14 Iconic Mid Century Modern Pieces
The mid-century modern era started in the 1930s when people wanted to purchase attractive furniture at modest prices. Ironically, due to the furniture's popularity and timeless design, they are hardly affordable in this day and age, but still in demand. Its more than likely that you encounter multiple mid-century modern pieces on the daily without even realizing it!
As we revel in this resurgence of mid-century modern and loose ourselves in the simple silhouettes, minimal hardware, and pared-down color palettes, we must remind ourselves to not overlook the trailblazers who started the movement in the first place. Read on for 14 of the most iconic mid-century modern pieces and their designers.
1. Womb Chair
by Eero Saarinen (1946)
The Womb Chair was designed by Eero Saarinen, one of the mid-century modern design pioneers. Saarinen is famous for his Womb Chair, also known as Model No. 70. The Womb Chair was inspired by one of his bosses and design icon, Florence Knoll, who challenged Saarinen to create a chair that “she could curl up in”.
Its name expresses its purpose: "It was designed on the theory that a great number of people have never really felt comfortable and secure since they left the womb. The chair is an attempt to rectify this maladjustment in our civilization." Saarinen further explained, "There seemed to be a need for a large and really comfortable chair to take the place of the old overstuffed chair. . . . Today, more than ever before, we need to relax."
One of my closest friends has a gorgeous mustard yellow womb chair. I can, without a doubt, attest to this chair being one of the most comfortable chairs you will ever have the pleasure of experiencing. I have witnessed first hand how difficult it is to get out of this chair due to its level comfort.
2. Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman
by Charles and Ray Eames (1956)
Ray and Charles Eames wanted their Lounge Chair and Ottoman to have the “warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.” Often referred to as a twentieth-century interpretation of the nineteenth-century English club chair, this seating instantly became a symbol of comfort.
It is one of the most significant designs of the 20th century. Unparalleled craftsmanship and attention to detail made it a fixture in homes across the world. Whether you are a lover of design or not, its hard not to find this lounge chair aesthetically pleasing and visually intriguing.
3. Wassily Chair
by Marcel Breuer (1925)
Some designs never age, and the Wassily Chair by Knoll is the perfect case study in this brand of timelessness. Breuer claimed to have drawn inspiration from the tubular-steel handlebars after purchasing his first bicycle. He reasoned that if the material could be bent into handlebars, it could be bent into forms for furniture.
The canvas seat, back, and arms seem to float in space; the body of the sitter does not touch the steel framework. Breuer spoke of the chair as his “most extreme work . . . the least artistic, the most logical, the least ‘cozy’ and the most mechanical.” This chair is not the most comfortable but it is a work of art and that can be appreciated in itself. If you sat in, you'll quickly want to get up and realize it's better off being appreciated from afar.
4. Arco Floor Lamp
by Flos (1962)
The Arco floor lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni is a design icon that has been in constant production since its debut in 1962 and is now considered a design classic. The famed Castiglioni brothers spared no detail when they created it, from the beveled corners of its genuine Carrera marble base (designed not to hurt should you brush against them) to the strategic hole that allows for easy lifting of the base.
The Castiglioni brothers drew their inspiration for the Arco lamp from something they saw every day: a streetlight. Using commercially available parts, they set out to design a piece that was technically innovative and visually appealing—a lamp that was functional but wouldn’t need to be stepped around. They finished it with a marble base, knowing that the same weight would take up less space, allowing the Arco to live in—not take over—the room it illuminated.
The strategic hole in base's design doesn't help much because the marble base is actually extremely heavy. I only know this because my close friend (the same one with the womb chair) was moving to a new apartment, and neither one of us could lift it without risking a back injury.
5. Pedestal Table
by Eero Saarinen (1957)
Architect Eero Saarinen was a genius at creating expressive sculptural forms. From his TWA Terminal (now the TWA Hotel) at New York’s JFK Airport to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to his Pedestal Table (1956), there’s a magic in everything he created. The Saarinen Dining Table began with his observation that “the underside of typical tables and chairs makes a confusing, unrestful world,” and as he explained in a 1956 Time magazine cover story, he was designing a new collection to “clear up the slum of legs in the U.S. home.” Later that year, he completed the Pedestal Table, which stands on a gracefully shaped cast-aluminum base inspired by a drop of high-viscosity liquid.
by Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret, and Le Corbusier (1965)
While the LC4 lounge is usually associated with Le Corbusier, he did not design it alone. It was a team effort, produced with two other gifted furniture designers in his atelier, his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand for the 1929 Salon d’Automne. One of the earliest examples of industrial-style furniture, it was originally known as the “resting machine.” At the time, it was nothing short of revolutionary.
Built in a shape designed for relaxation, the chair was created when the three designers teamed together to put ergonomics at the centre of their design, taking the idea that form and function should be at the service of relaxation, creating a perfect balance between its geometric purity and its ergonomic intent. The stability of the frame – for any angle of inclination is guaranteed by the friction through rubber tubes that cover the cross bar of the base.
