Mid-Century Materials: A Valentine to Natural Wood

6 min read Mid-century designers loved showing off the gorgeous grain of natural wood. They used it to clad their walls, floor and ceiling, as well as for cabinets and furniture. Looking for a great mid mod material? Look no further than warm-toned wood.

When you’re a proud owner of a mid-century home considering updates, start by taking stock of what mid mod characteristics you have on hand. While you catalog the mid-century features your house has to offer, note all the parts made from natural wood.

If your home turns up short on mid-century charm, you can take action and improve it. Start by adding more natural wood elements. Think:

  • flat fronted kitchen cabinets with lovely grain,
  • tongue-in-groove ceiling panelling in a few key rooms, or
  • some fun vintage furniture in warm toned wood.

Better Homes and Gardens(!) has a recent article on how to “do mid-century style.” The steps are simple but the photos are wonderfully evocative. They all feature wood prominently.

But I’m sure you’ll find beautiful natural wood in even the most modest Mid-century Ranch.

My little ranch has very few of the bells and whistles of Mid-Century Cool.  There’s no variation in the roof line or ceiling height.  The fireplace is underwhelming, and there aren’t any stone or brick details to highlight on the outside.  There isn’t even a sliding glass door to the back yard, let alone a flowing interior-exterior living space.   

However, it does have one one thing in common with nearly every home of its era. It has an abundance of beautiful, natural wood.  I’d bet yours does too.

Some examples:

The hardwood floor isn’t fancy but it is beautiful and in great shape. Here’s a flashback to my absolute and unreserved JOY when I ripped out the carpet and revealed glorious golden woodgrain.

My original wood floor was protected by hideous (and an apparently indestructible) wall to wall carpet. Some owner in the 60’s was less a fan of natural wood and more a fan of “better living through chemistry.” Their lack of appreciation for the wood floor means it is in better shape today

Likewise I THANK THE PREVIOUS owners for not painting over the beautiful plywood flat panel doors. The combination of wood grain, warm stain and lustrous finish brings me joy every day.

Plus I have several prized pieces of family heirloom furniture dating from the mid-mod years. My grandparent’s bedroom set and my mom’s ant chairs are both demonstrations of wonderful mid-century natural wood love:

Of course, sometimes that love of wood could go off the rails in mid-century houses – when people drifted over the line into faux panelling. Check out the study in my basement (past tense). I had to tear it out due to terrible layout and … mold behind the panels. #notsorry

In general though, its hard to go wrong with warmed tone natural wood in a mid-mod home. We’ll take a look at why woodgrain is so important to mid-century modern home design. But first:

Mid Mod Then vs Now: What we share is a Love of Natural Wood and woodgrain

Whether you are talking about updates or truly vintage interior from the middle of the last century, one thing that both styles share is a love of working with natural materials, especially light toned wood with visible grain. 

This affection for the natural is actually a passion of the broader “modernist” movement in design as a whole. Per architecture.com (click through for more examples):

“Rejecting ornament and embracing minimalism, Modernism became the single most important new style or philosophy of architecture and design of the 20th century. “

I think Mid-Century design aesthetics have a strong crossover appeal with cutting edge contemporary design. This is one of the reasons that Mid-Mod is so popular again right now.

My former employer, moss design, is the epitome of current design cool with its strong ethos of sustainability and working with natural and reclaimed materials. Walk thru their doors, and you’ll see natural wood grain everywhere. Reclaimed wood art, slab wood desks, and live edged conference tables.

Mid-Century designers loved wood grain, too. They featured it in furniture, wall panelling, floors, ceilings, doors, trim and built-in cabinetry.

Where did that love come from?

Early Modernist Origins of Wood Working

Obviously, modernists aren’t the only ones to use wood. During some periods, designers covered, contorted, decorated and concealed their wood. While in other eras, they have highlighted the natural grain and character. 

One of the first concepts of early 20th century modernist design was “honesty of materials.” Early Moderns exposed steel beams, created sheet glass windows, and left raw concrete walls bare.

Mid-Century modernism was born in the post war era. Designers coming out of the limited materials and aesthetics of the war wanted serious change. They weren’t eager to return to the harsh f minimalism of the 1930’s International Style modernism. Instead, they turned to the “soft modernism” of Scandinavian designers like Alvar Aalto and Bruno Matheson.

Note: Mid-Century Modern: Living with Mid-century Modern Design by Judith Miller (revised 2018) digs into this history.

America set the post war standard for mid-century modern design.  Our cities and industrial centers were all intact. Returning soldiers were able to transition quickly into a wannabe home-owning workforce.

This new style was happening on two levels simultaneously.

Mid-Century Modern Design Connected Inside and Outside

At the high-end, architects worked to invent a new kind of living focused on uniting inside and outside spaces.  Slab on grade houses in warm climates with large sliding glass doors allowed spaces to extend seamlessly from the living room inside to the patio and beyond.  

In builder-grade ranches this idea manifested in large picture windows to create uninterrupted views out. .

High-design California homes have covered walk ways connecting living spaces in separated wings. evoking medieval cloisters or Japanese engawa – a sheltered walkway that wrapped around a traditional home.

In builder-grade ranches, extended eaves increased the sense of shelter created by the roof. Breezeway connections between house and garage created miniature outdoor rooms.

Bringing the outside in with Wood

An even easier way to bring the outside into the home was to use natural materials in house interiors. Mid-century designers did this with generous use of wood and stone.

You can find stone around mid-mod houses in: terrazzo floors, field stone fireplaces and flagstone patios. Many builder grade ranches have a simple stone exterior details.

Here’s a perfect example: flagstone floor, fieldstone wall and natural wood beams and ceiling. What could be more midcentury modern

Wood – on the walls, floor and ceiling – brings in warmth and a connection to the natural. It forms a humanizing contrast to the minimal design features and metal-and-glass material pallate of modernist design. 

The Mid-Century Modern designers were able to have their cake and eat it too. They warm toned natural wood in tidy manufactured rectangles: plywood panels, tongue in groove and complex machined furniture. Plus, when they did go overboard with simple forms or industrial materials they could always roll back that stark effect somewhat by adding in some glowing warm natural wood grain.

Wood was the proposed antidote to the supposed harshness of modernist design. Take, for example, the Alcoa Carefree Home, a prototype aluminum house designed by Charles M. Goodman for Alcoa in 1957.

This house designed to rep an aluminum manufacturer … was almost entirely finished in natural wood.

By the way, the “carefree” homes were really marvelous. Read all about them at Curbed, check out the original sales brochure and much much more at My Alcoa Home.

You tell me: does this house make you think “aluminum” or does it make you think “wood grain?”

What’s the best mid mod wood part of your house?

Let us know in the comments!