Mid-Century Modern Furniture Designers to Know

  • 01 of 06

    The Big Name: Eames

    Eames desk and return, c. 1954, and side chair, c. 1958.
    Eames desk and return, c. 1954, and side chair, c. 1958. Photo courtesy of Sothebys.com

    For those just beginning to explore the realm of Mid-Century Modern home furnishings, Eames is the natural point of departure. The name Eames, in fact, has become almost synonymous with Mid-Century Modern as items bearing no maker's mark have been dubbed "Eames-era" to garner attention.

    The modern look that took root in the 1940s and expanded into 1950s, '60s, and early '70s in America reflects on innovative Bauhaus design originating in Germany decades earlier, around the...MORE same time that Art Deco was on the rise. Designers like Charles and Ray Eames built on this modernist ideal with their colorful furniture made of bent plywood, and plastic chairs molded to fit the curve of the body. Their designs are considered to be classics among modernism fans.

    Like the office suite shown here, many Eames pieces were manufactured by Herman Miller, another name entrenched in classic mid-century design.  

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  • 02 of 06

    Harry Bertoia

    Diamond Chairs designed by Harry Bertoia for Knoll International, c. 1950s
    Diamond Chairs designed by Harry Bertoia for Knoll International, c. 1950s. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

    Sculptures by Harry Bertoia (1915-1978) are widely sought by modernism aficionados. He is well known for his "sound art" along with free-form works and bush-shaped designs made of welded metal. Some use large wires, either straight or curved, welded into position to form modern masterpieces that can sell well into the six figures. 

    In furniture design, Bertoia's work for Knoll has been on the map of collectors for quite some time. "In 1950 Hans Knoll, one of the leading...MORE manufacturers of modern furniture in the United States, commissioned the prominent American metalsmith and sculptor Harry Bertoia to design several chairs," said author Marvin D. Schwartz in American Furniture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas & Beds. "Bertoia's designs transcended the barrier between decorative and functional design ... his objects balanced successfully between sculpture and furniture."

    Bertoia's "Diamond Chairs," as shown here, have a base of lattice-like metal (which can be seen from the back) with a fabric cover. There were five different sculptural open weave metal designs in the original Bertoia Collection for Knoll. Like most Knoll designs from the '50s, these chairs were made over a long period of time. Knoll Associates labels were used through 1969, so versions made since then are marked Knoll International when the labels are still present. 

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  • 03 of 06

    Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

    Pair of Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe Tugendhat lounge chairs with cantilevered seats for Knoll Associates, c. 1970s.
    Pair of Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe Tugendhat lounge chairs with cantilevered seats for Knoll Associates, c. 1970s. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center

    Architect and designer Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe (1886-1969) was known to say "I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good." Desired or not, in addition to overwhelmingly good design, his work is some of the most interesting and desirable to fans of modern decor. He served as director of the Bauhaus, a school dedicated to exploring modern art and design, from 1930 to 1933 when it was closed at the urging of the Nazi command. He migrated to the United States in the late 1930s...MORE where he continued to influence the architecture community.  

    Like Bertoia, Mies designs were also manufactured by Knoll Associates. This production yielded many designs, expertly using open space akin to his architecture, that have cantilevered seats artfully suspended above air. This is true of the Tugendhat lounge chairs shown here along with many of his other chair designs originating at the Bauhaus. These styles have been widely copied since they were introduced. 

    His most famous design, however, is the Barcelona chair. This iconic seat was originally made for the International Exposition of 1929 held in Barcelona, Spain. Knoll International (the name of the company since 1969) is still producing the "less is more" Barcelona chair today. 

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  • 04 of 06

    Marcel Breuer

    Wassily chair designed by Marcel Breuer manufactured by Standard-Möbel, c. 1927.
    Wassily chair designed by Marcel Breuer manufactured by Standard-Möbel, c. 1927. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

    Marcel Breuer, like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, designed many tubular-steel chairs for the Bauhaus in Germany. Many of these chair designs employed cantilevered seats, and they were copied widely in both the United States and Europe during the 1920s and '30s. To true modernism fans, the originals with a more airy feel are much preferred over heavier mass produced variations.

    Breuer's most famous design, the Wassily chair, came about during his tenure as the head of the cabinet-making...MORE workshop while still at the Bauhaus. The first example of this extreme variation of the traditional club chair was made in the 1920s, and was named simply Model B3. It came in both folding and stationary styles with fabric straps attached to steel tubing like that used in hospital furniture of the day. These early chairs are the most valuable examples in the eyes of collectors. After World War II, the Wassily was produced with the more familiar leather straps, although fabric was available as well.

    By 1968 Knoll purchased the Breuer catalog and began producing his designs, several of which are still available today. This includes the Wassily chair in numerous color variations, the cantilevered Cesca chair in versions with and without arms, and his popular Laccio coffee and end tables.

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  • 05 of 06

    Arne Jacobsen

    Contemporary version of the Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair and matching footstool with Fritz Hansen label.
    Contemporary version of the Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair and matching footstool with Fritz Hansen label. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions

    Another renowned mid-century furniture designer with roots in architecture is Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971). This Danish visionary drew inspiration from the modernist designs of Charles and Ray Eames and collaborated with other designers to create furnishings for a number of the buildings he designed. 

    For example, Jacobsen conceived every detail of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of the furniture pieces for the hotel was his signature Egg Chair with matching footstool designed in...MORE 1958. This curvaceous lounger is one of his most well known designs, and one of the most popular among fans of modernist furnishings. It is still being produced today, in fact. 

    He also conceived the Ant chair and the Swan chair, along with other innovative designs including flatware, cocktail sets, and tea service sets. All of these are very functional in addition to being interesting to display, and quite valuable to collectors today.

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  • 06 of 06

    Paul Evans

    Paul Evans dining table in collaboration with Philip Lloyd Powell, c. 1964
    Paul Evans dining table in collaboation with Philip Lloyd Powell, commissioned by the original owner, c. 1964. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

    The designs of Paul Evans (1931-1987) have been noticed more and more over the last decade by modernism enthusiasts, and values have risen accordingly. He designed for his own business sharing a New Jersey showroom with Philip Lloyd Powell in the 1950s, and also for a North Carolina company, Directional Furniture, in the 1960s. By the '70s he was back in his home state of Pennsylvania employing more than 85 workers who helped fill his New York showroom with his designs. 

    Evans' furniture...MORE is known for the use of sculpted metals including bronze, stainless steel, and copper with a strong Brutalism influence. His tables usually consist of a geometric mass of metal or wood, sometimes bringing natural stalagmites to mind as if they are growing up from the floor, and some were topped with glass. His case pieces are usually heavy and massive, with fronts broken into a series of squares decorated primitively, or shiny and angular forming a metal patchwork of sorts. 

    Many Evans pieces were commissioned directly by clients through his studios. These were often held by the original owners, and their estates have documented provenance confirming them as Evans' work when they come up for sale. Most of those pieces are marked with the initials "PE" or "Paul Evans" spelled out and a two-number date as part of the mark as well.