Modern love: The experts define mid-century design

Kiwis’ adoration of mid-century design shows no sign of slowing down

Photography: Brigid Arnott

It’s on TV commercials where it instantly signals universally acceptable good taste; it’s in your doctor’s office and your dentist’s waiting room, silently exuding reassuring stability; it’s in furniture chain stores where it’s popular for its easy-to-assemble, pick-and-mix aesthetic. Yet it still maintains its elite status.

It’s mid-century modern and it’s the style that won’t die. Rather it’s gathering momentum. It’s easy to find, but slightly harder to define, although, of course, the name “mid-century” is a bit of a giveaway.

University of Auckland heritage design expert Linda Tyler says: “Anything that’s made in the 1950s to about 1970 and which displays new technologies and bold use of materials and frequent deployment, usually, of bright colour and primary colour.

“Even though there are things that are made well into the 70s and 80s that are copies of mid-century modern, there’s something about the older things from the 50s that have this special aura about them.”

Clockwise from the top left: Bertoia side chairs, Classic Danish design sofa, the Ox Chair by Hans Wegner, Pierre Paulin’s Tongue Chair and the Ball Chair by Eero Aarnio. 

Perhaps the quintessential pieces of “mid-cench” – as its more recent devotees abbreviate it – are a sofa with thin arms and legs and a seat and back in brightly coloured upholstery, or a low sideboard, both featuring teak or pale blond wood. You can almost smell the Nordic forest.

It might be most accurate to say “mid-century” refers to when the style began, because here we are, well into the 21st century, and it’s still going strong. Descendant designs, several generations removed from the originals, are available at the likes of Nood or Freedom.

Photography: Alana Landsberry

“It’s extremely popular,” confirms Florence S Fournier, decorative arts specialist at Webb’s auction house in Auckland. “Last year, we held two dedicated mid-century modern auctions and people went crazy for it. We had more than 300,000 catalogue views across both – phenomenal numbers. And we had 1300 registered bidders.”

Fournier has a broad definition of the style: “It kind of can be what you want it to be; there are so many different aesthetics within it.” However, there are some “design principles – generally more refined, no excessive detail”. Excessive detail is a feature of the relatively fussy arts and crafts and art nouveau movements that had preceded mid-cench.

This point is echoed by Judith Miller in her 2012 book Mid-Century Modern, describing a “philosophy … that decoration should be an integral part of design, rather than a superfluous addition”. Arts and crafts insisted on better craftsmanship, which meant higher costs. When mass production improved, the quality could be maintained for less money.

Clockwise from the top left: The LC4 Chaise Longue, a Danish sideboard, an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, the often-copied Noguchi coffee table and an Eames fibreglass chair. 

Solution-based and accessible mid-century design

So what are these pieces trying to tell us? “A lot of them have a sense of post-war optimism,” says Fournier. “After World War II, people’s ideas have shifted – that comes through from 1945 to the 70s.” That signature sideboard can be a bit dull, but that’s the point. “They don’t have the ornament. They’ve just got these sleek lines. For the time that they were made, to be so plain was quite a big design statement.”

Rufus Knight, director of interior design firm Knight Associates, thinks mid-century style needs to be kept in its place, but concedes it also has a democratising political element. “The post-war period was very much about providing well-thought-out solutions to the mass market, making it accessible, and I think a lot of the furniture reflects that.”

Photography: Alana Landsberry


John Mai of Auckland’s The Vintage Shop says the style’s other appealing qualities include quality itself. “With proper care, you’ll probably see a piece go to 100 years old, and it’ll be a proper antique at 100 years old because it was so well designed and it’s so pure and doesn’t really age.”

Mai sources all his stock from overseas, using criteria that limit what he will buy.

“I am super picky about the quality of the goods. I’m just buying good examples and therefore I know my examples will live longer than the ones that have been battered.”

You can kick-start or feed your mid-cench passion at the likes of Mai’s Vintage Store or Mr Bigglesworthy and auction houses such as Webb’s. Pieces can cost a few thousand dollars, but it is possible to go to Trade Me or even op shops and buy for a tenth of that price if you’re not too fussy.

The best mid-century inspired homewares on the market

1. Brass Dancing Candlesticks

$515.00 at Shop Your Home and Garden

This polished brass pair of candlesticks creates dancing shadows when they meet the light.


2. Modernist Bookshelf

$1,999 at Freedom

With a glam metal frame and dark timber shelves, this mid-century-inspired bookshelf is a showstopper. You’ll love displaying all your favourite treasures, books and trinkets on this geometric piece.


3. Houe Paon Bar Stool

$588.00 at Shop Your Home and Garden

This simple bar stool is a classic Scandinavian design; elegant, but solid and sturdy. Constructed from solid steel and a bamboo seat, this piece will last you a lifetime.


4. Yamba Coffee Table

$849.00 at Freedom

Combining the timeless beauty of dark timber with a jute weave shelf, this piece is full of character and charm. The Yamba is a contemporary iteration of the mid-century classic coffee table and one that you’ll want to show off.


5. Sleek Dux ‘Karin’ Armchair and Ottoman by Bruno Mathsson

$2,275.00 at Mr Bigglesworthy

Picture yourself with a book in hand, reclining in style and comfort on this Swedish armchair. The ottoman can be used as a footstool or an additional seat around the coffee table.  This unique and highly functional piece will look stunning in any modern interior.


5. Bundesgartenschau 1975 Art Print

$99.00 at Shop Your Home and Garden

This ever-so-stylish mid-century-inspired art print is a simple way to dip your toes into the decor style. The promotional poster for the German art show also adds a pop of green to your space.


5. Replica Mid-Century Noguchi Coffee Table

$2,199.00 at Nood

Inspired by the original Noguchi coffee table all mid-century design junkies love, this replica is a classic piece for your living room.


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