What makes the design of classic modern furniture pieces so utterly timeless? And why are they and the many affordable replicas based on them still valued and mass-produced after all these years?
According to interior and lighting designer Barry Brukoff of Sausalito-based Brukoff Design Associates, it really begins with the serenity and simplicity that came out of the mid-century modern design movement. "It was all about economy— producing wonderful and simple pieces for a price people could afford," Brukoff points out. "There is a real parallel to this that can be seen in the Japanese aesthetic. Homes with simple beams, panels, tatami mats on a grid—and it is all logical, and all of that logic and pattern and scale relationship creates a serenity."
Many furniture designers of the era had backgrounds in sculpture, and this is also reflected in their work. "Each object is like a perfect and carefully designed work of sculpture," says Brukoff. "These pieces do not have a bad angle anywhere. The Eames chair, for example, is a perfectly designed object. You can photograph it from any angle; and no matter what you do, you cannot take a bad photo."
Brukoff likens such furniture to the classic design of Japanese teapots. Just as the teapot, he says, "does everything right in its simplicity—and in the way that form follows function"—so do these classic sculptural pieces of furniture. "They are comfortable, and they work. Modern Danish furniture also has that same character. Beautiful, sculptural form; lightness; and comfort."
The modernist design movement also had a sociological element to it that invited creativity. "It was like throwing off the shackles of convention," notes Brukoff, when the new design movement, rooted in 1920s Germany, took hold after the close of World War II. "It was like society said, 'The war is over. Now we can turn our goals toward peace time and rebuilding...and boldly stepping into the future.'"
The six modern furniture pieces pictured here above—all from the Design Within Reach catalogue—are offspring of that design movement and are still manufactured today. In the modern living room, they can make bold statements and serve as ideal focal points.
1. Eames Plywood Lounge Chair. Unbelievably innovative for its day, this piece is a bold and yet understated design comment, and amazingly comfortable.
2. Nelson Platform Bench. It invites one to enter the living room if for no other reason than to see what lies beyond. Multi-functional furnishing that works well as a bench or table.
3. Noguchi Table. Designed by Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi, this table's sculptural beauty is simple and perfect in both form and function. Its lightness of scale prevents it from overpowering its surroundings.
4. Le Corbusier Chaise Lounge. Beautiful, comfortable, and ahead of its time, the original was designed by architect Le Corbusier in 1928. The Eileen Gray table alongside makes the pairing lovely and the space complete, yet light, open, and understated.
5. Index Three Low Bookcase. The openness and simple design of this bookcase makes it good from all angles. Beautiful and understated, it will enhance any space—against a wall, as a room divider, or in some other location.
6. Sussex Credenza. The low profile, long horizontal lines, and light metal legs that elevate it off the floor reinforce the design of this simple yet valuable storage and entertaining solution, and make it appear smaller in scale than it actually is.
Images courtesy of Design Within Reach
Contrary to what some might claim, there are no design police, nor is there one set of rules for furnishing living spaces of mid-century modern homes. Some prefer a more industrial and clean look, while others want their homes to look lived in, rather than like pages out of a catalog or design magazine. Others build in flexibility to do both, to fit the occasion. After all, public and private spaces within one's home are designed for living and supporting lifestyle choices, not inhibiting them.
With that in mind, here are some simple and valuable suggestions, gleaned from the recommendations of our team of aesthetic consultants, designed to help guide you through the process of furnishing your living room or upgrading its existing furniture.
1. Visualize how you want to use the space.
Do you have a large family and need places for your children to play and watch TV? Do you like to entertain? Are you empty nesters looking for a serene space for reading and listening to music? Do you need a multi-purpose space that includes room for eating and entertaining, working on your laptop, and playing with the kids?