3 Scales for your Mid-century Living Room Update

10 min read As the proud owner of a mid-century ranch you’re probably looking for ways to enhance the mid-mod character of your home. Today let’s tune up your Mid-Century Living Room.

sketch of mid-century living room with built-in shelving, angled ceiling and full height masonry fireplace.

No matter how big your mid-century living room make-over dreams are, ALWAYS create a master plan for your whole home before you get started. You’ll be so glad you did. Prioritizing what really matters to you will allow you to budget your money and time for the best possible home you can create, and one that perfectly fits your lifestyle.

Today let’s look at how you can tune up a Mid-Century Living Room at three levels. The mid-century living room isn’t just a show-piece, its the heart of the home.

We’ll start with easy tips for choosing the right furniture and features to compliment a mid mod living area.

Then I’ll dig into some DIY projects you can undertake to restore or improve your home’s mid-century charm.

Finally I’ll suggest a few of the “big moves” you might want to plan for if you’re looking for a dramatic mid-century transformation!

Per usual, if you want to skip ahead to the How-To portion of this post, or the part that best suits your scale and budget, feel free. Also, this post is now one of a series: How to Update your mid-century home at any scale. Read the first one: 3 Ways to get the Perfect Mid-Century Front Door right here.

A very Basic Ranch Living Room

In buying a mid-century era house, I dreamed of my ideal living room as something like this lovingly updated Eichler:

But as many of us do, what I got was a basic model ranch living room – flat ceiling, tan walls, minimally dramatic hearth, standard picture window and horrible wall-to-wall carpeting. My first step was adding some mid-century furniture and more modernist up-down blinds.

Here it is again, right after I ripped out the wall-to-wall and replaced it with an area rug over the original hardwood. You can see my paint swatches on the walls.

The room is far from done but I already love living in it !

Right after I moved into the space I imagined some great, gut-remodel interventions for it: bumping up the ceiling and trying out different fireplace to enhance the mid-century elements. Keep reading to follow through three scales of what I could do with this very space.

As in my recent Mid-Century Front Door Update post, the sketches at the head of each section are alternate versions of THIS house.

What Defines a Mid-Century Interior?

So, let’s pause before we dive into the ideas and suggestions for what you can do to improve on your mid-century living room. First, we need to identify some of the features that make a great one.

Connection with the Outside

The mid-century style was all about erasing the hard lines between inside and out.

The flow between inside and out varies depending on how high-style the mid-century living room in question is. In the more extreme mid-century homes, it means a glass wall looking from the living space out into a private patio. For more modest ranches well, … this was the era that invented the picture window.

You can achieve the same connecting EFFECT with building materials. Mid-century designers used warm natural-toned wood, brick and stone on key interior spaces.

Natural Materials … and Color Pops

Although the wood, white and brick above can create a very neutral palette, the mid-century designers always punched up interior spaces with a few calculated color pops. Remember, when you’re looking for mid-century accent colors go for full saturation – deep red, bright orange, strong teals etc. Think vibrant.

Bold, Simple Forms and Patterns

The modernist designers avoided fluted decorative shapes in their buildings and furniture, going instead for solid colors or strong patterns in their fabric elements. Proceed and be bold with your patterns!

Let’s Dig Into your Mid-century Living Room

So … you want to remodel your Mid-century Living Room, and you’re not sure where to get started. How far you go depends on your budget and how much effort you want to put into the project.

To clarify, I’ve broken the concept down into three scales so that you can go as far along the path to your ideal mid mod living space as you choose.

Level ONE: Buy In

If you are just dipping your toe into the waters of either Mid-century modern or updating your ranch house, start simple.  

Begin with the Furniture

By far the easiest way to go mid mod in your living room is to change up your furniture. Fortunately mid-century living room furniture is fabulous and (relatively) easy to come by.

