“Mid-Century Millennial” – the ubiquitous look that took over the homes of a generation | inside rooms

fFor two years from 2017 I sublet an apartment in Stockholm and the deal was that it would contain everything except the owner’s clothes and some of her books. That suited me well, since I hadn’t taken anything with me apart from clothes and a few books.

My new abode nearly scored full on the Millennial Apartment Bingo map created by Laura Schocker for the Apartment Therapy website in 2018. It featured 24 home decor staples to check off and went viral online. In the living room of my apartment, there was a neon sign that read “Love” above the brass bar cart. Here was an imitation cowhide rug and there a Berber-style rug. It also had an Eames knockoff chair, a marble table with rose gold legs, crazy contrasts between round, soft and hard, angular things, and plants everywhere. Edison lightbulbs in rose gold cages, brass pineapple bookends at either end of a shelf studded with mini cacti… it had a lot going for it.

None of these things were inherently bad, but the cliche of them all made me uneasy. And I swore to myself that if I was able to make my own choices, I would be different. My apartment would be recognizable Mine, no amalgam of things I had seen on Instagram.

Conch shell chair with bronze legs
Conch shell chair with bronze legs. Illustration: Eleanor Bannister/The Watcher

When I returned to London I bought some furniture of my own: a wood and iron coffee table from Wayfair, a mustard yellow armchair from the Habitat sale. But then I started noticing something. My furniture, pieces that I had carefully selected from various retailers, were in other people’s homes. Or rather, if not my furniture, then furniture suspiciously similar to my furniture.

I struggled to describe the style that many of my friends had adopted. It wasn’t quite the bingo card look — no rose gold and millennial pink — but it was close. It was mid-century—often with clean lines and exposed wood—but not necessarily so. It often had industrial finishes: tables with black metal legs, curvy sofas on narrow legs that looked sturdy and skinny at the same time.

Where does this pastel, modernist look come from? How did it creep into everything from real estate agent show homes to Harry Styles’ new album cover? I asked interior designer Nathan Ma what he would call the style. “A millennial perversion of the mid-century,” he said.

Let’s call it mid-century millennial because it feels pretty much generational. Or maybe that’s how it should be DidCentury, as furniture company Made.com seems to have a handle on both this style and younger furniture buyers. Thanks to the lockdown furniture boom, the company more than doubled its UK storage space last year and earlier this year reported a 38% increase in sales despite supply chain woes.

It’s a company whose furniture seems to showcase taste that’s affordable (for those who’ve moved away from Ikea) but without the price point of designer goods. When I first started asking where friends bought their Scandinavian dining chairs and velvet sofas with toothpick legs, the answer was often “Made”. For many, Schocker told me, “everything mid-century actually equates to quality.”

However, appearances can be deceiving. These dupes often look great on the website and are fine to sit on in a showroom for three minutes, but they’re not always as comfortable as they look. I asked a friend how he ended up owning three Made sofas.

“They felt a little more elegant than Ikea, but with each one I realized they were deeply uncomfortable,” he said. “A gray sofa was rock hard.”

Robin Day style slim leg sofa.
Robin Day style slim leg sofa.

In the US, a 2017 article about West Elm’s particularly unsatisfactory Peggy couch (unexpectedly named after the Mad Men character) went so viral that the company eventually offered a refund to anyone who bought it.

Milly Burroughs, who used to work in furniture PR, told me the mid-century trend has been around for about a decade. “It’s a trickle of the high-end stuff, just like you see in fashion.” In 2013 she noticed at trade fairs that Danish brands like Gubi were reinterpreting mid-century furniture. “They would be picked up from a hotel or a restaurant, then people would see them and want them in their homes.”

The reign of the mid-century aesthetic may seem arbitrary, but it’s the opposite of what many millennials grew up with in their childhood homes. “I was surrounded by layers of Victorian style, florals, chintz and colour,” says furniture designer Sheena Murphy. “And maybe we’re sick of this.”

