Mid-century furniture describes tables, chairs, dressers, and desks marked by their clean lines and lack of fussy detail. While many people associate Mid-century Modern with the years 1945 to 1965, one of the earliest examples of mid-century furniture was actually designed in 1934, when Kem Weber conceived his Airline armchair. A precursor to the flat-pack products sold at IKEA, Weber’s Airline chair streamlined the rigid geometry of Art Deco, had a retail price of just under $25, and was meant to be shipped to customers in a cardboard box, unassembled. Only 200 or so of the chairs were ever produced, though, and even fewer were shipped.
Another designer whose work bridged Art Deco and modernism was Alvar Aalto, whose own armchair, model no. 397, was introduced in 1932. Aalto’s armchair, which is sometimes referred to as the Springleaf, was made of bent and molded birch plywood. Aalto’s techniques and materials would be employed even more famously by Charles and Ray Eames, a married couple who, in 1945, figured out how to create strong compound curves in plywood. One of their first products was a birch child’s chair and stool manufactured by the Molded Plywood Division of Evans Products. The Eameses were more successful than Weber, but the run was still limited to 5,000 pieces, and only 1,000 of their LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) chairs were made.
The Eames’ partnership with Herman Miller was more fruitful. With Miller, the Eameses created the DCM (Dining Chair Metal), a two-piece chair whose plywood sections were attached to a chromed frame. They also produced the DAR chair, which had a rigid fiberglass shell that could be molded in a rainbow of colors and set on a variety of metal bases and legs, including a rocker. With Miller, in 1956, the Eameses also produced the Lounge Chair and Ottoman, which featured molded rosewood plywood and leather upholstery. Though mass-produced, examples of these pieces from the late ’50s and early 1960s are staples of mid-century furniture auctions.
Other mid-century furniture designers of note included Harry Bertoia, a sculptor whose wire-frame Diamond chairs, made by Knoll, are sometimes mistaken for the work of the Eameses (Bertoia’s goblet-like Bird chair is less easily confused). Another sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, is probably best known for his glass-top, wood-base coffee table, manufactured by Herman Miller. Noguchi also designed biomorphic sofas for Miller and circular and oval Formica-topped tables for Knoll.
In addition to Danish Modern stars such as Arne Jacobsen (his chairs had names like Ant, Egg, and Swan), Finn Juhl (the arms of his throne-like pieces were often made of polished mahogany or teak), and Hans Wegner (Nixon and Kennedy used his furniture in one of their 1960 presidential debates), one of the leading furniture designers of the mid-century was George Nelson. For very different reasons, his fanciful Marshmallow sofa and minimalist Coconut chair, both manufactured by Herman Miller, are icons of 1950s style.
Rounding out the era is George Nakashima, who combined the mid-century aesthetic with the rough-hewn naturalism of the 1960s. In a wood Nakashima day bed from 1963, the base and upholstery almost resemble a piece by George Nelson, except for the strategically placed unfinished edge at the top of the bed’s back. Nakashima desks and coffee tables also feature unfinished edges or unrepaired blemishes, with surfaces made from single planks of thick walnut and other hardwoods.