You can choose between price points:

  • A number of companies focus on mid-century adjacent design right now: I like CB2, West Elm, Joybird, and even Target. If you want modern variations and knock offs, check this list of mid-mod style furnishings on amazon. Or, you can simply use “mid-century” as your search term for any number of discount internet furniture sources: AllModern, Jet, Y-Living, World Market, etc. Don’t forget Etsy!
  • Many classic designs have been in production since the mid-century era and you can find them licensed to various modern companies. Design Within Reach, Knoll Furniture, and Industry West nail down the high end.
  • Alternatively, you can go truly authentic with vintage finds from your local antique store, estate sales or even dumpster diving.

Start small: find a fanciful coffee table

This can be a high or low purchase. I have a slightly wobbly space age coffee table that my mom found in a church basement rummage sale for 2 dollars (the mid-century revival has not come to small town Wisconsin yet). However, it was dark wood laminate in bad shape so I sprayed it white in my back yard.

Alternately you could go for the Isamu Noguchi classic now available via Design Within Reach for a cool $1895.00.

The possibilities are many!

Work outward to the sofa, accent chairs, rug and lighting

As you choose elements, keep scale in mind. The mid-century living room came before the La-Z-Boy era of overstuffed and oversized everything. Ranch house living rooms are not large but you can help them seem proportionally larger by going for low slung furniture (emphasizing the distance up to the ceiling) and grouping it in a conversational space on an area rug that leaves at least a few feet clear to every wall.

Remember that people don’t actually feel comfortable chatting across more than 10 feet, so you want to keep all the seating grouped around a circle no more than 12′ across regardless of your style era.

Check this out: Apartment Therapy has a great – and comprehensive – piece on Living Room layout dimensions that can apply to your mid-century living room just as well as any other space!

Want to keep going?  Here are a few more to do items!  

Seek out statement art pieces.

The mid mod era was not all about the gallery wall that’s so popular with pinterest right now. Modernist architecture was intended to speak for itself. Focus on a few bold and colorful visual elements or let the beauty of any natural wood panels, hearth elements or views out be your focal point.

Light up the room

While modern houses rely on wired-in can and surface lights for most of their interior illumination, a mid-century living room used a combination of natural light balanced with floor- and table-lamps to get the job done.

Pro tip: It really is convenient to be able to control your lighting with the flick of a switch as you walk into and out of a room. Set up a combination of pre-set area lights you like for common situations – evening reading and conversation – and connect them all to a switched outlet or via wireless remote switch.

Roll out the Rug

Don’t forget a bold statement area rug – either in a fun mid mod pattern or a strong texture or color can really make a room. If you’re down for it, think about the toe curling comfort factor of shag. Just remember you’ll have to budget a higher cleaning bill for a rug that loves to hog dust.

Level TWO: Power UP

Here are some DIY and handyman level projects you can take on to improve the mid-century character of your living room.

For bigger mid-century moves, you’ll need to break out your tool belt and maybe even take on some selective demolition. Still, most of what I suggest below can be accomplished by a skilled amateur home remodeler.

Pull the Rug Out from Under It

If you’re lucky you can make an instant transformation in your ranch living room by tearing out the wall to wall carpet.

Midwest ranches of my home’s era had standard hardwood floors. Sadly, mine and many others had been covered up by wall to wall carpet in the intervening years. Tearing out that carpet and uncovering the simple warm woodgrain underneath marked one of the best home improvement days I’ve experienced in my ranch. I can’t recommend it enough.

You may have to resort to some scrubbing or even rent some re-finishing equipment but the change is worthwhile.

It might be worth it, even if you don’t have hardwood!

Even if you don’t find glorious wood under your carpet, you can still improve your home sense of mid-century sleekness. I love this example of a restored Rhode Island Mid-Century Ranch featured in Apartment Therapy:

“After buying the house, we pulled up 2,000 square feet of original wall-to-wall carpet and discovered a poured gypsum subfloor. Other home improvements became a priority, so we bought 10 gallons of Lowe’s cement paint, rolled it on, and have lived on the subfloor with area rugs ever since. We don’t even notice it anymore and most people just think it is concrete.”

