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Design Trend: Mid-Century Modern Graphic Design and Beyond
Marc Schenker October 15, 2021 · 13 min read
The History of Mid-Century Modern DesignWe can’t look to this style without understanding what big design trend immediately came before it. In this case, it was Art Deco, that machine-influenced, geometric style that was at once simple and excessive. While Art Deco was flashier, Mid-Century Modern opted for more minimalistic and timeless design touches, though the latter did retain some of Art Deco’s standout features, such as its treatment of angles and lines. When we look back at the touchpoint that gave life to this design movement, we have to look at the state of America after World War II. While this style technically dates back to the 1930s, it wasn’t after the end of World War II—when so many soldiers were returning home, starting families and needed new housing, and the U.S. economy was booming—that this movement really took off. In the 1940s, post-war America was typified by hope, optimism, and prosperity. With the war won, Americans could focus on the building their lives at home. One of the first catalysts that would provide the spark for this boom, called the Post-World War II Economic Expansion, was the need for new homes for returning soldiers. The West Coast was the starting point for Mid-Century design, with new homes being built in a style designed to rival Europe’s Bauhaus — with a uniquely American spin. Because of this new golden age of capitalism, relatively stable peace, and absence of notable financial crises, society was able to focus on ideation. Designers, as just one group that benefitted from this peace, had the chance to come up with new approaches that influenced the interior design and architecture of its day. One of these ideas was tract or cookie-cutter housing, which is when a lot of similar-looking homes are built on a tract of land that’s then subdivided into smaller, individual lots. Such housing developments were and are still common on the formerly rural edges of towns and cities in the U.S. and other countries. This style of housing was minimalist in design; because it didn’t take as much effort to build these houses, construction was faster than with other styles of homes. This approach fed the need for the plethora of new homes for returning soldiers and their new families after the war. It was at this time when this new approach to housing was catching fire that designers began to experiment with design characteristics that would become hallmarks of this design. Many of these new houses featured the simplicity one expects of minimalism: clean, horizontal and well-defined lines, geometric shapes, and open flows. The rise of the American automobile in those early, 20th-century decades was also a contributing factor to how these homes were constructed in the Mid-Century Modern motif. Since more and more families were buying and owning cars, garages and car ports were accordingly becoming a common sight in these new tract houses. Mid-Century design also influenced graphic design, particularly when it came to postcards and signage of the time. It became increasingly popular for postcards to feature these new architectural and interior design transformations that were touching every aspect of American life. In this way, postcards of the age almost became a sort of media documenting these changes in pop culture. While this design style started out transforming how homes were built, it also ended up greatly influencing interior design because new ways of designing furniture had to be devised to accommodate these stripped-down, airier spaces. The result was product design for furniture that was typified by characteristics like:
The Design Characteristics of Mid-Century ModernWhether you’re appreciating graphic design, interiors or a website, you can tell it’s been designed with this style based on these qualities:
- A rejection of ornamentation for the sake of ornamentation
- Clean lines and angles
- Fluid movement
- Usability (“form follows function”)
- Experimentation with materials (the use of traditional, non-traditional, and even contrasting materials)
- Geometric influences (curves, angles)
- Multi-purpose use
- Colors: neutral, bold and vibrant
MaterialsThese materials were used in radical ways:
- Bent wood
- Tubular steel
Mid-Century Modern Graphic DesignAs touched on above, graphic design in the era of this style became a way of chronicling these bold, new changes to how Americans and the rest of the world lived. From the 1930s to the 1960s, it was common to see postcards featuring this design style displaying motifs like:
- Suburban homes
- Military infrastructure
- Civil infrastructure
- Civilian life
- Saturated, vibrant and loud colors
- A soft focus
- White borders (for stylistic purposes, which were a leftover design feature from the way postcards after World War I were produced)
