What Drives: Iconic Midcentury Design - Vox Creative

What Drives: Iconic Midcentury Design

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This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and BP. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the design world experienced arguably the most important period of aesthetically driven, problem-solving creativity in history. Inspired by the International and Bauhaus movements, designers involved in architecture, interiors, and industrial and furniture design looked at their trades with a new perspective, seeing design as a way to improve everyday life. Form and function became equally important, and technological advances that allowed mass, inexpensive production made good design available to the broad middle class for the first time in history.

Even today, the influence of midcentury modern design can be felt in everything from your iPhone to the clothes you wear and the shows you watch on TV. At the heart of every major movement there are a host of key players driving it forward. Here are some of the most influential midcentury designers and their game-changing contributions to the field.


Hans J. Wegner

Arguably no designer played a bigger role in the development of midcentury modern design than Hans J. Wegner. Over the course of his decades-long career, the Danish furniture designer created more than a thousand pieces, with many remaining in production today by the most iconic and important furniture makers. Wegner's modest and impossibly simple pp501 chair was used by John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the first televised debate in 1960, introducing Danish design to the American public and earning it the nickname "The Chair." Today, his Shell Chair remains a recognizable icon of midcentury design.


Charles and Ray Eames

Charles and Ray Eames, a married couple, are the best-known American midcentury designers. Recognized as innovators in material use and mass-producible design, the two developed such groundbreaking techniques as molding fiberglass and plywood into complex curves, which would become their calling card. Both the Eames Lounge Chair and the Eames Molded Fiberglass Armchairs are incredibly popular still today — as evidenced by the fakes flooding shops worldwide, and their designs' omnipresence in magazine and pop culture.


George Nelson

In the early 1940s, American architect and industrial designer George Nelson published "Tomorrow's House," a book introducing the concept of the "family room" and the idea that wall spaces between support beams in a home could be replaced with integrated storage and shelving units. The concepts were totally new. In 1945, they earned Nelson the position of design director at Herman Miller, the furniture manufacturer. During his time there, Nelson designed incredibly iconic pieces, including the Slat Platform Bench, Coconut Chair, and and Marshmallow Sofa. He is also responsible for bringing the Eameses and Isamu Noguchi, among others, into Herman Miller as designers.



No, Helvetica isn't a person, nor is it really a tangible product. But it is emblematic of what is considered modern. Designed in 1957 by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger, the typeface was meant to be universal and highly adaptable. Each ending stroke ends on a perfectly horizontal or vertical plane, in all weights, giving the typeface a stoic, stark personality that lends itself to a wide range of applications — the sans-serif typeface is used by NASA, American Apparel, BMW, General Motors, Jeep, Knoll, McDonald's, Nestlé, and of course the New York City subway system. It's also the only typeface with its own documentary.


Eero Saarinen

Though born in Finland, Saarinen was largely raised in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where his father Eliel Saarinen taught at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Here he developed close relationships with fellow students Charles and Ray Eames, as well as with Florence Knoll, who, along with her husband Hans Knoll, later founded Knoll Furniture, which would go on to produce each of Saarinen's chair designs. Many of these designers worked across different media, but Saarinen stands out for his enormous and varied contributions, from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport to the Tulip chair and Womb chair.


Alvar Aalto

Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto was a prolific designer across fields, especially in architecture. In his lifetime, he designed an estimated 500 buildings, with 300 of them completed. He also designed many elegant and impressively simple pieces of furniture, and is perhaps best known for founding Artek, a Finnish furniture company that continues to produces such immediately identifiable designs as his three-legged stacking Stool 60.


Finn Juhl

The sensibility of Danish architect and interior and industrial designer Finn Juhl is in a league of its own. Many influential designers during the midcentury modern period used light woods, like oak. Finn preferred dark woods, like teak. His designs were minimal, sure, but they were anything but commonplace or meant for the mass market. He preferred organic shapes and soft edges. His Pelican Chair is incredibly odd, and equally comfortable. The Poet Sofa and Model 45 Chair are similarly unique and inviting. An inconoclast, Juhl was nevertheless hugely influential in introducing Danish Modernism to the world.


Edith Heath

Edith Heath founded her eponymous ceramics company in 1948, extending the concept of working with raw, organic, and minimalist materials from architecture and furniture design to homewares, as well. Heath Ceramics, in Sausalito, California, produced more than 100,000 pieces in its first year, each handmade. Heath's own "Coupe" line remains in constant production since its introduction in 1948, proving the midcentury modern aesthetic is as relevant now as it was nearly 70 years ago.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and BP. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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