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Art, Artists & Mid-Century Modern Design (Part I)

The Art

For those of you want that mid-century modern look, but still aren’t too keen on the art and artists that best (and perhaps most recognizably) represent the period – look no further.

The hard thing about this period is that it can at times seem very vague, and there are several reasons for that. Historians pin the timeframe between 1933 and 1965, but there is some flexibility there that sweeps in a fair amount of styles that exist on the margins.

To get a better understanding of how a particular kind of art (and artist) came to represent the period, it’s helpful to explore a little background in two of the most influential modes during that time.


The Surrealist movement – exemplified by dreamlike, sometimes post-apocalyptic artwork influenced by the prevailing psychology and politics of the early 20th century – was in full swing well before the mid-century period began, but gained several of its most famed artists during its peak. 

The interesting thing is that Surrealism’s early champions in the visual medium hailed from several different countries including France, Germany, Spain and the U.S. It speaks to the growing impact of global politics and thought, the often bleak nature of which inspired a need for the escapism depicted in surrealist art.

As Surrealism matured, another group of artists began to emerge in the 1940s – at the heart of what would later be defined as the mid-century modern period – that would also prove to be highly influential …

Abstract Expressionism

“The New York School” dropped its paint-spattered bomb on the art world at the height of the mid-century period. It was a loose group of artists with no formal allegiance, but together they created a movement that helps define mid-century style to this day.

The collective’s beating heart may have been in New York, but Abstract Expressionism developed in much the same way as Surrealism – sprouting up across international boundaries thanks to a shared interest in shattering artistic norms.

This led to important collaboration between European and American artists; so much so that the impact of European modernism can be seen in much of American artists’ abstract expressionist work.

Unlike Surrealism, though, this new movement sought a departure from material or political influence in favor of something more timeless.

The Artists

In both schools, a select number of artists ascended to lasting international fame, and it is their works more than others that we recognize as representing the inspiration, influence and history of mid-century modern design.

Check back tomorrow to see our list of some of the most influential artists in these movements, and the art that will make your mid-century modern décor pop.   

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