What Wood is Used for Mid-Century Modern Furniture?

What Wood is Used for Mid-Century Modern Furniture?

A comprehensive guide to the most commonly used wood in mid-century modern furniture design and manufacture

What Wood is Used for Mid-Century Modern Furniture?

Mid-century modern furniture represents the coming together of nature and technology. While new manmade materials prevailed, wood provided the warmth, texture, and organic elegance that balanced sleek forms and minimalist aesthetics. From locally sourced maple and walnut to exotic teak and rosewood, the grains and hues of iconic mid-century woods rooted furnishings in the modernist pursuit of simplicity and functionality with a humanistic touch.

In this guide, we’ll explore the story behind the most popular woods that shaped mid-century style and continue reflecting its spirit today. Understanding quintessential mid-century woods like cherry, maple, and bent oak provides deeper insight into an iconic era of design. Let’s examine how these exceptional woods anchored mid-century pieces in enduring organic richness.

Hardwoods vs. Softwoods: The Preferred Woods of Mid-Century Furniture

Before we delve into what is the most common wood used in mid-century modern furniture it’s worth talking about the different grades of wood furniture manufacturers used.

Mid-century designers strongly favored hardwoods over softwoods for the vast majority of furnishings. But what exactly distinguishes these two wood categories and makes hardwoods the superior choice for mid-century modern style?

Hardwoods – Nature and Advantages

Hardwoods derive from deciduous broadleaf trees that seasonally shed their foliage such as oak, maple, walnut, cherry, and ash. They possess a dense, compact cellular structure with growth rings laid down in tight patterns. This results in unparalleled strength enhanced durability, and visual depth. Hardwoods also better maintain their integrity when cut into veneers.

Their dramatic color variations—from maple’s pale cream to walnut’s deep chocolate hues—provide mid-century furnishings with warmth and organic variation. Hardwoods’ fine grain patterns and textures lend an elegant sophistication perfectly suited for mid-century style.

From a utilitarian perspective, the widespread availability of American hardwoods like walnut, oak, and cherry enabled mass production scalability. Exotic imported hardwoods such as teak and rosewood introduced global influences with even greater visual drama.

Softwoods – Nature and Advantages

Softwoods derive from coniferous evergreen trees that maintain their needles year-round, including pine, cedar, and spruce. The composition of softwoods contains more air pockets and space between growth rings, resulting in a more porous, less dense material.

Softwoods’ gradual growth patterns endow them with relatively calm, subtle grain that some designers prefer over hardwoods’ busier figuration. Their lower density also lends softwoods increased malleability for bending into contours. Pine and cedar are more abundant and accessible as domestic lumber.

Hardwoods vs. Softwoods

ExamplesOak, maple, walnut, mahogany, cherry, teakPine, cedar, spruce, fir
CompositionDense; tight grainPorous; spaced grain
Grain PatternsIntricate, pronouncedSubtle, calm
ColorationWarm variationsPaler, more uniform
Shine PotentialHigh natural lusterLower sheen
Supply AbundanceExotic raritiesDominant lumber
CostModerate to expensiveAffordable, accessible
ManufacturabilityChallengingFlexible bending
AestheticRefined sophisticationCasual informality

What woods were used in mid-century furniture

Below is a list of some of the most common wood mid-century manufacturers and designers used to make their furniture.


No discussion of woods synonymous with mid-century furnishings would be complete without teak. The tight blonde to dark brown grains and durability of teak made it the quintessential wood for bringing elegance and warmth to mid century indoor and outdoor spaces. 

A tropical hardwood imported primarily from Southeast Asia, teak was widely embraced by mid century designers for its strength, weather-resistance and aged appeal. Its high oil content helps it stand up to sun, rain and humidity without splittings or cracks. Teak develops a silvery-grey patina over time that enhances its natural beauty.

From Danish lounge chairs to Japanese low tables, teak lent its refined, organic sensibilities to a wide array of mid century pieces. Iconic designers like George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, and Isamu Noguchi relied extensively on the workability and aesthetic qualities of rich teak wood. It brought a smooth, fluid beauty to furniture that contrasted machine precision or sharp edges.

Sets of teak dining chairs surrounding ebonized tables created high-contrast vignettes accentuating both woods’ eloquent grains. Groupings of simple teak stools introduced earthy tranquility to contemporary interiors. And curved teak frames on lounge chairs exemplified the wood’s ability to be shaped into sensuous, sculptural forms in contrast to rigid steel and polypropylene.

Teak’s weather-resistant qualities also made it ideal for poolside and patio furnishings where the wood develops a silvery complexity. From chaise lounges to dining sets, mid century outdoor furniture relied on teak to integrate spaces and maintain sleek lines. The elegant texture and colouration of teak wood provides an enduringly sophisticated touch.

