I moved apartments recently and figured I should buy some new furniture to fit the new space: a lounge chair, a couple of lamps, maybe a nightstand for the bedroom. I thought I'd find a wide, even paralyzing range of options, but everywhere I turned stores were pushing variations on the same style: Unadorned, airy, lean and elegant — the sort of home decor that would not be out of place on an episode of “Mad Men.” A single vibe prevailed: Mid-Century Modern.
I quickly learned that at some point in the last 10 years (since the last time I forayed into furnishings) the cult of MCM design, once intense but self-contained, had grown into a mass religion. Long, low couches and womb-style chairs now appear in high-end galleries and discount stores, at the mall and in the auction house. Search Craigslist and you'll see a secondary market for the same material: vintage items from the 1950s and modern knockoffs. There's an opportunity for worship at every price point.
The ubiquity of MCM raised a question in my mind: How did we get to be fanatics for a style that, in its original formulation, lasted just a decade, from 1947 to 1957?
The classic shapes of Eames and Nelson and Noguchi began their broad resurgence in the early 1990s. That's when the key purveyors of the style from the postwar years, Knoll and Herman Miller, returned to making items for the home after a several-decade-long detour into office furniture.
But it was a savvy, style-minded businessman — Rob Forbes, born in Pasadena and based in San Francisco — who made MCM both glamorous and attainable. In 1999, Forbes founded Design Within Reach, a company that would disrupt the furniture business by bringing MCM pieces directly to consumers. Until that point, people had to buy their MCM through middlemen and showrooms; now they could buy them via catalog and have the pieces delivered from a warehouse.
“It's high-quality comfort food,” said Forbes when I asked him to explain MCM's appeal. It's full of joy and optimism, not so serious, easy to appreciate. What's more, he said, each piece had a story to tell, which he took pains to spell out in his catalogs. Design Within Reach offered consumers mini-bios of the auteurs behind the style, and explained the minimalist vision that defined their work. Now everyone could be a connoisseur, gabbing on about the virtues of Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair, or Edward Wormley's Janus.
Even as Forbes was making MCM the aesthetic of the creative class, mid- and mass-market designers were churning out contemporary imitations. CB2 and West Elm mastered the sleek-yet-simple look. IKEA marched across the United States slinging cheap, MCM-adjacent Scandinavian couches and chairs. At the same time, designer-driving marketing had spread even to superstores; Michael Graves' post-modern teakettles and toasters were flying off the shelves of Target in 1999 just as Forbes was launching Design Within Reach.
Of course, the availability of MCM doesn't explain its desirability. In searching for a “why,” I talked to Wendy Kaplan, who in recent years curated a blockbuster show of modernist design for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She had a simple explanation. Mid-Century Modern fell in and out of style, she said, according to the same, generation-skipping pattern that defines so many other retro trends. “You don't like your parents' stuff; you like your grandparents' stuff,” she told me.
It's a fine, believable theory. Yet as I talked with everyone I could about the rise and rise of mid-century design, I couldn't help but notice certain moral shadings to the trend — something more than mere grandpa-chic.
“Dirty world/clean lines,” one friend wrote on my Facebook page. “Clean and simple lines seem like part of the aesthetic ethos of our times,” another said. More reporting turned up more allusions to the essential cleanliness of MCM. The same phrases came up in almost every conversation: Clean lines, clean shapes, clean design.
Even Forbes had hinted at a moral basis for the trend. “It's so pure,” he'd said. “Once people convert and get it in their soul, they stick with it.”
Perhaps the clean designs favored by our grandparents have been subsumed into our broader mania for things that feel natural and organic. If the simple shapes of MCM have been handed down to us from an older generation, that must mean they're good for us — and unspoiled by ill-considered innovation. We think about our health in the same way: Better to avoid newfangled, processed food; better to eat like our ancestors; better not to suffer the new.
Taking the long view, though, MCM hardly seems a perfect fit for these contemporary values. After all, it arrived in the postwar years, on a raft of forward-thinking lifestyle innovations that are now in disrepute. Processed foods? Those were another source of crackpot, jet-age optimism. And in the early days, when MCM was first admired for its “clean design,” the words conveyed the great convenience of using new technology. “The pieces were literally marketed as being easy to clean,” said Lily Kane, director of exhibitions for the R & Company design gallery. Now Kane finds herself amused by all the people on her news feeds championing retro-futurist designs while they indulge in fantasies of a farmstead past — making pickles, weaving blankets. “It's like we want to lead a 19th century lifestyle in a mid-century house,” she told me.
Maybe that's the key: MCM does seem like a style meant for bridging eras. Even the name itself, Mid-Century Modern (coined by journalist Cara Greenberg in 1983), hints at old and new at once. It lets us dabble in nostalgia while we maintain the sense of making progress; it helps us to recall a time when the future seemed bright.
Simple lines, organic curves: These are calming shapes (“comfort food,” in Forbes' words) that make invention feel familiar. Is it any wonder that a similar aesthetic has revolutionized the world of tech? That Apple's rounded-corner chic beat out boxier, button-heavy competitors?
I thought back to my friend's Facebook comment — “clean lines/dirty world.” There's something to that formulation. If we're all strapped in for a messy journey forward, we may as well be sitting in the soft and hopeful past. An Eames lounger with a curvy headrest and a place to put my feet? I'll take it.
Daniel Engber is a freelance writer.