Why is Mid-Century Modern Furniture So Damn Popular?

published Jan 17, 2017
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(Image credit: Alicia Macias)

When I graduated from college in 2005, and began furnishing my first apartment, mid-century modern design was just beginning to capture the popular imagination. Twelve years later, the trend shows no signs of slowing down, and the very designers and tastemakers once responsible for its popularity are baffled. Why hasn’t the furniture-buying public moved on to something else?

Steven Kurutz of The New York Times asks, “Why Won’t Mid-century Design Die?“, almost as if he wished it would. And a new article from Co.Design tells the story of “How Mid-century Modern Became the Pumpkin Spice Latte of Interior Design“.

But I disagree with the assertion in the title—mid-century modern isn’t the pumpkin spice latte of interior design. It’s more like the skinny jeans of interior design: attractive, versatile and with a staying power perplexing to tastemakers and retailers everywhere. I’m reminded of an article I read a few years ago, where clothing retailers bemoaned the continuing popularity of skinny jeans. How were they supposed to make money selling new clothes to women who liked the ones they already had?

The assumption here is that it’s not enough for a design to be good or functional—it also has to be new. The need for newness makes sense if you’re a retailer that stays in business by convincing people they need new stuff, or a trend predictor who is always looking for the next Big Thing, or a designer who probably doesn’t want to do the same design indefinitely. But it doesn’t make as much sense if you’re a consumer, especially one on a budget, buying furniture, which is supposed to last a lifetime (or at least for a good 10 to 20 years).

(Image credit: Abe Martinez)

A simple reason for the continued popularity of MCM (like skinny jeans) is just that, well, people like it. The New York Times dug a little deeper, asking a cadre of designers what, exactly, is so great about mid-century modern furniture.

Responses varied: It’s good for small spaces (which makes sense for an increasingly urban population). It’s easy to find and available at every price point. The shapes are classic. And it goes with everything. Kelsey Campbell-Dologhan, writing for Co.Design, suggested that mid-century furniture has become so ubiquitous as to be synonymous with design itself: “All of this suggests that mid-century design is less a ‘style’ or era of design as it is a byword for ‘design’ itself, as opposed to spaces and products that were not ‘designed’ at all.”

I think there’s something to this: thanks to the popularity of “Mad Men”, the widespread flowering of mid-century design, and the ubiquity and affordability of IKEA, many of whose designs are essentially just a distillation of the style, mid-century modern is starting to look less like a style and more like the style, nearly indistinguishable, as Campbell-Dologhan says, from design itself.

(Image credit: Natalie Jeffcott)

Designers and tastemakers are continually trying to identify what the new mid-century modern might be—and we here at Apartment Therapy are no exception. While there’s definitely been a move away from all-MCM interiors and towards a more eclectic look that mixes pieces from different eras, I don’t think those designs are ever truly going to be “out”. And I think it’ll be a long time before we see another style that has the ubiquity and staying power of mid-century modern. Things like Biedermeier furniture or Art Deco designs may have their charm, but it would be hard for those styles to be as all-encompassing, versatile, and accessible as mid-century modern has become.

What about you: Have you grown tired of the look? Or do you think mid-century modern is here to stay?

For further reading:

Why Won’t Mid-century Design Die? from The New York Times

Re-edited from a post that originally appeared 01.17.2017. – AH