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While teak conveyed a sense of tropical richness, American black walnut represented a return to domestic sensibilities rooted in unique regional lumber. Mid-century designers prized walnut from North American trees for its deep chocolate brown colours and flowing grain patterns. 

During WWII, walnut was reserved for gunstocks and unavailable for furniture manufacturing and achieved renewed prominence in the 1950s. Its striking chocolate grains and ability to mellow into amber hues made walnut the perfect species to bring richness to mid-century forms.

The juxtaposition of warm walnut grains and pale hardwoods also emerged as an iconic mid-century combination starting in the 1930s. Pairing rich walnut frames with blonde maple or birch inserts created compelling contrasts playing to the strengths of each wood. Manufacturers like Heywood-Wakefield and Lane capitalized on this striking tandem that came to define mid-century décor.

Walnut’s elegance and stately aura also made it ideal for executive office furnishings by designers such as Florence Knoll. Its formality brought a grounded warmth to Minimalist spaces. Walnut veneers gracefully buttressed sculptural legs on cabinetry to achieve fluidity and balance. From dining room suites to bedroom furnishings, walnut lent its sophisticated charms. Mid-century modern walnut furnishings remain coveted for their enduring warmth and dimensional wood grains.


Contrasting with walnut’s earthy richness, blonde maple represented a return to lightness and Nordic-inspired minimalism in mid-century furnishings. Maple’s pale creamy hues and subdued graining served to amplify the clean lines and negative space of quintessential mid-century forms. Lacking walnut’s strong grain, maple conveys a more muted Restrained texture.

The widespread availability of maple from forests in the Eastern and Central United States also made the hardwood cost-effective for manufacturers to utilize. Maple could be crafted into expansive surfaces without the expense of rare exotic veneers. Its mellow personality conveyed an airy, casual feel perfectly complementing family rooms and children’s spaces.

Iconic American brands like Lane capitalized on maple’s friendly Minimalism by pairing it with walnut accents for contrast. Designers relied on maple’s neutrality to allow colors and forms to take prominence. Maple dining sets and bedroom furnishings by Dane manufacturers like Hans Wegner embody maple’s democratizing principles.

Today, blonde maple retains mid-century appeal in its ability to make spaces feel open, informal, and flooded with light. The wood’s pale yellow undertones and fine, even grain makes it ideal for light-filled interiors. From spindle-backed maple dining chairs to rectilinear case pieces, maple roots mid-century décor in quietly elegant restraint.

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While maple delivered lightness, cherry wood introduced another dimension to mid-century furnishings with its warm orange and reddish-brown hues. When polished, cherry achieves a deep luster and glow enhancing its signature colors. The subtle grain and flowing patterns also made cherry wood ideal for expressing fluidity in mid-century storage pieces and furnishings.

American manufacturers prized cherry harvested from Appalachian regions for its ready availability and affordability. Designers like Paul McCobb, Ward Bennett and Milo Baughman relied on cherry wood for executive desks, credenzas, and shelving units where it lent sophistication without starkness. Its organic colors also mitigated the severity of modular office systems.

Over time, cherry wood matures into deeper amber and cinnamon tones and achieves an attractive patina. The wood’s ability to get better with age appealed to mid century sensibilities. Today, cherry’s burnished warmth makes it ideal for illuminating mid century interiors and offsetting cool tones in furnishings and décor. From cabinetry to dining chairs, cherry contributed an iconic mid century red-orange aesthetic.


While cherry delighted with its warm glow, rosewood provided mid century interiors with truly dramatic flair. Imported “Palisander” rosewood arrived from India and South America to meet demand for a handsome, dimensional hardwood with dark colors and exotic graining. 

Rosewood’s range of reddish brown hues and swirling grain patterns appear almost three-dimensional, capturing light elegantly. The variation in texture adds depth and sophistication to tables, storage units and other surfaces. Its eye-catching aesthetics made rosewood the perfect species for adding ornate embellishment to otherwise plain mid century furnishings.

Iconic designers like Edward Wormley, T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, and Paul Laszlo readily incorporated rosewood veneers, inlays and trim elements into their works. Its fluid nature lent visual excitement to biomorphic shapes while still retaining an air of Midcentury restraint. Rosewood contributed riveting yet dignified dynamism to mid century forms.

Over the decades, rosewood has become endangered in its natural habitat. But its enduring extraordinary beauty means repurposed vintage rosewood pieces and ethically sourced lumber maintain sought-after status for reproductions and accent furnishings. The wood’s irresistible elegance lives on in mid century décor.


