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What finishes are mid-century modern?

Mid-century modern style emerged in the middle of the 20th century, roughly between the 1940s and the 1960s. It was a reaction against the ornate and over-designed styles that preceded it. Mid-century modern emphasizes clean lines, simplicity, functionality, and organic shapes. When it comes to finishes, mid-century modern style has some key characteristics.

Wood Finishes

Wood is a quintessential material used in mid-century modern furniture and architecture. However, the way the wood is treated and finished is important. Mid-century modern tends to use light and natural wood tones rather than dark or reddish stains. The goal is to highlight the natural grain and beauty of the wood itself. Teak, walnut, oak, and ash were all popular choices. Woods would often be finished with a clear lacquer to protect and preserve the material while showcasing its organic qualities.

Mid-Century Wood Finish Types Characteristics
Teak Rich golden brown color, naturally water resistant
Walnut Subtle grayish-brown tone, smooth grain
Oak Ranges from light tan to deeper brown
Ash Pale creamy color, straight grain

In addition to natural wood, mid-century modern also made use of plywood. Plywood allowed for more sculptural shapes in furniture and cabinetry. It would often be finished with veneers made from higher quality wood or laminates featuring bold geometric patterns.

Metal Finishes

Metals played an important role in mid-century modern design as well. Stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and chrome finishes helped convey sleekness, functionality, and modernity. Metal was left unpainted and allowed to showcase its innate characteristics. Polished chrome and stainless steel lend a slick, futuristic look. Brass and aluminum provide warmth and subtle contrast.

Mid-Century Metal Finish Types Characteristics
Stainless Steel Silvery-grey, shiny, sturdy
Aluminum Silvery tone, corrosion resistant
Brass Warm golden yellow hue
Chrome Mirrored surface, blue-grey metallic color

Metals were used for everything from furniture legs to lighting fixtures to decorative accents. The naked use of metals captures the sleek, machine-age aesthetic that mid-century modern embodied.

Fabric and Textiles

Natural fiber fabrics were prevalent in mid-century modern furnishings. Unbleached linen and cotton in earth tones helped connect to organic and natural themes. Wool was also popular for area rugs and upholstery. Synthetic fabrics like vinyl, acrylic, and polyester became widely available at this time and were utilized for their durability and flexibility.

When it came to patterns and prints, mid-century modern fabrics featured simple geometric shapes, abstract designs, and bold colors. Scandinavian influences also brought muted florals and nature-inspired motifs. Some iconic mid-century modern fabric designs include:

  • Atomic/retro geometric patterns
  • Jalousie/lattice patterns
  • Bold, solid color blocking
  • Large-scale abstract florals
  • Dot patterns
  • Nature prints featuring leaves, ferns, etc.

The most common color palettes were based on earth tones, neutrals, and primary colors. Pops of bright, saturated colors added lively accents.

Tile and Stone Finishes

Natural stone and tile provided durable, low-maintenance finishes in mid-century homes, particularly in bathrooms, kitchens, and accent walls. Stone types included travertine, marble, slate, and fieldstone masonry. Tile finishes were often in solid, neutral hues featuring minimalist grid-like patterns. Some examples include:

  • Subway tile
  • Mosaic tile
  • Porcelain, ceramic, and terrazzo tiles
  • Pebble and rock designs

Stone and tile provided texture and visual interest while still retaining the clean, unfussy qualities valued in mid-century design.

Paint Finishes and Colors

When it came to painted finishes, mid-century modern used colors to delineate space and create contrast. Bold, bright colors were applied to walls or used as accents. Off-whites, beiges, and neutral tones created an airy backdrop. Some iconic mid-century paint colors include:

  • Earth tones like mossy greens, rich browns, burnt orange
  • Soft pastels like mint green, pale yellow, baby blue
  • Neutral beiges, creams, and grey tones
  • Glossy or matte black and white
  • Lucite acrylic paints in bright primary shades

Paint was typically finished in a high-gloss, matte, or eggshell sheen. The use of color blocking, where walls differentiate specific spaces, was also common.


In summary, mid-century modern finishings emphasize natural materials, sleek simplicity, and functionality. Light woods, unadorned metals, tile, and stone create a relaxed yet modern backdrop. Pops of colors, geometric patterns, and novel synthetics provide cheerful contrast. The finishes work together to create a look that feels organic and sculptural yet still clean-lined and unfussy. By utilizing new technologies and natural elements in creative ways, mid-century modern finishes perfectly captured the spirit of mid-20th century style.