Restore – or improve – the Hearth

Although very few of us heat with wood – or should – there is something about a hearth that functions. Midwestern mid-century houses are built around the fireplace, an idea they borrow from their Usonian forerunners. Frank Lloyd Wright was a big believer in the psychological centering power of a hearth.

Every Wright home had a fireplace, “the masonry core,” which provided both physical and psychological warmth to his central spaces. 

Make your fireplace a focal point. If its in good shape, preserve it. If not, restore and give it an upgrade. A new facing in brick, stone or tile and a wider (asymmetrical area) could make for a major injection of drama to your living room.

Open up views of the outside and … Connect to views INSIDE the house

By replacing and expanding your windows, or creating expanded openings for view lines from one part of your domain to another will change your daily experience of your home. You don’t need (or necessarily want) a totally open floor plan. However, pulling out walls in a thoughtful way can make a small home feel spacious and improve your flow.

Let the Sun shine in: Skylights

Yes, you can cut holes in your roof. People forget about their ceilings, but letting in a little slice of the sky can completely transform your home. A living room is a perfect place for this sort of expanded view.

Clad the Ceiling

While we’re looking up, why not make a more interesting ceiling surface. We’ve already talked about the beauty of a wood floor, what about a warm wood ceiling? This will work best if you have some height – eight feet or more, certainly. This could be a great way to set the your mid-century living room apart from other adjoining spaces.

Level THREE: Call a Pro

To really go big with your home, I’d recommend busting out the living room ceiling and raising it up to the pitch of the roof line.

This can be an especially valuable move if you are creating a much more open floor plan between your public spaces. One of the biggest complaints about open floor plans is that the connected spaces feel undifferentiated. Having one ceiling height over your kitchen (lower) another one through the living area (angled higher) and a possible third over your eating space (dropped with some sort of screen element to create a more intimate space), you’ll have plenty of distinct spaces to inhabit.

Other big moves to consider:

  • Open up the floor plan between the kitchen and dining spaces
  • Cut through the floor to the basement to create an open stairwell connecting to the den below
  • Change up the roofline itself: Add a new entry to your home that will allow for a more out-reaching entrance and living space. Bring in more views of outside and connect with your exterior spaces.
  • Totally re-arrange your layout: Perhaps you’d like to claim the living room are of your current floor plan for a master suite and push a new living area out toward the back yard.

As usual, to go all in, you will likely need to bring in a design professional and a contractor.  This has gone beyond the scope of most DIY efforts.

Don’t Forget to Build IN Built Ins

This is also an opportunity to splurge on custom built in storage – a mainstay of mid-century design. Make sure you work with a cabinet maker who is familiar with the mid mod style. Hallmarks of gorgeous builtins for a mid-century living room include:

  • flat cabinet fronts
  • warm tones of wood grain
  • seamless grain patterns that span across multiple units

Remember, actual fully open floor plans are more modern than mid-century. You don’t have to do anything so extreme. The post war home builders weren’t generally planing on a house open from one exterior wall to the other. But they did like to use built in elements – or furniture – in place of walls in some key areas to facilitate flow and share light between all the main living spaces.

Where to look for inspiration

While you’ll never turn a midwest ranch house into a California Eichler –  if you are prepared to make some substantial changes, you can bring a truly fresh look to your main living space! Remember, the mid-century living room isn’t just a show-piece, its the heart of the home. Get inspired!

Final thoughts

This is not an either/or situation. You don’t have to limit yourself to just one level of making a great Mid Mod Living Room for yourself. Feel free to treat these scales as phases in an ongoing process.

One thing I ALWAYS suggest is to create amaster plan for your whole home before you get started. Prioritizing what really matters to you will allow you to budget your money and time for the best possible home you can create.

So, once you know where your design is headed, you can start small then work your way up the scale, from finding some great furniture to tearing out walls. Wherever you land you’ll be satisfied you made the right choice!

How is YOUR Mid-Century Living Room?

Do you have a fabulous mid-century living room to show off? Or a problematic one you can’t figure out how to fix? Post about in the comments. I would LOVE to brainstorm with you or cheer you on!