Today’s best mid-century modern (MCM) outdoor furniture blends celebrated design principles with modern materials for an enduring blend of form and function. At Curran, we carry pieces from some of the best contemporary designers working to bring mid-mod style into the 21st century. This guide will teach you the defining characteristics of this design style and features award-winning collections you can shop today.
The Origins of MCM Furniture Design
It may be hard to imagine a time when furniture designers and architects were household names and nationwide audiences tuned in to see the latest chair models revealed from behind a gauzy curtain while the score of the studio orchestra swelled. But that’s exactly what happened in 1956 when Charles and Ray Eames appeared on NBC’s Home show.
In the first segment, Charles presents an assortment of his wildly popular molded plywood and plastic chairs. The plywood, or “potato chip,” chair would go on to be called TIME Magazine’s “Best Design of the 20th Century.” Panning camera shots of the product carousel and pleasantries exchanged with the host build to a dramatic reveal, where the curtain is pulled back on the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. This vision in rosewood and black leather is the epitome of mid-century modern design, an enduring classic still sold today.
The mid-century modern movement was a design school with many classrooms. In the discipline of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style, with its horizontal orientation, floor-to-ceiling windows, and open floor plans, provided a template for affordable modern homes in the blossoming American suburbs. An emphasis on natural light, sliding glass doors, and even enclosed atria, facilitated the organic flow between indoors and outdoors.
By seeking to integrate the home into the surrounding landscape and blending the use of natural and man-made materials in construction, mid-century modern houses anticipated today’s green movement. A typical Wright-designed house in his affordable mass-market “Usonian” style featured floor-based radiant heat, as well as built-in furniture and storage, a space-saving feature employed in today’s “tiny homes”. Usonian homes were constructed from a kit with locally sourced building materials.
In the late 1940’s, with post-war incomes rising, prices on consumer goods dropping due to mass production techniques, and TV, radio, and magazines saturating the American consumer with clever Madison Avenue advertising, all the conditions were in place for a modern-day renaissance in interior design. And there sure were a lot of empty living rooms to fill!
Design Principles of MCM Outdoor Furniture
Mid-century modern architecture is characterized by a very fluid exchange between indoor and outdoor spaces. A MCM living room, whether it’s indoor or outdoor, is composed of a reliable canon of somewhat interchangeable components. The important thing to remember is that there are no hard and fast rules for composing a lounge or dining area in this style.
Because mid-century modern interior design has always been intended for the popular market, there is a virtually limitless array of options for furniture pieces. Therefore the results are usually very eclectic and reflect the surrounding environment of the home as well as the personality of the decorator.
In a general sense, mid-century modern outdoor furniture has a few core features.
- Sculptural or minimalist silhouettes. Frames and feet are often metal with an industrial simplicity.
- Statement pieces and pops of color. In a MCM living room, furniture, art, lighting, rugs, and other design elements do not compete for attention. A particularly colorful, fun statement piece such as an egg-shaped armchair is complemented by neutral supporting pieces that amplify the overall theme. A boxy sofa is complemented by the organic curves of a kidney-shaped coffee table.
- Furniture upholstery is usually a neutral or earthy color with a vintage flavor: pea green, ruddy orange, dandelion yellow, etc. Upholstery and throw pillows are often very textural: tufted (with buttons or not), or geometrically patterned.
- Natural elements such as wood are paired with modern building materials like steel, chrome, plastic, and glass. Wooden sideboards or shelving give a rich effulgent glow in the ample light of MCM living rooms.
- MCM furniture is characterized by a futuristic optimistic mood. Many furniture designers contributed their design skills to the war effort and were inspired by collective national missions such as the space race. This influenced their choice of building materials (plastic, molded plywood, etc.) as well as design aesthetic with sleek aerodynamic designs borrowed from air and spacecraft.
Here are just a few “modern classics” from Curran’s outdoor furniture catalog to illustrate how the principles guiding mid-century modern interior design continue to reverberate through the work of today’s outdoor furniture designers.
Mid-Century Modern Outdoor Sofas
Inspiration: In 1950’s living rooms, the classic choice for a couch was a Knoll tufted upholstery sofa. With slim boxy armrests, an industrial frame and utilitarian feet, as well as a grid-like monochromatic profile, the overall effect was one of simple eloquent geometry.
Our Outdoor Recommendations:
Curran offers a number of outdoor sofas with the clean boxy lines of the Knoll sofa. While tufted cushions are not a common option for outdoor furniture there are different ways to make your upholstery texturally interesting and visually appealing.