7. Florence Knoll Sofa
by Florence Knoll (1954)
Florence Knoll modestly referred to her furniture designs as the “meat and potatoes” of interiors, and to this day they hold the same iconic American appeal as that most basic and functional of meals. The Florence Knoll Sofa has the simple architectural lines and unparalleled construction of all modern classics. It’s designed to last a lifetime, featuring solid wood inner frame, polished chrome outer frame, and no-sag seat suspension.
8. flag halyard chair
by Hans J Wegner (1950)
With the Flag Halyard Chair, Wegner acknowledges the early modernists such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer, and proves that he too masters designs in chromium-plated steel pipes. The chair's surfaces are made of plaited flag halyard with the longhaired sheepskin softening the industrial sharpness of the steel, adding comfort.
The idea was conceived on a hot summer afternoon in rather inconsequential circumstances. While the kids were playing in the waters along the beach, Wegner was digging himself into the sand building a comfortable chair. Wegner made the first sketches of the Flag Halyard chair using the seating angles that he had conceived on the beach.
This is one of my personal favorites out of the list I put together in this post. I appreciate the juxtaposition of materials and the way the it sits somebody like they are actually relaxing at the beach.
9. Barcelona Chair
by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1929)
In the past, and sometimes even now, women didn’t always get the credit owed to them for their design contributions. The Barcelona, chair which is attributed to the great modernist master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was designed not by him alone, but in association with his close collaborator Lilly Reich.
The chair was originally designed for the German Pavilion at the International Exposition of 1929 in Barcelona. The Pavilion was the site of the inaugural ceremony for the German exhibits at the exposition, and the Spanish king was to preside. Determined to create a chair worthy of royalty, Mies is thought to have based the designs, with their signature crisscross frames, on the campaign chairs of Ancient Rome. Mies: “I feel that it must be possible to harmonize the old and new in our civilization.”
10. Noguchi Table
by Isamu Noguchi (1948)
This piece is the perfect balance of art and furniture. It was conceived by sculptor Isamu Noguchi by joining three pieces. A 3/4-inch free form glass top rests on two curved, solid wood legs that interlock to form a tripod for support. This marriage of sculptural form and everyday function has made the Noguchi table a beautiful element in homes and offices since it first went into production.
Although it looks delicate, it is solid, perfectly balanced, durable.
11. Marshmallow Sofa
by George Nelson (1956)
George Nelson and Irving Harper, a young designer working in Nelson’s design firm, were approached by an inventor who had created an injection plastic disc that he insisted could be produced inexpensively and would be durable. The designers took a look and arranged 18 of them on a steel frame which ended up being the frame for the Marshmallow sofa.
By joining separate elements and making them appear to float on air, Nelson and Harper achieved this sofa’s unique appearance and eye-catching appeal, which led the way into the pop art style of the 1960s.
12. Egg Chair
by Arne Jacobsen (1958)
Form follows function, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Arne Jacobsen’s biomorphic Egg. This sculpted chair cradles the human body, offering a softer, more curvilinear alternative to Modernism’s geometric lines. Sitters can turn toward a conversation area or away thanks to the swivel base and the chair also tilts back for lounging.
13. Shell Chair
by Hans Wegner (1963)
When Hans J. Wegner unveiled the design of the CH07 Shell Chair in 1963, many critics loved the avant-garde look, but the general public was reluctant to accept its distinctive expression. Mixed reviews in the 1960s along with the less-developed production techniques of the time, resulted in very limited production. When Carl Hansen & Søn reintroduced the Shell Chair in 1998, it won broad public admiration almost immediately due to the interest of a new generation.
Sometimes called the “smiling chair,” Hans Wegner’s Shell Chair achieves a floating lightness with its wing-like seat and arching curved legs. It stands on only three legs, but Shell has absolute stability, owing to Wegner’s expertise in cabinetmaking and architecture. His belief that a chair “should be beautiful from all sides and angles” is especially evident here, a marvel of grace and beauty.
14. Diamond Chair
by Harry Bertoia (1952)
The Diamond Chair is an astounding study in space, form and function by one of the master sculptors of the last century. Harry Bertoia’s wire chairs are among the most recognized achievements of mid-century modern design and a proud part of the Knoll heritage.
Looking at these chairs, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Harry Bertoia was a sculptor. In fact, the success of his wire furniture collection for Knoll, of which this chair is part, enabled him to pursue an art-making career. The Diamond chair is such an icon that it’s easy to forget how avant-garde it was when it made its debut in 1952.
As Bertoia himself noted, “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.” Remarkably, these lofty seats are also immensely comfortable!
I can attest to that statement as well because I am currently sitting in one as I write this post!
Mid-century modern furnishings are worth the investment not only because they’re stylish, but also because they’ll last for generations to come. Classics by brands such as Herman Miller and Knoll have withstood the test of time in their quality, and they’re flexible enough to fit in a wide range of interiors today.
These timeless, iconic mid-century furnishings will elevate the look of any space and they’ll earn you major designer "creds" from anyone with a keen eye for the sort.