What is MCM Decor and Why Is it Popular?

If you like design and decor, you've probably heard of the mid-century modern style. This aesthetic defines much of what we consider 'retro' today.

Picture a magazine spread showing a living room with big windows covering the whole wall. The midcentury modern furniture in the space is timeless and stylish, oozing refined sophistication.

Design trends are always changing, with different shapes, colors, and materials prevalent in different eras. However, there's something special about mid-century modern (MCM).

This timeless style is hugely influential and remains popular more than half a century after its inception. So, how does a style become so enduringly popular?

This article explores what makes decor mid-century and why mid-century modern design is still so trendy in 2023. Join us to uncover what's so special about the MCM style.

What is the Difference Between Mid-century and Mid-century Modern Decor?

You might have seen the terms 'mid-century' and 'mid-century modern' used interchangeably to describe the stylish pieces we all know and love. However, mid-century decor is distinct from mid-century modern. The word 'mid-century' is broader than 'mid-century modern' and can describe various aesthetics prominent in the 1930s-1960s design.

For example, the later stages of Art Deco design are mid-century pieces, as are the 1950s-60s Atomic Age designs. However, mid-century modern is the name for one specific style emerging from the evolution of several cultural and practical changes throughout the period.

Mid-century decor pieces are eclectic and diverse, while mid-century modern are more cohesive and recognizable. There are even more features that make mid-century modern design unique and identifiable.

What Makes Mid-century Modern Unique?

One reason MCM aesthetics are still popular today is because of their unique aesthetics. Whether you know it as 'mid-century' modern or 'midcentury' modern design, the style is so striking that many of us can easily recognize its decor pieces. 

Many influences came together in the midcentury period to create the elements that make it a unique aesthetic. Discover the ethos and theory of midcentury modern design to make it easier to identify.

What is the theory of Mid-century Modern design?

The core focus of midcentury modern design is simplicity and naturalism. In the aftermath of World War II, many European designers inspired by Bauhaus principles of function emigrated to America. Theys instigated the design movement. Although the first prominent MCM designs were American, there was significant Japanese, European, and Scandinavian influence.

Mid-century modernism and American mass production created affordable, practical furniture. Many traditional, highly decorative generational pieces that had existed since the Victorian era didn't make it through WWI and WWII. American consumers enjoyed that MCM furnishings were simple, lightweight, and unique - representing a forward step in the future of the country's culture.

There are numerous defining features you can look for to identify decor that's either genuine mid-century modern or a contemporary take on retro aesthetics.

What are the key elements of Mid-century modern style?

Let's review the most commonly used mid-century modern decor elements that make it easy to spot.

Clean Lines: MCM design uses clean lines and geometric shapes to create organic-looking forms. Asymmetrical features are common in midcentury modern pieces, emphasizing the harmony between the manufactured and natural worlds. One aim of mid-century modern style was to achieve the feeling of weightlessness that was missing from the heavy wooden and metal furniture that came before.

Mixed Materials: Combining human-made and natural materials is at the core of mid-century modern decor and architecture. MCM design uses various wood tones, from warm walnut and teak woods to paler pine and spruce pieces influenced by Scandinavian furniture. Alongside wood, mid-century modern designs often incorporate glass and plastic together. Mid-century modern architects also blend concrete with raw material like wood and metal to create unique buildings.

Color Pops: As mid-century modern elements evolved, bright colors combined with neutrals in the 1960s. Picture the office for 'Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce' in Mad Men to get an idea of the colorful pops and neutral palettes popular in this retro era. Typically, primary red, blue, and yellow colors make the boldest contrast with the wood tones in this design style. Green was also hugely popular for furniture and as a floor covering. Green carpet was practical for covering dirt and footfall in busy areas, making it common for floor coverings like carpets and rugs.

Minimalism: Minimalism has had an enormous resurgence recently but originates from this era. Decor from this retro period is practical and functional. The focal point of midcentury modern furniture is to present organic shapes with clean lines that don't have excessive decoration or unnecessary ornamentation.

Keeping an eye out for these features makes it easy to identify mid-century modern decor, whether in a time-capsule retro environment or used to complement a modern design style.

Which Designers Represent Mid-century Modern Decor?

If you want to invest in some genuine mid-century modern decor and own art from this period, knowing specific designers makes it easy to find what you want. Let's review some of the most significant designers of the time.

Charles & Ray Eames

Even if you don't know an Eames chair by name, you know its distinctive recliner shape and footstool. Married couple Charles and Ray Eames were industrial designers who pioneered much of the MCM aesthetic. They originally intended to design furniture and lighting fixtures with organic shapes and minimal material. Charles Eames initially earned recognition for co-creating a chair from a single piece of plywood.

George Nelson

The most recognizable design you'll find from George Nelson is his marshmallow sofa. Nelson used warm shades of orange and purple to create a fun piece of furniture that looks like rows of buttons or eye-catching candy. Rounded shapes are signatures of Nelson's designs, seen in the bubble lamp and the 'ball' wall clock. In 1932, Nelson won the Rome Prize, granting him a generous stipend and a fellowship to study in Rome for two years, where he met several European modernists.

Isamu Noguchi

This designer is a Japanese-American landscape architect who designed public works and decorative furnishings. He brought Japanese influence into his designs, creating harmony from asymmetric, sculptural shapes. The most well-known design by Noguchi is his coffee table, where two solid pieces of wood connect at a single point to hold up a rounded triangular glass surface. He also used unique materials like paper for lanterns and bamboo for furniture, similar to rattan pieces.

Milo Baughman

The story goes that Milo Baughman was in charge of designing the interior and exterior of his parents' new home when he was just 13. Although there's no concrete evidence this happened, his later success as a furniture designer suggests it could be true. Baughman established his own design company in 1947 at the age of 24. The most memorable work from Baughman is the #820-400 chaise he released in 1954 - resembling the epitome of a stereotypical therapy recliner.

George Nakashima

George Nakashima leaned away from the mass production that made midcentury modern design accessible to so many. He worked with wood, admiring its unique qualities so much he titled his memoir 'The Soul of a Tree'. Nakashima designs include organic shapes and raw wood edges, often used for living room furnishings like coffee tables and wooden bench chairs.

One reason MCM decor is so popular today is because of its functional, simple beauty. Any living room looks elevated and sophisticated with a piece of midcentury beauty. Adding some retro to your decor makes it look timeless and sleek with any aesthetic. Check out our blog for more mid-century modern decorating ideas.


What Colors Suit Mid-century Modern Decor?

Most MCM furnishings work well with various colors. Combine neutral, earthy tones like beige and cream with pops of bright colors like red, orange, or blue to get the most authentic effect. Alternatively, MCM furniture can complement dramatic color palettes like black and gold.

When Did Mid-century Modern Design Begin?

The MCM period spans between the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s. Pieces produced after this era are MCM-inspired rather than authentic period items. The design style flourished in post-war America, roughly 1945. The economic upturn in this period allowed middle-class homes to buy mass-produced furnishings for their house for the first time.

How Do I Find Authentic MCM Furniture?

The easiest way to find authentic MCM furniture is to look for stamps or labels on the items. Manufacturers included brand names, model numbers, and care instructions on each piece, making it easy to tell when and where pieces were built. Shopping from dealers or online from specialist retailers is the easiest way to find period-specific pieces.

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