Simple silhouettes, minimal hardware, and pared-down color palettes. Let’s face it, most design enthusiasts can spot a modern piece from a mile away. (Psst… we broke down the difference between minimalist, modern, and contemporary, if you’re not up to date!)
In 2018, almost every store has a slew of furniture and accessories that are inspired by mid-century modern classics—and for good reason. The style is contemporary, timeless, and looks good in virtually any space. But the influx of mid-century inspired pieces makes it easy to overlook the trailblazers who started the movement in the first place.
So, we’re taking you back to school—design school, that is—and breaking down the most iconic mid-century modern pieces you need to know.
Designers don’t always need to create something from scratch; sometimes, it’s just as successful to spruce up yesteryear’s designs. Case in point: Charles and Ray Eames’ eponymous lounger. To create one of the most iconic pieces of its time, the duo combined two unlikely sources of inspiration: A 19th century club chair and a used baseball mitt. Oh, and did we mention it’s been in continuous production since it was introduced in 1956? Casual.
2. Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)
Now here’s a piece that was ahead of its time. Inspired by the metal frame of a bicycle, Marcel Breuer schemed up this iconic chair when he was an apprentice at the Brauhaus. Breuer originally designed the Wassily chair in 1925—years before the mid-century movement started—but it has since become the epitome of sleek, modern design. As for the name? Breuer originally designed the chair for himself, but made one for his classmate, painter Wassily Kandinsky. He named it after his friend when the chair was rereleased in 1960.
You don’t need to be a complete design guru to recognize Flos’ Arco Lamp. Launched in 1962, this piece has made cameos in movies like Diamonds are Forever and The Italian Job. Not only does this lamp look good, it is the emblem of smart, practical design. The Castiglioni brothers thought of every last detail when designing this lamp for Flos, and incorporated small details as they saw fit. Highlights include a smooth marble base with a hole for easy lifting as well as a spun aluminum reflector that provides indirect and direct light.
Who needs a tablecloth when you have Eero Saarinen’s eponymous table? Honestly, that was kind of the point. Known for his precision and sculptural approach to design, Saarinen wanted to create pieces that fixed “the ugly, confusing, unrestful world” underneath chairs and tables—and it worked. Today, this table remains a favorite amongst the design set and is available in a breadth of sizes, colors, and finishes.
If you checked off “mid-century modern couch” on your millennial apartment bingo board, you probably own something that was inspired by Florence Knoll’s iconic couch. As one of the very few female designers of the mid-century movement, Knoll was known for her very rational approach to furniture design—and this sofa is no exception. The perfect marriage of form and function, it’s a piece that withstands the test of time.
6. Barcelona Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1929)
Speaking of Florence Knoll, did you know the famed iconic Barcelona Chair was designed by her mentor, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe? Similar to Breuer’s Wassily chair, Mies created this piece for Barcelona’s International Exhibition in 1929, yet it is practically synonymous with mid-century modern design. In 1948, Mies gave Knoll exclusive rights to manufacture his popular chair.
7. Noguchi Table by Isamu Noguchi (1948)
Sometimes, it’s not what you know but who you know. Rumor has it designer George Nelson first spotted Noguchi’s table when working on an article called, “How to Make a Table.” Nelson loved the table so much that he begged Herman Miller to produce it, and the rest is history. And while Noguchi worked for 60 years, he considered this table his only successful piece of furniture.
8. LC3 Grand Modele Armchair by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand (1928)
Here’s proof that sleek, modern design can be comfortable. In fact, it’s so cozy that the Le Corbusier group nicknamed this chair—and its cousin, LC2 Petite Modele Armchair—cushion baskets. Even though it was designed in 1928, it’s been considered a mid-century must-have for the past 90 years. If this chair looks familiar, you’ve probably spotted a similar model in Maxell’s iconic “Get Blown Away” advertisement.
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