mid century modern chairs

The Evolution of Modern Furniture Design

In Blog, Design Resource by Amos Kober

I love good design. Especially modern furniture design. For me, it’s one of the most interesting and compelling parts of building residence hall furniture.

Design inspiration is so central to our creative process here at DCI that we want to share a series of articles exploring the various styles and influences that inform our furniture.

Our furniture is built to last generations, so we are naturally drawn to the timeless elements of classic design.  Every project has unique requirements, so our product lines provide a customizable canvas ranging from Traditional to Contemporary.

In this series, we’ll explore some of the most influential furniture styles including Traditional, Transitional, Modern, and Contemporary.

With each of these styles we’ll pan back and look at the historical context from which it emerged and then unpack it in relationship to particular collections and pieces of furniture.

Modern Furniture Design Is Ideal For Residence Halls

And just to throw a wrench in the chronological works, we’re going to start in the middle and explore modern furniture design.


Because it’s my favorite and I’m especially inspired by modern furniture design. But that’s just the beginning.

The core principles of modern design make it ideal for residence halls. Functional but stylish, modern furniture minimizes bulk to make small spaces feel more open.

But when we refer to modern furniture design, what exactly are we talking about? Because it’s a big topic.

Modern design has a rich history that weaves through several cultural, philosophical, artistic, and architectural movements. So let’s take a quick look at the history of modern design.

A Brief History Of Modern Furniture Design

He said only that the form of a building must follow its function; that the structure of a building is the key to its beauty. -The Fountainhead

modern furniture design barcelona chair

In the early 1900’s, a revolutionary new style of furniture design emerged.

One of the progenitors of this style, the pre-eminent Swiss architect and designer Le Corbusier described it this way, “A great epoch has begun. There exists a new spirit.”

What was this new spirit and why was it revolutionary?

A New Design Paradigm

Until this point in history, the value of a piece of furniture was judged based on how much time the artisan spent on it and how ornate it was.

Truly valuable furniture was ornate and artisans imbued their work with a sense of lineage and legacy. These fashioners of furniture endeavored to convey millennia of tradition through their designs.

Accordingly, the furniture had the literal and figurative weight of history behind it. The materials and the visual footprint were heavy and dark.

With modern design, we see the first definitive break with history.

…the modern movement sought newness, originality, technical innovation, and ultimately the message that it conveyed spoke of the present and the future, rather than of what had gone before it.”

Casting off the baggage of history, modern furniture was designed to be light in both form and color. The structure of modern furniture was transparent and featured clean geometric lines and planes.

And maybe for the first time, the very structure of the furniture—rather than the ornament—represented the essence of design.

In the context of this new functional design paradigm, the materials reflected the industrial age and its processes: polished steel, glass, molded plywood, and plastics.

Art And Design Made By The Machine

Indeed, the modernizing forces of industry played a major role in this emergent design. The idea of mass production was huge. It meant that modern furniture design should be available to all, not just the elite. Functional and economical was the ideal.

“It was felt that art and design must reflect society and that modern society was characterised by the new technology. This resulted in a ‘machine aesthetic’: art and design made by the machine, expressing the machine age in its materials and shapes, and echoing the machine in its standardisation, repetition and anonymity.”

Furthermore, lineage and tradition yielded the world wars and designers were traumatized and repulsed by those cataclysms.

They wanted a break from tradition and sought a forward-looking design esthetic.

Modern design rejected the progressivism and cultural evolution that inspired those wars. Instead, it forged “an art and design form that was distinct and original from all that came before.”

This new spirit signified great changes happening in the world. There were previously unthinkable new technologies emerging. The world was growing smaller and more interconnected.

New philosophies followed these changes as technology changed the way humans saw their place in the world.

Soon this new spirit, with its minimalist principles, was reflected in art, artictecture, and countless fields of human endeavor and thinking.

Key Influences On Modern Design

Modern furniture design was heavily influenced by the German Werkbund and Bauhaus schools.

These schools were all about “making good design more accessible to the masses.”

In 1925 Marcel Breuer, a former cabinet maker and a member of the Bauhaus school, designed one of the most iconic pieces of modern furniture called the Wassily Chair.

It was named after the influential artist Wassily Kandinskly and was revolutionary for it’s use of polished tubular steel and leather straps with a minimal symmetrical design.

Asian and African design also had a big impact on modern furniture designers for a few reasons.

For one, Japan changed its trade policy and isolationist approach to foreigners. Suddenly Japanese culture, art, and design was finding its way into Western culture.

Artists and designers were inspired and compelled by the zen-like elegance, beauty, and functional simplicity of Japanese furniture which featured solid colors and little ornament.

Key Designers & Their Iconic Furniture

The following infographic chronicles the evolution of modern furniture with some of the most notable and influential designers and their iconic creations. Thanks to Modern Source for this wonderful infographic.

In Part 2 Of This Series

I hope you enjoyed this very brief and broad strokes tour through the evolution of modern furniture design. Of course, there’s much more to this topic and if you’re interested, you can see examples of modern furniture design in our Passeo and Martinez collections.

For a definitive history of modern design, you should pick up David Raizman’s text on the History of Modern Design.

In Part 2 of this series, we explore the principle of modern furniture design in detail through the lens of our own modern collections.


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Download the DCI Sustainability overview here.