While rosewood dazzled, ebony provided jolting high-contrast drama to mid century furnishings and architecture. Its jet black hue stood starkly apart from blonde woods like maple or teak when used for inlays, accents and trim detailing. Ebony lent an exotic, almost confrontational edge entirely befitting mid century modernism.

Ebony’s almost confrontational hardness and saturation convey a sense of the surreal. Mid century designers harnessed its disquieting mystique in small doses. Ebony conveys a sense of the taboo that fits mid century furnishings’ reputation for convention-defying explorations. Yet ebony also possesses an elegant onyx-like translucency that captures and refracts light beautifully off its polished surfaces.

Danish dining chairs often incorporated slender ebony spindles against ash blonde wooden frames for striking contrast. Ebony inlays on rosewood credenzas and sideboards allowed its bold graining to pop in accent moments. And ebony edges highlighted the negative spaces and repetitive geometric forms of screen dividers and space-dividing panel systems by designers.

With such a little amount of ebony required to make a statement, the wood influenced mid century décor as more architectural and graphic elements. Its dramatic mystique amplified the fascination with dark sophistication and high-concept dualities.


Just as new manmade plastics and composites entered the mid century material arsenal, traditional solid woods also underwent an evolution thanks to new steam-bending capabilities. Bentwood furnishings represent one of the most iconic mid-century furniture advances. 

Steam bending involves manipulating solid wood components using moisture, heat and malleable shaping forms. By plasticizing the wood fibers, solid boards could be bent into sinuous curves and radical sculptural forms while retaining their strength and finish.

Michael Thonet pioneered bentwood furniture manufacturing in the mid-1800s. But it was only in the 1930s that American and Scandinavian designers fully embraced bentwood’s exciting possibilities. They created sensuously contoured seating and lounging options that finally freed wood furnishings from rigidity and rectangularity.

Designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Arne Jacobsen, and Alvar Aalto became masters of molded plywood and bentwood capabilities. Their softly arched bowel-shaped chairs and chaise lounges epitomized the embrace of organic modernism. Iconic bentwood designs utilize steam-bent solid beech, ash, oak, maple, and birch to achieve a sense of warmth, contour, and movement.

Bentwood also allowed for cantilevered chair frames that appeared to float delicately above legs. Materials like woven cane inserted into bentwood frames lightened visual weight even further. The elegant strength and contours of bentwood make it a quintessential and enduring mid-century wood innovation.


While North American and European designers prized regional woods, they also selectively incorporated exotic species like wenge that evoked global modernism. Wenge is an African wood prized for its deep, dark brown coloring and bold black graining that resembles Zebrawood. The wood’s dimensional striping patterns provide an element of the unexpected.

Brought to Europe from West African nations like Cameroon and Congo, wenge was used judiciously by mid-century designers to provide richness, depth, and a sense of the worldly. Its saturated hues stand out starkly from lighter woods and give surfaces an intriguing banding texture.

Many mid-century credenzas, desks, case pieces, and accent tables incorporated wenge for inlays, banding or leg accents. Its handsome striations and variation lent surfaces exciting visual texture and light play. Wenge conveys a sense of being simultaneously earthy yet exotically cosmopolitan – perfect for mid-century furnishings.

Even today, wenge remains prized in carpentry and furniture-making for its resilience and weather resistance. But mid-century designers were the first to highlight its sculptural qualities as part of bringing far-flung global references into everyday décor. With just touches of wenge, mid-century furnishings assumed a more daring and cultured aura.

Engineered Woods

Just as steam bending pushed new boundaries for solid woods, mid-century designers also embraced cutting-edge engineered wood materials with improved durability, moldability, and structural integrity. Iconic mid-century furnishings relied on materials like laminated plywood, fiberboard, and wood composites to transcend traditional wood limitations.

Plywood had been around since the early 1900s, but WWII catalyzed widespread manufacturing and technological improvements. Suddenly, high-quality birch aircraft plywood became available to create molded seating and deliver strength without using excessive materials in case goods. Designers like the Eames, Saarinen, and Noguchi molded thin sheets of plywood into organically contoured chairs and sculptural forms.

Softer woods like maple could be bent into seamless plywood with various laminated surfaces for curvaceous furnishings. Plywood allowed for a fluidity aligned with mid-century biomorphic inspirations. And positioned-edge plywood maximized wood grains for patterned effects that recalled natural wood variation in a manmade material.

New waterproof bonding resins also enabled plywood use outdoors and in wet areas. Its moldability, durability, and consistency made engineered plywood the perfect workaround to the limitations of solid lumber. Mid-century designers fully embraced both its structural capabilities and warm, grained surfaces.