The period after the demise of World War II was one of adversity, with the world in a state of monetary and psychological exhaustion. Funding and supplies were severely limited, and reconstruction needs were hastened. This resulted in pioneering utilisation of restricted assets. Hence, mid-century modern design was born.
Introducing Mid-century Modern Design
This fresh design movement lasted for approximately two and a half decades, in the heart of the 20th century, from the mid-1940s until 1970. Its understated aesthetic is appealing in light of the recently troublesome economic climate, which has caused people to streamline their lifestyle. Many artistic abstractions are associated with mid-century modern design, although these architectural and interior decoration attributes are most characteristic of this design style:
- Continuous flow between indoor and outdoor living
A prime concept is forming a link between the home and the open-air environment by means of wide windows, sliding doors and patios. Rooms furthermore have numerous outdoor views, or several access points, which promotes the cherishing of al fresco affairs.
- Au Naturel Construction Fabrics
The inbuilt traits of building fabrics are celebrated by being utilised as finishes within the home. Fabrics remain in their raw, original state instead of being altered for decorative purposes.
- Neutral Shades
Warm and earthy tones, as seen in the prevalent organic woods, are at the hub of the mid-century modern colour palette. However, this soft colour scheme is bolstered by being merged with a dash of vibrant, saturated colour. Unforeseen colour combinations are also much appreciated.
- Daring Patterns
Striking geometrics, sumptuous curves and playful motifs inject a powerful graphic element. Hefty, textural materials, such as burlap or furrowed woolly knits, enhance the patterns’ strong influence on the atmosphere in the room.
- Intense Illumination
Sputnik chandeliers, bubble lights and Arco floor lamps are archetypal mid-century lighting options that boost the drama in the space. These lighting styles are pronounced to the extent that they, on their own, constitute design motifs.
Prominent Mid-century Modern Designers
The dominant designers of the mid-century modern era possessed multifaceted artistic skills. Their architectural prowess prompted the development of illustrious structures, while their innate flair for creative conception, added je ne sais quoi to what could have been considered mundane pieces of furniture.
- George Nelson
Connecticut-born Nelson was a pioneer of post-World War II design in the United States. He was a man of many talents, serving as an architect, graphic designer and furniture designer. An architecture alumnus of Yale University, Nelson was appointed as the associate editor of the magazine Architecture Forum.
His writing caught the eye of D.J. De Pree, the then-president of furniture company Herman Miller. This laid the foundation for a transformation of the company, of which Nelson became the design director. During his time at Herman Miller, Nelson designed classic, legendary furniture items such as the Coconut Chair, Marshmallow Sofa, and Ball Clock. He also recruited other celebrated designers including Charles and Ray Eames.
- Charles and Ray Eames
The Eames’s welcomed the 20th century’s idealistic notion of employing modern design as a vehicle for social modification. They presented a multimedia course, which strived to eliminate the boundaries of standard tertiary education, to encourage creative thought. Charles was in addition a foremost cultural ambassador, working with numerous councils to develop programs for the progression of the arts.
The Eameses’ design of cost-effective furniture for Herman Miller was triggered by wartime trials with innovative fabrics and technologies. Instrumental architectural critic, Esther McCoy, named their Molded Plywood Chair “the chair of the century”.
- Arne Jacobson
Arne Jacobson has been dubbed the grandfather of contemporary Danish furnishings and the subtle Danish aesthetic. He is an esteemed architect, with St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, and the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, being among his most notable works. However, he is most recognised for his simplistic but practical chair designs.
The Ant Chair, produced by Fritz Hansen in 1954, was Jacobson’s revolutionary design, which was soon succeeded by the Sevens Chair. This design catapulted Jacobsen, and Fritz Hansen, to globally renowned status. Other popular designs include the Egg Chair and the Swan Chair, each of which have been acknowledged as respected designs the world over.
