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6 Giants of Mid-Century Modern Design

It’s impossible to scroll through Instagram or flip through a magazine without seeing mid-century modern furniture. Beloved for its accessibility and affordability, this simple yet elegant design includes some of the trendiest items around.

Gio Ponti, pair of ‘Distex’ armchairs, 1953, brass and fabric upholstery, 81.3 x 78.7 x 101.6 cm. Image © Phillips

Familiarly abbreviated as MCM, mid-century modern designs have made an impressive comeback in the last few years. Although these styles originated between the 1930s and 1960s, the clean lines, sleek profiles and effortlessly chic feel create a timeless quality that’s still fresh and appealing. Searches for ‘mid-century modern’ on Barnebys increased more than 72% from 2019 to 2020, indicating a heightened interest in these stylish and functional pieces. To help you learn more about this retro trend, here are six noteworthy designers who contributed to the iconic style.

Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen, dining set, 1956-57, teak, enamelled metal, fiberglass and upholstery, 69 x 137 cm. Image © Rago Auctions

The Finnish-American architect and designer Eero Saarinen is remembered for his innovative buildings and monuments, including the Washington Dulles International Airport outside of Washington D.C. and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. One of his most famous furniture designs is his space-age style ‘Tulip Chair’, with complimentary dining table. His purpose was to clear up the “slum of legs” present in a typical dining set. His unique pedestal model won the Museum of Modern Art Award in 1969 and is now considered a classic of industrial design.

Gio Ponti

Gio Ponti, pair of ‘Distex’ armchairs, 1953, brass and fabric upholstery, 81.3 x 78.7 x 101.6 cm. Image © Phillips

Over the course of his six-decade-long career, the Italian architect Gio Ponti built more than one hundred buildings worldwide and designed an impressive number of decorative art objects and pieces of furniture. He defined his ideal expression of a finished form as simple, light and without any possibility of addition, and he made designs that were both aesthetically pleasing and supremely functional. His ‘Distex’ armchairs are considered emblematic of Italian design, and his incredibly lightweight ‘Superleggera’ chairs made for Cassina are still produced today.

Charles and Ray Eames

Charles and Ray Eames, lounge chair and ottoman, 1956, cherry wood, aluminum and leather. Image © Uppsala Auktionskammare

The original design power couple, Charles and Ray Eames built off of Bauhaus tenets to create beautiful, functional furniture that could be mass-produced. The duo experimented extensively with moulded plywood, pioneering techniques to make the most out of the inexpensive and durable material. One of their most successful designs was the ‘Eames Lounge Chair’ and matching ottoman, made from molded plywood and leather. The luxury item was inspired by English club chairs, and has been in constant production since its introduction in 1956.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, pair of ‘Barcelona’ chairs, designed 1929, chrome-plated steel base with leather straps and upholstered leather cushions. Image © Göteborgs Auktionsverk

The German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is considered one of the pioneers of modern architecture, along with Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier. He was the last director of the Bauhaus school, and defined his personal style with extreme simplicity and structural clarity. Van der Rohe designed his popular ‘Barcelona’ chair for the German pavilion at the International Exposition of 1929, and the chrome-plated steel and leather pieces require careful hand craftsmanship despite their industrial appearance.

Harry Bertoia

Harry Bertoia, ‘Diamond Chair’, 1952, steel, 75 x 85 x 62 cm. Image © Sotheby’s

Although Harry Bertoia is known for his steel ‘sound art’ sculptures, he is also recognised for his contributions to modern design. In 1950, he began working with Hans and Florence Knoll, ultimately creating five different pieces including the infamous ‘Diamond Chair’. The chair is made from a welded steel lattice, resulting in a fluid, sculptural piece with more negative than positive space. After a slight redesign, the chairs could be mass-produced and they enjoyed immediate commercial success.

Arne Jacobsen

Arne Jacobsen, pair of ‘Swan’ chairs, 1957, teak and fabric upholstery, 76.8 cm high. Image © Christie’s

The Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen created many unique and functional pieces, and he is particularly remembered for his innovative chairs. His modernist ‘Egg’ chair was designed for the Radisson SAS hotel in Copenhagen in 1959, and is still being made today. The ‘Swan’ chair, from 1958, is similarly fashioned in a single, curvacious piece and mounted on a star-shaped aluminum base.


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