From the art market to haute-couture runways to interior design, trends come and go by the season. Yet mid-century modernism, the global design movement that took hold from the 1940s through the ’60s, continues to resonate. Resurging in popularity in the late ’90s—when well-to-do urbanites shed their then-favored thrift-shop aesthetic for the sleek, futuristic designs of decades past—mid-century modernism was given another boost in recent years by the television show Mad Men, set in the 1960s, and its celebrated period-accurate interiors.
Like their European peers, mid-century designers across the U.S. broke with tradition to create avant-garde furnishings, interiors, and graphic arts that championed clean lines, streamlined forms, and distinct juxtapositions of material. The designer and writer George Nelson recognized three stylistic strands of the movement: “biomorphic,” which described organic forms and curved lines; “machine,” whose stark, fluid aesthetic had its origins in Bauhaus philosophy; and “handmade,” which encapsulated the functional and simple crafting of wood.
It was also an era in which mass production brought the newest designs into the average home, summarized by the mantra of legendary West Coast design duo Charles and Ray Eames: “getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least amount of money.” Below, we shine a light on 10 American modernists who made innovative and enduring designs for the home interior—from Isamu Noguchi’s understated wood-and-glass coffee table to Alexander Girard’s whimsical, folk-inspired textiles.
Nelson’s prolific career straddled journalism, theory, and practice. As a young Yale graduate, he toured Europe and interviewed the leading architects of the time—including Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius—for articles in Pencil Points magazine. Later, as an influential editor of Architectural Forum, he heralded and fiercely defended the modernist design principles of the day. “The fact is that the modern world is constantly being designed and redesigned,” he once wrote, “not by these over-publicized specialists, but by literally millions of people, most of whom do not think of themselves as designers, but who nonetheless are primarily responsible for the shape of the world.” From 1947 to 1972, as design director for the Herman Miller furniture company, Nelson conceived the coconut chair and the ball clock, among other iconic fixtures.
Knoll endorsed the then-revolutionary philosophy of “total design”: the idea that the entirety of a space, from its architecture to its interior design to its textiles, should be integrated. After studying architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art under Eliel Saarinen, Knoll went on to train with some of the leading figures of the day, including Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer. In 1946, she established her own company, Knoll, with her husband Hans; the duo would become the international authority on contemporary design and taste. Beyond her own innovative, Bauhaus-inspired designs, Knoll also had a knack for nurturing talent and recruiting her friends to contribute; Bertoia’s wire furniture and Eero Saarinen’s “Tulip” pieces were but two of the many iconic collections offered by Knoll under her direction.
Across sculpture, ceramics, and design, the Japanese-American artist Noguchi refused to be classified. “It has often been pointed out to me that when I have achieved a certain success of style, then I abandon it,” he wrote in his 1968 autobiography, A Sculptor’s World. “There is no doubt a distrust on my part for style and for the success that accrues from it.” Noguchi created furniture designs and interiors in the same biomorphic forms as his sculpture, working with materials as diverse as wood, stone, metal, clay, and paper. Introduced in 1947, his “Noguchi Coffee Table” consists of a glass surface and a base constructed from two elegantly interlocking pieces of wood. Living in Japan after World War II, Noguchi was inspired by the sight of lanterns illuminating night fishers on the river, and made his first paper and bamboo “akari” light sculptures.
Italian-born furniture and jewelry designer Bertoia made significant—yet under-recognized—contributions to the famous “Eames chair” while working for Charles and Ray. Frustrated, he left California for Pennsylvania in 1950 to work for Florence Knoll (who he had met a decade earlier at Cranbook Academy of Art) and her husband Hans. Entrusted by the Knollses with the freedom to design whatever he pleased, he debuted his now-iconic wire furniture collection, featuring his airy, steel-framed “Diamond Chair,” in 1952. “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture,” he said of his design. “Space passes right through them.”
Following his release from a World War II Japanese internment camp in the U.S., where he had built furniture with a carpenter who had trained in Japan, Nakashima established his own studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The woodworker, who grew up in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and trained in architecture at MIT, honored the natural beauty of wood in his handcrafted designs, aiming to give trees a “second life” as objects of furniture. “There’s too much conscious effort toward art, and not enough effort toward a way of life,” Nakashima said in 1961. “Consider, for instance, the way nature produces a tree. The roots, the branches all grow in a certain way because they have a reason for growing that way.”
Fusing traditional Scandinavian design with Southern California modernism, Swedish-born designer and architect Grossman immigrated to the U.S. in 1940 and opened a shop on Rodeo Drive, where she attracted celebrity clients. Throughout her four-decade-long career, she became known for her distinctly compact furniture designs that elegantly juxtaposed materials, such as California walnut, black plastic laminate, and wrought iron. One of her most memorable contributions was a line of lamps in the late 1940s, including the Cobra Lamp and the Grasshopper Lamp, which were among the first to include bullet-shaped shades. In the 1950s, Grossman also devised several open-plan homes—small scale, like her furniture designs—in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sweden. At least 10 of them are still standing.
Baughman’s career was determined at the young age of 13, when he drafted interior and exterior plans for his family home in Long Beach, California. Stylish yet unpretentious, his designs incorporated quintessentially mid-century materials like stainless steel, chrome, leather, and glass with a relaxed Californian aesthetic, as well as creative applications of upholstery. Like Wormley, Baughman never sacrificed functionality and was opposed to designs that purposefully drew attention. “Furniture that is too obviously designed is very interesting, but too often belongs only in museums,” he once said. His work was relatively affordable, too. As described by the New York Times in 1966, “Mr. Baughman and the companies he works for...are among the few mass producers putting out inventive, nontraditional furniture that is widely available to the public both in terms of price and retail outlet.”
Though the worldly, New York-born designer Girard created furniture, exhibitions, and interiors, he is primarily recognized for his contributions to modern textile design. As the head of Herman Miller’s textile division from the 1950s to the ’70s, Girard combined vibrant colors and bold, playful patterns in prints that invigorated the minimalist designs of his contemporaries. Girard was often inspired by textiles collected from his travels around the world, particularly those from places with strong folk art traditions like Mexico, India, and the southwestern U.S. In 1961, Girard and Miller opened the pioneering (though unprofitable) Textiles & Objects store in New York, where Girard displayed his foreign wares alongside Herman Miller furniture and his own textiles.
To the Chicago-born, New York-based designer Wormley, modernism meant “freedom—freedom to mix, to choose, to change, to embrace the new but to hold fast to what is good.” From the 1940s to the ’60s, his subdued, elegant designs for the Dunbar Furniture Corporation presented a more conservative, yet nonetheless original, alternative to the avant-garde designs of the time. Wormley preferred craft features, as in the woven-wood facade of his 1956 Model 5666 sideboard, and often reinterpreted historical European models. His unique combination of traditional and new forms made modern design more accessible to the average American family.
Born in Berlin, Springer arrived in New York in 1957 aspiring to work as a bookbinder. At department store Lord & Taylor, and later Bergdorf Goodman, he practiced a meticulous craftsmanship, covering books, collectables, and decorative desk items with leathers, skins, and other fine materials. He soon drew loyal and glamorous clientele, including the Duchess of Windsor. In the mid-’60s, he established his own design studio and expanded his practice to furniture. Springer became known for combining rich, diverse materials and styles—from Art Deco to classical Chinese to Bauhaus—and is considered to have driven the resurgence in popularity of shagreen, an Asian sharkskin material. “Once I was discovered by the Duchess and her circle, I probably could have gone on making little leather phone tables forever,” he recounted in a 1989 interview. “But you need a challenge.”