And for younger folks who rent and move a lot, mid-century millennial pieces are great because they’re relatively compact. Since Mid-Century has been around since, well, the mid-20th century, it also suits homes ranging from new builds to Victorian conversions. And the genius of companies like Made is that while each piece is different, they all have the same vibe, can be easily mixed and matched, and harmonize with other millennial trends like wobbly vases, enamelware and raffia placemats.

Side table with wire frame.
Side table with wire frame.

There’s one consolation in its seeming mid-century timelessness: it feels like a safe bet, something you’ll want to own for at least the next decade. And since it’s everywhere, it’s reassuringly familiar to shoppers.

I asked Ali Edwards, Design Lead at Made, why something mid-century is so appealing. “In uncertain times, people often fall back on what they do best,” she says. Murphy speculates that maybe it’s so long-lived because it felt futuristic when it first came out some 80 years ago: “Maybe that gave it a little more runway.”

I remember when I got my mid-century bookshelf and my mother said as lovingly as possible that it looked like it belonged to a grandmother. Maybe furniture trends will skip generations and my kids will decorate their bedrooms in Lunar Colony with floral frilly pillows.

But now that it is ubiquitous, mid-century millennial style is undeniably hot dwindle So what could come next? Everyone I’ve asked thinks 70’s style rattan is going to be big. Schocker also suggested a trend she calls Memphis Deco: “A combination of the geometric shapes of 1980s Memphis design with the soft colors and curves of Art Deco.” Murphy said we should expect to see more mid-century tones see, but with the addition of what she dubbed “chunk”: out with hairpin legs and in with pieces that have more visual weight. She cites designer Percival Lafer, maker of heavy, masculine mid-century lounge furniture.

Coffee table with golden decorative pineapple.
Coffee table with golden decorative pineapple.

One thing is for sure: Gen Z will not want anything that reminds them of their ailing millennial elders. I asked my 20-year-old sister which facility her peers were into. “Clutter and colors and warmth,” she said. “Gen Z likes to be quirky. Maybe it’s a general fear of being easy.”

Gen Z is also a bit more sustainable. My sister customized an old dresser with colorful mismatched thrift knobs. Interior designer Emily Shaw, 23, known as @emilyrayna on TikTok, where she has 5.4 million followers, told me younger generations are more likely to have a “fixer upper” mindset, and not just because they can’t afford it to spend £1,200 on a sofa.

According to Shaw, designers are creating a lot more educational content on TikTok, so users not only see inspiration for their home, but also step-by-step guides on how to implement it. “I’ve seen a lot of people take furniture and add wooden dowels or lollipop sticks to add texture,” she says.

Nathan Ma has also noted a penchant for texture that has led in some unfortunate directions: Gigi Hadid has decorated her kitchen cabinets with colored noodles, and recent TikTok trends include spray-painting pool noodles to create headboards and using expanding Insulating foam decorate frameless mirrors. “One of my artist friends has decoupage photos of moldy sandwiches on her dining table, but to be honest, I’d rather have that than one of those mirrors,” says Ma.

That kind of quirkiness can lead to more furniture being thrown away, as trend-based interiors are also quick interiors destined for the charity shop or landfill. Homeware purchases have surged since the pandemic, with H&M, PrettyLittleThing and even Poundland switching to homeware in recent years. The more cheap home furnishings we buy, the more we throw away. And as awareness of it grows, people might think twice about whether a subtly stylish millennial mid-century sofa is what they really want.

Perhaps one of the best places to look for clues to interior trends is The Gallery at London’s influential restaurant hub Sketch, reimagined by India Mahdavi. Her 2014 design (with David Shrigley) helped launch the global phenomenon of millennial pink; today it shines golden yellow, with metallic wallpaper and soft mustard-colored benches. Mahdavi says the new space, filled with contrasting, tactile textures, has “warmth, because that’s what we need now, I think: togetherness again.” Perhaps what comes next is less of a look and more of a feeling.