Mid-Century Modern: Woodworking 101

Woodworkers constantly talk about their favorite furniture styles, but how many of us actually know what they mean? Where did these styles originate? What are their defining features? And most importantly, what do I really need to know to sound like I know what I’m talking about? In the first part of this “Woodworking 101” Series, I took a closer look at Shaker Style furniture. Next up and by popular request: Mid-Century Modern Style.

As with almost any furniture style, there have been entire books, if not encyclopedias, written about MCM. Of course, there’s no way I could condense every single bit of that information into a single blog post. However, this will provide a good foundation from which you can dive as deep into it as you want!

The Name

Fun fact: the name “Mid-Century Modern” wasn’t actually coined until the 80’s. Yes, it describes furniture style from as early as the mid-1930’s… But our current name for it didn’t exist until Cara Greenberg’s book, “Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s” hit the shelves in 1983.

Mid-Century Modern Eames Chair
A Version of the Classic Eames Chair

The Materials

One of the things that defines the “original” mid-century modern style is the mixture of materials that the designers tended to use. The Eames chair above uses wood and black leather, but there are plenty more options to choose from. In fact, many designers were known for their use of colorful fabric and/or plastic.

Mid-Century Modern Characteristics

MCM is very much a function-over-form style, which makes it a very similar mindset to the Shaker style (although it’s clearly VERY different, visually). Because of that mindset, MCM designers used very little, if any, decorative ornamentation.

One of the classic characteristics of the style is the sleek lines and geometric forms. This aspect of the style is what most woodworkers think of when they think about building a mid-century modern table. Makers like Jory Brigham specialize in this version of the style, opting for solid wood instead of incorporating other materials.

Mid-Century Modern Table
A classic version of a mid-century modern table

A Little History

After World War II, America had a pretty significant population and economic boom. Although the origins of the style were prior to the war, it wasn’t until afterwards when it really skyrocketed in popularity. Manufacturing and technology advances from the war efforts made new materials and designs possible, and some famous designers created some iconic looks.

Materials like fiberglass, foam, and plastic laminates were all malleable. Knowing this, Eero Saarinen designed and produced his Tulip chair 1956.

Tulip Chair
The Tulip Chair

Clearly, that’s just one example. As I’ve said before, there have been entire books written on these designs and their backgrounds. So I’ll hold off before we go too far down that rabbit hole!

Nearly Made it…

At the risk of stating the obvious… MCM is the style of furniture frequently seen on the set of Mad Men. And there you have it. It turns out that it’s not possible to write an article on this subject and not mention Mad Men. But at least I waited until the end!

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