Mid-century Modern Design in South Africa
During the mid 20th century, South African designer John Tabraham was at the forefront of contemporary design in the country, and in demand by many of its upscale furniture producers. His furniture compendiums were distinguished by clean lines and minimalistic, chic forms. He collaborated with premium furniture houses, with his most celebrated work being done with furniture house, Kallenbach. Apart from Kallenbach, a host of retailers, such as G.H Starck (Ltd.), Novocraft and D.S. Vorster, kept mid-century modern design alive in South Africa.
Cape Town’s fashionable artist population and appreciation for antiquated items, has guaranteed a natural attraction to the international resurgence of the mid-century modern design. There are various thriving furniture stores, scattered across the city, which are devoted to the import and refurbishment of mid-century modern furniture and décor. Many of the contemporary, upmarket stores stock furniture by designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, and Arne Jacobson. However, budget-conscious shoppers will rejoice as other stores offer the less expensive imitations.
- Mid-Century Modern
This vintage furniture outlet is situated in a 1960’s car showroom, and houses a coffee shop with the most delectable cappuccinos. The radiant space is home to only authentic designer pieces from the mid-century era, without any room for replicas. A refurbishing service is also offered, which is performed by greatly skilled craftsmen.
Although majority of their stock hails from Denmark, they also source locally. The most highly valued product in store is the Arne Jacobson Egg Chair, yet they also have available an impressive range of lighting décor items. Among these are the famous “Contrast” pendant lamp by Poul Henningsen, and the vibrant, teal, hand-blown glass pendant light, by Luciano Vistosi. What adds to an already outstanding range of goods, are pieces from Carl Hansen & Son, the manufacturer of iconic designer Hans Wegner’s furniture. This includes the Wishbone Chair, one of his most revered creations.
Find them at: 10 Durham Avenue, Salt River, Cape Town, 7925
- Space for Life
Space For Life follows the recycle, refashion and reformulate way of thinking, which is being embraced by numerous progressive decor projects, in this day and age. Their offering of finely selected, Scandinavian-designed products is complemented by the works of local South African designers. They aim to afford opportunities to promising and committed creatives, both recognised and emerging. The showcasing of local masterpieces highlights the coexistence of cultures. Moreover, Space for Life provides an all-encompassing décor service, which involves tailor-made furniture design and production, space planning and layout, drawings and project management.
Find them at: 4G, Observatory Park, 5 Howe St, Observatory, Cape Town, 7925
- Bofred Feature Furniture
Fine art graduates Christa Botha and Carla Erasmus established this décor house in 2014. They source mid-century modern décor, crafted in South Africa, which they rebuild into distinctive works of art. They also diversified their portfolio to include their own collection of furnishings. These are produced by collaborating with talented local carpenters, who construct each item by hand. The collection contains a wide variety of striking colours and sumptuous textures, and was inspired by present-day design developments, globetrotting adventures, daily rendezvous and art.
Find them at: 1st Floor, 36 Buitenkant Street, Cape Town, 8000
- Budget-friendly Store: Karizma
Karizma houses an assortment of formerly-loved, mid-century modern furniture, at a low cost. They stopover at yard sales, browse through antique markets and attend auctions to collect their pieces.
Find Karizma at: 388 Albert Rd, Woodstock, Cape Town, 7925
Find Chair Crazy at: 176 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock, Cape Town, 7925
Mid-century Modern Design on Instagram
These Instagram accounts are a visual delight that showcase the very best of mid-century modern masterpieces that the world of design has to offer:
Further Reading on Mid-century Modern Design
Discover a couple of books about this design genre by taking a look at Deco Profile: Leslie Williamson.
Zeenat, a digital intern at ELLE Decoration, is a creative at heart with a passion for weddings, fashion and makeup. She adores blissful moments of solitude spent indulging in a warm cup of Rooibos tea, and red velvet cupcakes.
The Africa Issue is a celebration of the future of design in Africa and its potential to drive change. We explore the concept of ‘Africaness’, what this means for our aesthetic. We also dream big with bedroom inspiration and take you on a tour of homes that truly embrace the spirit of the continent. Pick up your copy today and tell us what you think on Twitter @Elle_Deco using #AfricaIssue