What is Modern Furniture?

What is Modern Furniture?
Le Bambole sofa by Mario Bellini 1972 - Modern
Image courtesy Wright20.com

Not to be confused with Modernism, Mid Century Modern or Contemporary, Modern furniture design adheres to its own set of principals and period in time. In this article I focus on what Modern furniture design is and I attempt to clear up the confusion between the other vocabularies that are commonly used in place of Modern.

The Modern period also known now as Modern Classics (1925 - 1970s) is a twentieth century design that completely rejected ornamentation while embracing minimalism and function. Access to new materials and manufacturing technologies brought about new concepts for construction. Wood had been at the core of the furniture industry for centuries, but that would all change in the early twentieth century. In came tubular steel, fiberglass, molded plastic, molded glass and various other post-war materials. Wood would still be used frequently in modern design, however it would now share the stage.

One could argue that the Modern period of design with respect to furniture began midway through the Bauhaus movement (1919 - 1933) when Bauhaus member Marcel Breuer in 1925 designed a seamless tubular steel chair polished in chrome, known as the Wassily Chair. From this point forward we begin to see a wildly different approach to furniture design.

Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer 1925
Image courtesy Knoll.com

The confusion that lies between the terms Modern and Contemporary have a lot to do with the fact that they are synonyms of one another. They both mean relating to present time or recent past. But to understand their meanings in the context of furniture design, you must ignore their formal definitions.

In furniture design, the word Modern over the twentieth century has become a way to describe a particular set of aesthetics, whereas contemporary, has remained more true to its formal definition and has been a way of describing mass produced, easy made furniture being made now or in recent time. In the context of furniture, recent time would be within the past 10 years +/-.

Panton Chair by Verner Panton 1960 - Mid-Century Modern
Image courtesy of Vitra.com

Can furniture be both contemporary and modern? Yes, if it adheres to the design elements of modern design and was made within the past couple decades, it can be both. With the resurgence of interest in Modern furniture over the past couple decades, countless companies have been replicating the designs of the original works of the Modern design era. This predicament has lead to a new terminology to address the original innovations of Modern design as Modern Classics.

altBertoia Seating Collection by Harry Bertoia 1952 - Mid Century Modern - Image courtesy of Knoll.com

Modernism 1880 - ongoing

Modernism was and still is an art movement which was founded on the separation from traditional forms of expression. The industrial revolution ushered in new waves of materials, freedoms and experiences which artists began to implement into their art.

The modernism movement covers many fine art disciplines, from painting, to photography, typography, weaving, sculpture, architecture, product design and furniture design.

With respect to furniture, there have been many furniture design periods that have existed during the modernism movement, therefore describing furniture as modernism is generally too vague of a statement and so it is not typically used to do so.

Modern 1925 - present

Context is everything. By definition, modern refers to: relating to, or characteristic of the present or the immediate past. However, in the context of furniture Modern is way to describe a particular style of furniture.

Characteristics to look for in Modern period furniture are smooth structural lines and absence of details and/or ornamentation that interrupt eyeflow.

*Pedestal Collection by Eero Saarinen 1957 - Mid Century Modern - Image courtesy of Knoll.com* *Omnibus Sofa by Vladimir Kagan 1970 - Modern - Image courtesy Wright20.com*

Modern Classic 1925 - 1970s

Modern Classic refers to the golden age of Modern design which took place approximately between 1925 through the 1970s.

*Barcelona Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe 1929 - Modern - Image courtesy of Wright20.com*

Danish Modern 1930s - 1970s

Lounge Chair by Finn Juhl 1958 - Danish Modern
Image courtesy of Wright20.com

Danish Modern furniture refers to modern furniture made in Denmark. Modern furniture is still being produced today in Denmark, however the golden era of Danish modern design was between the 1930s and 1970s.

Characteristics of Danish Modern furniture are simple forms, sleek lines and thin tapered legs. The most well known and common material used in Danish modern furniture is teak, a tropical hardwood. Other common woods that were used were walnut, oak and rosewood.

Mid Century Modern: 1940s to 1960s

Mid Century Modern is a design period that took place directly after WWII. A design movement embraced most notably by the United States, Scandinavia, Germany and Italy. Mid-Century Modern at its structure embodies the same design principles of Modern design. However, we see a wave of designers during this period become bolder, opting for brighter colors, eye dazzling fabrics, sharper angles and eccentric details.

*Marshmallow Sofa by George Nelson 1956 - Mid Century Modern - Image courtesy of Wright20.com*


Cost effective, easy to produce, now.

Context is everything. By definition contemporary refers to: now or in recent times. In the world of fine art it refers to art from 1950 to now. However, in the context of furniture, contemporary refers to furniture of new style made approximately in the past twenty years. In many cases, furniture manufacturers today will choose to use traditional designs, but with contemporary construction methods.