More than a century after it’s beginnings, the world is still obsessed with the clean lines and avant-garde designs of the 20th century. Mid-century furniture designers were innovators, who set out to establish a style to represent modern times, just as Classical and Gothic did for their own eras. And they achieved just that, making a name for themselves and for their era. Here’s our guide to the top mid-century furniture designers you need to make sure you know.
History Lesson: Dutch immigrant craftsman Siebe Baker founded the original furniture company in 1890 in Allegan, Michigan, naming it Cook, Baker and Company. By 1905, he became sole owner of the company, handing down the reigns to his son, Hollis S. Baker, in 1925 who continued the furniture craftsman tradition.
History Lesson: The Finnish architect and designer Eero Saarinen took over his father’s architecture firm in 1950, and famously teamed up with architect Charles Eames to co-develop the first designs for furniture made of molded laminated wood. In 1951 he designed the “Saarinen Collection” for Knoll, consisting of several office chairs, one of the designer first lines in office furniture.
Defining Features: Saarien is known for his neo-futuristic designs. His work features clean lines, bold colors, and is focused on comfort.
History Lesson: Edward Wormley began with Marshall Fields as an interior designer. But he established his true potential with manufacturer Dunbar Furnture Co. when he was hired to update the brand’s product line.
Defining Features: European and Scandinavian details blended with elements of classical, historical designs with the modern leanings of the day.
History Lesson: Michigan-born architect and designer Florence (Schust) Knoll trained under the best designers of the time, including Mies van der Rohe and Eliel Saarinen. After marrying Hans Knoll, they established Knoll Associates in 1946 and began implementing a corporate structure that made them one of the most important and influential furniture companies of the second half of the century.
Defining Features: Drawing elements from the Bauhaus philosophy, Florence Knoll created clean and uncluttered pieces. Her work was a scaled-down translation of the rhythm and proportions of mid-century modern architecture.
History Lesson: World-renowed Danish designer Hans Wegner created modern furniture which emphasized functionality. He designed more than 500 chairs in his lifetime, many of which became design icons.
Defining Features: Wegner used traditional joinery techniques, often using mixed materials such as wood, upholstery, caning, and papercord.
History Lesson: Born in Brooklyn, NY, furniture designer Harvey Probber invented the first sectional seating in the 1940s. He’s considered to be a pioneer in modular seating, as many of his ideas were adopted by other designers of the 20th century.
Defining Features: Geometric designs and sectional pieces. He favored exotic woods, highly polished lacquer, hand-rubbed finishes and opulent upholstery fabrics—materials largely abandoned by more radical, Bauhaus-influenced designers.
History Lesson: Berlin-born, New York–based designer Karl Springer began his career creating small, decorative objects covered in fine leathers. His small leather telephone table soon became an icon, after attracting praise from the Duchess of Windsor.
Defining Features: Springer worked with many materials — often exotic ones — to translate pure, classical shapes into contemporary, custom-made furniture, light fixtures or Venetian-glass objects. He is credited with reviving shagreen and celebrated for his work with inlaid-wood veneers, metals, faux finishes, and granite.
History Lesson: Born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris but known as Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, and writer was one of the pioneers of modern architecture. His furniture line was introduced in 1928 at the Salon d‘Autumne in Paris by Le Corbusier and his team of designers.
Defining Features: Le Corbusier believed furniture should be tools, albeit beautiful tools for owners. Therefore his pieces emphasize comfort and discretion.
History Lesson: German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, along with his contemporaries, sought to establish a new architectural style that could represent modern times just as Classical and Gothic did for their own eras. Mies often collaborated with interior designer and companion Lilly Reich to design modern furniture pieces.
Defining Features: Pieces were designed using industrial technologies, and have become popular classics, such as the Barcelona chair and table, the Brno chair, and the Tugendhat chair. His furniture is known for fine craftsmanship, a mix of traditional luxurious fabrics like leather combined with modern chrome frames, and a distinct separation of the supporting structure and the supported surfaces, often employing cantilevers to enhance the feeling of lightness created by delicate structural frames.
History Lesson: When Hungarian-born designer and architect Marcel Breuer left Europe in the ‘30s to teach architecture at Harvard and start his own practice, it served as a catalyst for the spread of Modernist design. Breuer was educated at the Bauhaus, where he created a series of influential new furniture pieces and became a protege of Walter Gropius.
Defining Features: Breuer described his own style as “ The taste of space on your tongue; the fragrance of dimensions; the juice of stone.” The steel “Wassily Chair,” a radical take on the club chair, still looks futuristic nearly a century later.
History Lesson: American designer Milo Baughman is known for his avant-garde yet unassuming and affordable designs. He designed for a number of furniture companies starting in the 1940s, he is most famous for the designs made for the manufacturer Thayer Coggin. He also lectured on modern design, extolling the positive benefits of good design on the lives of human beings.
Defining Features: Baughman believe furniture should be attainable and affordable. He once said that “furniture that is too obviously designed is very interesting, but too often belongs only in museums.” Yet his designs have that sense of Hollywood glamour, and sexy, clean shapes.
History Lesson: American furniture designer, sculptor, Paul Evans was a major player in the Brutalism movement of the mid-20th century. His unusual sculpted metal furniture catapulted him into the spotlight, and he became a featured designer for popular manufacturer Directional Furniture.
Defining Features: Evans’ copper chests and sculpted steel-front cabinets are coveted pieces. Each of his designs were handmade and finished, and many were signed, making them special investments, both then and today.
History Lesson: Born and raise in Massachusetts, furniture designer and decorator Paul McCobb made a name for himself in the design industry in the late ’40s as an industrial designer. But it was his home furnishings line targeted to middle-class families that made him a household name. He eventually ventured into wallpaper, lighting, and even tech appliances.
Defining Features: Essential to post-WWII families, his furniture was simple, practical, and affordable.
History Lesson: Italian manufacturer Stilnovo was an influential part of a wave of post-WWII Italian design companies specializing in innovative yet mass-market lighting. Founded in 1946 by Bruno Gatta, the company manufactured its own designs under the name Stilnovo, and worked with a number of celebrated designers, including Gaetano Scolari, Alberto Fraser, and Ettore Sottsass.
Defining Features: The brand is acclaimed for its use of new materials and advanced finishes, which today still have that futuristic feel.
History Lesson: British-born architect and designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings was arguably the most important decorator of the 1930s and 1940s in the U.S.. He decorated the homes of cosmetics legend Elizabeth Arden and tobacco heiress Doris Duke, as well as New York’s exclusive River Club.
Defining Features: Gibbings’ work is hallmarked as a modern mixture of the classical elements of Ancient Grecian design, and Art Deco design. It features mosaic floor reproductions, sculptural fragments, and sparse furnishings.
History Lesson: American architect and interior designer Warren Platner produced a furniture collection that has proved to be a continuing icon of 1960s modernism. With the exposure to the modern ideas of the times, and his contribution to important structures such as the Dulles International Airport, among others, he emerged as a designer known for his “graceful” take on modernism.
Defining Features: Each of Warren’s furniture pieces were designed with its sinuous lines of molded steel rods, creating a thick pedestal base with a subtle moiré illusion.