3 Designers Who Set the Bar for Mid-Century Modern Design

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Design does not necessarily require reinventing the wheel, and successful designers understand the importance of using the techniques of the designers who went before them to create something better. It is the job of a good designer to build on the work that has gone before and elevate it to a new ergonomic and aesthetic level.

Mid-Century Modern design gained popularity in the early 1950s, but the movement’s design aesthetic first started developing in the early 1930s. Now, some eight decades later, Mid-Century Modern has become a staple of interior design once again.

The Mid-Century aesthetic is all about clean lines, natural shapes and industrial materials (though wood was a prominent material used at this time). If you are at all interested in design, then you are likely familiar with the phrase, “form follows function.” This phrase is the mantra of the Mid Century designer; there is no need for frills or embellishments. If it does not assist in the function of the design, it is considered unnecessary and even wasteful.

Who were some of the individuals who developed this idea? Who were the creators of the Mid-Century Modern design aesthetic? There were and still are many designers who work in this vein, but the three designers featured here were some of the forerunners of the movement, and one continues to this day to produce designs that capture the modernist spirit.

Sam Maloof, American

Famous For: Maloof Rocker | Career Span: 1945-2009

Child's Rocker

With a career that spanned six decades, Sam Maloof was a prolific Mid-Century Modern craftsman. Specializing in woodworking, he designed furniture pieces with this thought in mind: “I want to be able to work a piece of wood into an object that contributes something beautiful and useful to everyday life. And I want to do this for an individual that I can come to know as a friend.”

Maloof’s work is characterized by subtle grains and curving lines. The seeming simplicity of his work reflects the importance of style and function. The curvature of Maloof’s famous rocking chair exhibits the movement and form of the human body. His work demonstrates that there is beauty even in the most unassuming. What sets Maloof apart from other Mid-Century designers of the time is that he crafted his pieces by hand. A major part of the Mid-Century movement was that products could be mass produced. Maloof was a modern designer with Arts & Crafts leanings.

Paul McCobb, American

Famous For: Planner Group Wall Storage | Career Span: 1945-1969

Paul McCobb with his Directional Group Furniture. Source: MCM Groovy

A professionally trained artist and self-trained designer, Paul McCobb’s Mid Century furniture designs were inspired by the Shaker and Windsor movements, but he turned them on their heads. The Shaker style, like Mid-Century Modern, was about establishing balance between form and function. Beauty and functionality were to go hand in hand.

McCobb’s design style is characterized by its modularity, horizontal lines and industrial aesthetic. His furniture frames were built of brass with surfaces made of fine woods and fabrics. McCobb pared down the Shaker style by removing materials that did not serve a purpose. His most valued work, the Planner Group Wall Storage unit, is little more than an industrial skeleton.

In his work, McCobb saw that “bare bones” can be functional and aesthetically pleasing. His work lives on and continues to be bold today.

Eero Saarinen, Finnish

Famous For: Womb Chair | Career Span: 1940-1961

Eero Saarinen seated in a prototype of his Womb Chair. 1947. Photograph: Harvey Croze. Copyright Cranbrook Archives. AA2221-4

Eero Saarinen is one of the more famous Mid-Century Modern designers, with design textbooks devoting whole chapters to him and a pair of designers he often collaborated with, Charles and Ray Eames.

Saarinen was an architect and furniture designer, known for designing the St. Louis Arch and the now classic womb chair. Saarinen believed that “the purpose of architecture [was] to shelter and enhance man’s life on earth and to fulfill his belief in the nobility of existence.” By Saarinen’s account, the built world should propel humankind.

Saarinen’s work is recognizable by its curving lines and sculptural aesthetic. His chairs almost look like they hold their sitters in an embrace, and they are still popular and widely sought after today.

The simplicity of Mid-Century Modern design was meant to disentangle and remove the stresses and pressure points of daily living. Mid-Century Modern designs have for the last several decades shaped living spaces and influenced design philosophy. Do you want to declutter your life? Start with clean lines and beautiful, functional furniture.

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