Gloster Grid mimics the square armrests and sculpturally refined feet of MCM indoor sofas. This immensely popular geometrically-inspired collection provides a great base for adding additional outdoor modules such as loungers and daybeds, or complementing with statement pieces from other collections.
Point Long Island has an indoor look and feel, with a spare minimalist profile and plump inviting cushions, paired with rugged outdoor performance.
Mamagreen Mono has the option of choosing pinstriping for the upholstery and/or piping for the cushions. Both add a lot of complexity and visual interest to outdoor upholstery.
Also consider: Mamagreen Babbo
Mid-Century Modern Outdoor Lounge Chairs
Inspiration: Though inspired by the 19th century club chair, the Eames Lounge Chair anticipates the look and feel of a modern office chair. The supremely comfortable ergonomic form is supported by a mixed-media style (traditionally molded rosewood and black leather) and squat pedestal base.
Our Outdoor Recommendation: While an actual outdoor lounge chair in the style of the Eames original is a rarity, the Haven Swivel Rocker from Barlow Tyrie is similarly built for both style and comfort. This collection also contains an ottoman, just as the original Eames chair did. The perfect solution for working from home on a sunny summer day.
Gloster Bay captures the bucket-like embrace of the Eames lounge chair, but does mid-century modern in another way. Bay gets away from the barbershop look with clean sculptural lines of jointed teak. This is a true statement piece you can build around for your outdoor mid-century modern living room.
Also consider: Mamagreen Kaat
Mid-Century Modern Outdoor Dining Chairs
Inspiration: The Eames molded plywood chair, also known as the “potato chip” chair, was originally debuted by Charles and Ray Eames during a 1940 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The design was perfected and delivered to a mass market in 1946. Steam-bent sheets of plywood were contoured to the human frame to be comfortable without upholstery. The two-piece seat and back elements not only contribute to the structural integrity of the plywood material, they highlight the deconstructed “less is more” aesthetic made possible through the use of advanced building materials.
Our Outdoor Recommendation: Agave from Ethimo is a contoured teak collection with a graceful organic silhouette and bisected seat cavity for rainfall drainage.
Inspiration: The Eames molded plastic chair was a revolutionary shell chair design with a space-age look and comfortable contoured seat. Charles and Ray Eames were inspired by their work with the War Department to construct popular furniture designs from the same high-tech polymer used to make soldiers’ shock helmets.
Our Outdoor Recommendation: AIIR from DEDON is an updated high-performance dining chair version of the classic shell design chair. Plastic materials have come a long way in the past 60 years: these chairs are self-ventilating and impervious to outdoor weather, as well as extremely lightweight.
Mid-Century Modern Outdoor Benches and Tables
Inspiration: The Noguchi Coffee Table, brainchild of sculptor Isamu Noguchi, has a delicately balanced two-piece base which represents the foundational energy of yin and yang. A distinctively curved glass panel floats on top.
Our Outdoor Recommendation: The entire Mamagreen Kaat collection draws inspiration from MCM design principles, from the muted earthy color palette of the upholstery options to the wraparound quasi-futuristic aluminum shells for the seating. Most specifically reminiscent of the MCM era are these nesting organically shaped triangular lounge tables.
Mid-Century Modern Outdoor Lighting
Inspiration: The warm wood tripod base of this mid-century modern lamp complements the earthy leather upholstery of the sofa.
Our Outdoor Recommendation: The Royal Botania Club Lounge Floor Lamp is solar-powered for cordless usage outdoors. A teak tetrapod base supports the oversized segmented lampshade available in your choice of color.
Inspiration: The George Nelson Bubble Lamp was a popular pendant light in MCM living and dining rooms. Inspired by Swedish hanging lamps, George Nelson created these ethereal modern lighting pieces in 1952 by coating a steel wire frame with a resin mesh and spraying over with plastic.
Our Outdoor Recommendation: DEDON BABYLON LED side tables have a similar ethereal form with a high-tech twist. Molded with irregular ribbing via a randomizing algorithm, these translucent polyethylene shells contains a warm LED light and also function as handy side tables.
Shop many more examples of Curran’s mid-century modern furniture, including benches, tables, and other outdoor living room products.
Paul is the Outdoor Furniture Storyteller at Curran and sisalcarpet.com. For the past 2 years he has been focused on crafting content that helps connect those who enjoy the finer things in life with heirloom outdoor furniture pieces. With over a decade of experience in e-commerce and web publishing, he envisions Curran as a comprehensive destination for building dream outdoor spaces. His favorite furniture style? Mid-Century Modern (it kind of encompasses a little bit of everything :D).