Man(made) vs. Machine – Understanding Mid-Century Modern Style

Recently on the blog we talked about the most unusual style of Mid-Century Modern style, Biomorphic. This term refers to elements of design that reference shapes of living organisms.  Categories of Mid-Century Modern style include Biomorphic, Machine, and Handcrafted. Many great MCM homes are designed and furnished with a perfect combination of each of these styles. By knowing these terms when you are making project decisions, we hope to help you develop your own personal tastes within the Mid-Century Modern style.

Danish Modern Teak Scissor chair available from the MidCenturyMobler, stacking Eames-inspired chairs from Modernica

Danish Modern Teak Scissor chair available from the MidCenturyMobler, stacking Eames-inspired chairs from Modernica

While Biomorphic style came about as a response to the recent interest and discoveries being made in science during the Mid-Century period, the Machine style also sparked from a post-war discovery. Just as it had many times before, our nation returned from war with a confidence in our abilities to utilize our industries for mass-production of supplies to meet a demand. With a focus on the post-war home and the growth that it would bring, the traditional styles and views of home life were about to change dramatically. Architects and designers began to harvest this industry success into mass-production of products to suit this new lifestyle. A young, growing portion of the country had a hunger for the arts and culture and wanted to live the “modern” lifestyle shown to them in shelter magazines and advertisements everywhere. 

The "Kazam!" machine Los Angeles , 1941 (Library of Congress, May 1999)

The “Kazam!” machine Los Angeles , 1941 (Library of Congress, May 1999)

With mass-production, home furnishings could become more accessible to the general public. The Chrysler Corporation’s metal-to-wood bonding process had opened up new doors for design. In 1941 Charles and Ray Eames created the Kazaam! Machine which was a press used to mold plywood. Eames and his team had a goal to provide “the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.” By 1946, The Herman Miller Furniture Company had employed the talent of George Nelson, Alexander Gerard, Charles and Ray Eames, as well as Isamu Noguchi. Good design was becoming available design to the growing post-war population.

While much of furniture being designed and produced by architects fell into the Machine style, there was an emergence of Handcraft style just as strong in presence. Handcrafted furnishings with modern features and forms were much more inviting to many than the bizarre Biomorphic shapes and what some thought were “cold” or “clinical” Machine styles.

Wegner Style Peacock Chair available from

Wegner Style Peacock Chair available from

Most commonly refereed to as Danish Modern, the Handcrafted style utilized modern tools and assembly and created clean, pure designs. Following the principles of the Bauhaus style, furnishings were created with an awareness of classical furniture craftsmanship. For example, Hans Wegner created his Peacock Chair as a modern adaptation of the traditional Windsor chair. Finn Juhl, and Arne Jacobsen were just some of the many designers focusing on Handcraft styles; they gave a soft edge to the modern lines by rounding sharp corners and using newly available production techniques. Oak and Teak became the most used wood species within this movement.

One common characteristic of both Machine and Handcrafted styles of Mid-Century Modern furnishings was the consideration of the end user. Materials were researched extensively and designs were proportioned to the requirements of the human body. While each of these styles can conflict with each other in motive, they can each compliment each other within a space. Being able to categorize iconic Mid-Century Modern elements can help you curate and appreciate your favorite pieces in your OCModHome.

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