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Midcentury Modern Design: A Conversation with J. Hettinger Interiors

midcentury design doesn't have to feel old.

For a midcentury “tone,” mix midcentury furnishings such as the chair on the left with more contemporary elements. Photo: MSK Design Build and Nathanael Bennett, 2014

Last fall, the New York Times called midcentury modern design “the decorating style that just won’t die.” Co.Design went a step further, calling it the pumpkin spice latte of interior design: a “tabula rasa that is easy to produce, easy to ship and difficult to object to.” It’s not surprising that the design media has grown weary writing about midcentury modern; after all, the style has been trending for at least a decade. However, these publications might not recognize that for those who live in small, urban spaces and value light, air, and the natural world in their homes, midcentury modern design may be more than just a fad. For some, it’s the real deal—an enduring design aesthetic they plan to live with for years to come.

To learn more about midcentury modern design and how you can incorporate it into a contemporary home, we sat down with Ron Smith, Roselle Bernardino and Laura Ficenec of J. Hettinger Interiors, a Diamond Certified interior design firm. Here’s what we learned:

Let’s start by discussing what midcentury modern design is and where it came from.
Ron Smith: In the simplest terms, midcentury modern design relates to the architecture, furnishings and textiles that were popular from 1933 to 1965.

Roselle Bernardino: It has some influences from the Bauhaus movement led by Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Their style permeated through their designs in furniture, architecture and the Bauhaus building itself. It influenced a lot of things internationally. It streamlined style and led the way to a whole new movement in modern architecture.

RS: Basically, the Bauhaus movement was a total change in architecture and furniture design. It got rid of the embellishments that had been used in the earlier era. It simplified everything and used different techniques, such as the molding of wood through the use of plywood. It took materials that had never been used before, like plastics, and applied them to clean, functional, and unembellished designs.

Midcentury Eichler home on the San Francisco Peninsula

Homes built by developer Joseph Eichler in the 1950s and ’60s are prized for their open floor plans and walls of glass. Photo: The Rostad Team of Coldwell Banker, 2017

“Functional” seems to be the key word for midcentury modern. How about the use of more natural items? Is that considered part of midcentury modern design?
RS: As the movement came to the United States, it became more organic than it had been in Europe. The 1950s saw the use of more natural woods and items like ceramics and macramé wall hangings. There were also a lot of hard surfaces that I wouldn’t consider organic, like glass. The whole concept was to create more open spaces.

Laura Ficenec: You could say this is where the concept of the open floor plan began.

RS: Right. When the architecture changed to midcentury modern, it was through the use of open ceilings with open beams, open spaces that didn’t define rooms, indoor gardens and a lot more glass. It was getting away from the defined spaces that an earlier bungalow would’ve had.

What are some of the hallmarks that characterize midcentury modern design in terms of furnishings?
RS: The most defining thing on a midcentury modern piece is that thin, round, walnut leg, which is used on sofas, chairs and tables. Again, the important thing is that it’s unembellished. There’s no detail—it’s very clean and simple.

LF: Often, furniture also has a curvy line. One famous example of this is the Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen. It looks like you molded the chair around an egg and then removed the egg to produce the shape that you sit in.

Egg Chair by Arne Jacobson

The Egg Chair, designed by Arne Jacobsen, exemplifies midcentury modern furniture. Photo: Creative Commons, 2017

RS: Danish modern was very popular during the 1950s. It might be a sofa or a chair with an exposed wood frame that either had some type of strap system or a flat spring system with seat and back cushions totally separate from the wood frame itself. So, there was no upholstery attached to the frame. This type of chair would be very high-legged with that walnut spindle leg.

What are some other characteristics of midcentury modern design?
RS: In terms of textiles, the patterns being used on upholstery were new designs that were more geometric in form.

RB: And earthy, especially in terms of colors. Lots of earthy colors that bring the outside in.

RS: At the time, typical colors were orange, brown and olive green.

What advice would you give a fan of midcentury modern who’s interested in designing a room today?
RS: I encourage people who like midcentury modern to use it in conjunction with a more modern or contemporary style and not try to authentically reproduce something. You can create a midcentury environment, but you don’t necessarily need to use the textiles or colors of that era. Tweak it to make it your own. It could be done totally in sand tone and gray. It doesn’t have to be orange, brown and olive. You also may want to incorporate pieces that would be classified as more modern. You can only put together so many spindly legs within an environment or a room and have it look right.

RB: Sometimes it looks like a spider crawling on the ground.

RS: Combine midcentury furnishings with straight-lined pieces such as cylinders or cubes that either have bases down to the floor or recessed plinths. If you like midcentury textiles, try using them in conjunction with more contemporary furnishings.

Would you suggest these textiles for window coverings?
RS: Probably not. You want to keep the window coverings functional. In this case, less is more. If you can, maintain that open, airy feeling by putting nothing on the windows. If privacy or sun control is an issue, consider using frosted or opaque glass in the window.

Are there any pitfalls to avoid?
RS: Be sure the pieces you choose have the comfort you desire. As a whole, midcentury upholstery has a firmer seat. It’s very straight-lined. For example, most sofas have extremely tight backs—nothing you’d think of curling up and watching a movie in.

Midcentury Eichler home interior

Ron Smith of J. Hettinger Interiors reminds us that you don’t necessarily need to use the textiles or colors of the era to make a midcentury environment. Photo: American Ratings Corporation, 2017

To wrap up, according to the New York Times, midcentury modern design has been trending for the last 10 years, with little indication that it will go away soon. Overall, what do people like most about midcentury modern design?
LF: I think people like retro styles. Midcentury modern is fun, especially if you don’t really like more traditional styles. There’s more to play around with. It feels more homey than contemporary modern styles.

RB: People don’t always like the crisp lines of the contemporary styles you see today. Some people see those styles as cold, sterile and unfriendly.

RS: People who like midcentury modern design tend to be people who are more urban. In the Bay Area, people in San Francisco and the Berkeley Hills tend to appreciate midcentury modern. I think it has to do with the character of the individual who appreciates city life. It’s part of their personality, I guess.

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About The Author
JenniferChan

Jennifer Chan is a Digital Specialist and Staff Writer at American Ratings Corporation. Follow me on Twitter: @DCjenniferC

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