How Modernism Became an Iconic Decorating Style During the 1940s

One of the most enduring design movements in history put clean lines, simple shapes, and practicality into American homes.

For the first half of the 1940s, the interior design world was on hold. The nation's manpower, materials, and energy went to supporting troops fighting in World War II. Manufacturers stopped crafting chairs, tables, and dishes for consumers, instead focusing their efforts on making supplies for soldiers. But when the war ended in 1945, veterans returned home, factories retooled, and one of the most enduring design movements in history went mainstream: modernism.

Officially, modernism spans from the early 1930s to 1965 and grew out of early 20th-century design movements, including the International Style and the Bauhaus. It was also influenced by Scandinavian design.

But modernism exploded into the mainstream in the late 1940s, thanks to a post-war economic boom that created tremendous demand for homes and furniture. The designs of modernist furniture made it affordable, gorgeous, and easy to manufacture. What we now call midcentury modern style (MCM), modernism quickly spread across the suburbs and cities of America.

Eames lounge chair with ottoman in Black and walnut base in a styled modern living room
Courtesy of Herman Miller

What Is Modernism?

Modernism embraced a less-is-more aesthetic, a phrase coined by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. It eschewed excess ornamentation and put an emphasis on practicality, with form following function. Modernism featured clean lines, simple forms, and organic shapes inspired by nature. It was functional yet futuristic with a touch of whimsy.

Another driving force behind modernism was exuberance over the triumph of democracy. The Allies had defeated fascism and the U.S. was one of the most powerful nations on the planet. "With the war over, there was a tremendous sense of optimism," says Dr. Kim Meister, a lecturer in the Department of Textiles, Merchandising, and Interiors at the University of Georgia. "We were ready for peace, prosperity, and a relaxed life."

As a result, good design was believed to be the hope for the future, and there was a desire for furniture and houses that everyone could afford. Mass-produced and economical yet lovely was the goal.

This egalitarian modernist philosophy was summed by Charles and Ray Eames, a husband-and-wife team of furniture designers who made some of modernism's most iconic pieces. "We want to make the best for the most for the least" was their mission statement.

Charles and Ray Eames seated amongst colorful fiberglass Eames chairs
Charles and Ray Eames with fiberglass side chairs, a frame from the Eames film Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair, 1960. Courtesy of Eames Office, LLC

Key Figures and Philosophies

Modernism also embraced new technologies and ideas of the day: science fiction, physics (hello, atomic bomb), and molecular science. "Modernism is driven in part by all the new materials that are available to designers," says Meister. "They've been using plywood, but they start using it in different ways. We see more metals being used in furniture, more plastics are starting to be developed and used like the Eames chairs."

One example of this ingenuity appeared on Eames chairs, quintessential midcentury modern pieces that got their start in 1956. Made by designers Charles and Ray Eames, the chairs consisted of molded plastic, fiberglass, and plywood. They're such classics that they're still being made to this day by the Herman Miller Company, along with Eames coffee tables, based on a piece they made for their own California home in 1949.

Charles and ray eames

We want to make the best for the most for the least.

— Charles and ray eames

Not limited to interior design, modernism included architecture, industrial, and graphic design. In addition to Charles and Ray Eames, key figures included Arne Jacobson, George Nelson, Eero Saarinen, Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, Isamu Noguchi, Hans Wegner, and Mies van der Rohe. Many of these designers fled the Nazis in Europe for a fresh start in the post-WWII United States.

Modernist Furniture Design

Modernist furniture doesn't try to cover up its industrial materials. There's no batting or veneers. Instead, a chair made from metal shows off its steel frame in a celebration of the material itself. Against a backdrop of neutrals, bright colors were key, as well as a desire to integrate the indoors with nature. Light-colored woods like beech, ash, and pine were frequently used in furniture.

Most modernist furniture was compact so it could fit into the small houses being constructed in the post-war building boom. A scarcity of materials meant the average suburban house built in 1949 was just under 1,000-square feet. There was no room for an overstuffed sofa or massive leather club chair, but there was space for furniture so well-designed and constructed that it appeared to float, such as a Danish modern sofa or Barcelona chair.


Midcentury Modern Today

Modernist decor remains a force in interior design. Known as midcentury modern since the 1980s, this style of furniture is still being reproduced as well as riffed on today. Some modernist designs are even more popular now than when they first debuted. Eames chairs, for example, have been in continuous production since the late 1940s. And in 2021, Knoll merged with Herman Miller for a line of modernist furniture based on original designs by icons like Eero and Mies. The merged company is projected to have $3.6 billion in annual revenue.

"It's like design hit its pinnacle with modernism," says Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin, assistant professor of interior design at Auburn University. "Even though our technology has changed, modernist design and its themes are eternal. Look at some of the modernist work that came out of the late 1930s and it still looks brand new nearly a century later. It's amazing."

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