Mid-Century Modern Design

Photo: Julius Shulman

After World War II, the US was the superpower and produced half of the world’s goods. It was also the leader in Modernism.

It was an era of consumerism, mass production, mass marketing and prosperity. Modern design moved to the newly created suburbs. Homes and interiors had no historical reference – it was all new and forward thinking.

It was a dynamic time, full of hope after the war.

Mid-century modern design: affordable and adaptable

The sleek, simple lines of architecture and furniture of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s were signs of modern times, technology and new, manufactured materials. Mid-Century design was influenced by the Bauhaus and International Style, sharing those concepts along with geometry, function and little or no applied decoration. Mid-century modern design did not, however, expect to change society, so politics were not a driving force.

Architecture was simple and easy to build, making it affordable and adaptable. It was an extension of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work with the idea of being organic, tied to the site and blended with nature. Steel post and beam construction allowed walls of glass, which brought in light and views. Floor plans were open for a feeling of freedom and simplicity. ‘Less is more’ was the main design concept.

Function and form described mid-century modern furniture design. Modern materials were manufactured and manipulated. Parts were standardized for quick and mass production. Magazines, stores, and museums promoted modernism to a huge audience. Interiors were sparsely furnished, adding to the simplicity of the modern home. Furniture was low and horizontal, and it was visually light in size and weight.

Mid-century modern kitchen pink

Although color and contour trends have changed a lot since 1961 (when this design was popular), a lot of the modern kitchen layout hasn't, including the kitchen island which remains to be incredibly popular today. Photo: Joe Wolf

Founders of mid-century modern design

Charles and Ray Eames studied the human body to build ergonomic chairs. With Eero Saarinen, they developed a process for molding plywood to fit the body. Later, they molded fiberglass, which was coated with a plastic resin, and used foam and fabric for seating. Their Lounge Chair is probably their most well known piece. They designed for Herman Miller, which still produces their furniture today. They were so influential, a documentary about them is coming out in November.

Eames lounge chair

Eames lounge chair

Joseph Eichler was a developer, who built 11,000 mid-century modern tract homes in the Bay Area of California and in the southern part of the state. The style became known as California Modern, since the homes were so common. As a wanna-be architect kid on the east coast in the ’60s, I knew that the glass walls, slightly sloping roofs, vertical siding, atriums and clean geometric lines of these homes were what defined California.

Joseph Eichler Homes

A Joseph Eichler Home in the Bay Area, built in the post-war boom period between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s. This design lends itself very well to 21st century minimalism, as well as to passive solar heating, and lighting. Despite this, many of these mid-century modern homes need to be adapted to our current paradigm when heating costs are more expensive, and resources are fewer (to say the least) than they were when this home was built.

Harry Bertoia was an Italian sculptor, who found his way to the United States. He is best known for his Diamond Chair, which he designed for Florence Knoll in 1952. His chairs were fluid, sculptural forms of industrial wire and a little upholstery. They took up little visual space, and he wanted them to be interesting from any angle. Of his work, Bertoia said, “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.”

Harry Bertoia wire backed diamond chair

Harry Bertoia wire backed diamond chair

Eero Saarinen was a Finnish-American architect. He was a close friend of the Eames’ and Florence Knoll. He is best known for the Tulip Chair, which he developed with the Eames’. Saarinen is considered a master of American 20th century architecture. He designed the main terminal at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC with a gently sweeping roofline. He also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO. Both exhibit the simplicity of shape and line that was Mid Century design.

General Motors Technical Center Eero Saarinen

The General Motors Technical Center, constructed from 1953-1955, designed by Finnish-American designer Eero Saarinen. Saarinen was a key designer in solidifying the idea that the 20th century was an American century through designs like this. Photo: Michigan State Historic Preservation Office

Mid-century modern in the 21st century

Mid-Century homes today are still popular, because of their simple lines and ties to nature. Built when energy was cheap, though, they are not very efficient. Remodelers and homeowners are working to bring them into the 21st century with solar panels, native landscaping, increased insulation and white roofs in Southern California. The glass walls of these homes provide passive solar heating in cooler areas.

The furniture of the era is still manufactured by Herman Miller and Knoll for commercial spaces. Mid-century homes are appropriately furnished, and original pieces are collector items.

Mid Century design is timeless.

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