsTapered Legs, Amazon
mid century modern knobBrass Knob, Amazon
hairpin legsHairpin Legs, Amazon
before after sofa leg changeTapered Legs, Amazon
mid century modern nightstandBrass Knob, Amazon

I’m definitely feeling the mid century vibe… when I find the perfect project I’ll come back to show it off. I hope you’re feeling inspired to raid Grandma’s house for treasures, don’t overlook those pieces that need a little TLC!


**This post contains affiliate links. This means I get a small commission if you purchase through some of the links. This does not affect the price of the item.**

10% off at World Market with code SAVEBIG10


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About the author

Katherine is an electrochemist, hiking enthusiast, and family lifestyle blogger. As a mom of three, including twins, she enjoys DIY, travel, and eating good food. British born, Katherine moved to the US in 2014, and now called Las Vegas home.

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