- A large variety of categories (everything from the aforementioned scenes of Americana to comic postcards)
Mid-Century Modern TypographyNo treatment of this design trend is complete without acknowledging the noteworthy contributions to typography that this era produced. The typography here was, in keeping with the aesthetic in other areas, quite minimalist, especially when compared to the typefaces used in advertising in previous decades. With this style, typography generally chose the sans-serif path, using more conservative and starker lettering. Case in point: Helvetica, the sans serif created in the 1950s by Swiss designer Max Miedinger. Usually regarded as a shining example of the Swiss Style of design, Helvetica nonetheless exhibits the same clean and modern appearance that was a trademark of Mid-century Modern. Besides Helvetica, another notable example is Futura, the sans serif font with geometric properties (based on the circle), created by font designer Paul Renner in 1927. Futura, while often associated with the Bauhaus movement, also displays characteristics of Mid-Century, particularly its uniformity and cold efficiency. These two traits put Futura more on the precision-centered, clinical side of modernism, exhibiting a certain machine-like tendency. That’s not to say that all the fonts in this style were cold. Some generated more warmth and therefore more friendliness, from the viewer’s perspective. A couple of great examples of warmer Mid-Century fonts include Franklin Gothic and Standard or Akzidenz-Grotesk.
Mid-Century Modern Web DesignA true indication of the resurgence of this style is when you see it reflected on websites in the 21st century. Its early designers, who began this style with new home style construction and interiors, would never have guessed that this movement would one day be applied digitally, too. slab serif typography is also reminiscent of the more minimalist fonts used in the mid-20th century. emblems of these vintage cars. As touched on in the earlier discussion on the typography of this era, note how these chrome typefaces are more accessible and warmer, based on their bolder strokes and lines.
Mid-Century Modern Interior DesignFinding authentic Mid-Century furnishings can be something of a challenge because there’s always the question of legitimacy. There are new pieces still being made today, but the price point may be daunting for some, with the oldest and most authentic pieces commanding the highest prices. One way to start without breaking the bank is by purchasing a big piece to set the tone. Another approach is to go with something a room is sorely lacking, such as a coffee table or a good reading chair. Then, complete the space with finishing, decorative touches like:
- Candlestick holders
- Floor pillows
The Egg ChairDanish designer Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair is a timeless example of Mid-Century Modern. Designed in 1958, it features fluid lines that hint at the movement so common in the organic influences of this style. Note its lack of ornamentation and its function-above-everything-else approach. Its curvy structure conforms to the contours of one’s body, providing a comfortable seating experience.
The Eames Lounge ChairFrom famed ergonomic-furniture company Herman Miller and designers Charles and Ray Eames, this piece was released in 1956. Its goal was affordability and mass production, and it was made of plywood shells to copy the comfort and coziness of a baseball glove. As with the Egg Chair, aesthetics wasn’t the main concern for its designers. Rather, they focused on creating a chair with appropriate curves that easily contour and support the person sitting on it. The accompanying ottoman adds further, ergonomic comfort, and good posture.
The Diamond ChairHarry Bertoia’s Diamond Chair makes quite the first impression. The piece from this modern-furniture designer is crafted out of welded steel and satin or polished-chrome rods. Chair cushions are secured onto the structure with lock-on snaps, ensuring seating comfort and support. Full covers can be stretched right over the entire frame and then attached to the seat basket with hooks. Epitomizing the airy and bare-bones design of this aesthetic, this chair is seen as an iconic representation of this era.
Design Transformation EverywhereThe strength of Mid-Century Modern was in its ability to affect all aspects of daily life, whether it was the home in which you lived, the postcard you held in your hands, or the furniture on which you sat. That’s why it’s today considered one of the most important design movements in recent memory, which is saying something. Its dedication to simplicity and function over form certainly overlapped with other design movements of its day, but none made such an impact on American life as this design style did. It’s making a comeback today, so be sure to familiarize yourself with this trend by checking out the many Mid-Century Modern digital assets we have.
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