Classic American Style: Mid-Century Modern

American Style

A few years ago, I spent a weekend in Palm Springs. It was the kickoff of Modernism Week and I was taken on an architectural tour that highlighted the area's most famous mid-century modern designs. Many of the current owners had outfitted their houses almost entirely with period furniture and accessories.

To me, a Victorian stuffed only with era-appropriate antiques would give off a seriously old-fashioned vibe, but these Palm Springs homes felt fresh and totally in sync with contemporary living, even though they were pushing the half-century mark.

Mid-century modern, or MCM as devotees call it in shorthand, is ubiquitous in today’s interiors. Perhaps it will someday seem as old-fashioned as full-strength Victoriana. Indeed, a couple of older visitors to my house have commented on my “retro” Saarinen chairs with original Knoll upholstery. In their minds, the stylish chairs looked like funky relics. They are retro in a literal sense, but they also feel timeless. Perhaps that's just the case for all good design.

The fact that there is still an incredible demand for both vintage and licensed versions of iconic MCM designs — and let's not even get started on all the knockoffs, a hot topic here on AT — tells me that this chapter of American Style won’t be over anytime soon.

The prologue to MCM

“Modernism is not a style, but an attitude,” claimed Marcel Breuer, a member of Germany’s Bauhaus school and the creator of the famous Wassily chair. Breuer was an early adherent to modernism, which emerged in the late 19th century as a broad cultural movement spanning art, literature, architecture, music and philosophy.

Modernism, at its essence, was a rejection of tradition — a real embrace of moving forward. Technology was changing things quickly. It’s hard to imagine what people must have felt when they first experienced paintings by Picasso, music by Stravinsky, or literature by James Joyce, not to mention a towering skyscraper in the big city.

In Europe, the über-rational Bauhaus school,which was founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius and included Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, emphasized functionality over fussiness. Shaped by the Bauhaus, the International style favored concrete, steel and glass, open plans and geometrically precise forms. Followers believed that technology and mass-production weren’t necessarily at odds with artistry, and championed a Utopian vision that everyday urban life could be elevated through design.

Frank Lloyd Wright is widely considered to be the father of American modernist architecture. Like the Bauhaus, he believed form and function should be harmonious, though his use of curves and his love of woodwork reflect his acknowledged antipathy toward the rigid and impersonal International style. Wright felt that good design could intensify peoples’ connections to their surroundings, especially to nature. His organic designs blended into their landscapes — natural or urban — and would greatly impact generations to come.

Moving forward

The mid-century modernists laid a foundation with the lofty ideals of their predecessors, and in the years following World War II, what they built upon it was revolutionary.

This era's American designers had at their disposal a dizzying array of new materials and processes that had been developed during wartime. Resins, plastics, fiberglass, metal alloys and laminates allowed for unprecedented innovation, as well as mass production.

Architects opened up floor plans and installed walls of glass. Spaces encouraged a seamless transition of indoor and outdoor living, especially in the West. Though the wealthy could commission spectacular custom dwellings, developers created tract homes based on the same principles.

There was a sense of social responsibility to it all. Mid-century designers genuinely thought that they were improving life through comfortable furniture, forward-thinking architecture and careful civic planning. For the first time, they were putting design within reach of the middle-class American family.

A few of the American greats

Charles and Ray Eames
With their pioneering contributions to architecture, industrial design, and popular culture, Charles and Ray Eames helped shape postwar America. The celebrated American couple could do no wrong, from their experiments with plywood to their Mondrianesque Case Study house. They even made short films, including the mind-boggling Powers of Ten, created for IBM. Charles famously said, “Choose your corner, pick away at it carefully, intensely and to the best of your ability and that way you might change the world.” And so he and his wife did.

George Nelson
When George Nelson was a young architecture student, he traveled around Europe and interviewed leading modern architects. Back in the US, while an editor at Architectural Forum, he designed Storagewall, the first modular storage system, which was a huge hit in the furniture industry. Herman Miller founder D.J. DePree was one of his biggest fans and convinced Nelson to serve as his director of design.

Eero Saarinen
This Finnish-American architect and designer counted Charles Eames as a close friend and collaborator. His most famous furniture designs, like the aptly named Tulip and Womb chairs, carried by Knoll, applied sculptural curves that cradled the body. Saarinen's studio also designed important architectural works, most notably the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Florence Knoll
A protégé of Eero Saarinen, Florence Schuster married Hans Knoll and the two launched Knoll Associates. “Flo Kno” championed international design talent and was an incredibly gifted designer and architect in her own right. She believed in “total design” and worked in architecture, interior design, textiles, graphics, and advertising.

Isamu Noguchi
Born to a Japanese poet and Scottish-American writer, Isamu Noguchi was always a sculptor at heart, even when he was designing furniture, playgrounds and paper lights. "Everything is sculpture," Noguchi said. "Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture."

There are too many more to list, from starchitects such as Richard Neutra and Louis Kahn — both immigrants to America who made it big — to ceramicists like Edith Heath, whose mid-century legacy is carried on today at Heath Ceramics. There's also a wide world of folk art and talented regional craftsmen from the era to explore. If you're interested in learning more about MCM, there are endless resources out there, many of which have a local focus. Go forth and Google.

And finally, what are your thoughts?
Do you love MCM or do you think it looks dated? Who are your favorite mid-century designers? We’d to hear about your MCM pieces and how you use them in your spaces.

Images: Top Row 1. Eames Collection, via J. Johnson Appraisals, 2. The iconic Eames lounger and ottoman. Photo: Herman Miller, 3. The Eames Case Study house. You can stay there overnight for $10k. Via Modernica, 4. An Eames junkie's dream. Photo: Herman Miller, 5. The graphic room at the Eames office. Photo: Library of Congress Eames Collection

Second Row 6. The Eames. Photo: Herman Miller, 7. George Nelson's playful Marshmallow Sofa. Photo: Herman Miller, 8. Nelson's lamps, still a popular choice for lighting today. Photo: Modernica, 9. Nelson's Comprehensive Storage System, via Style Park, 10. A wall full of fun Nelson clocks. Photo: Design Addict

Third Row 11. Isamu Noguchi's iconic and oft-reproduced table, 12. A Noguchi Akari light sculpture. Photo: Noguchi Museum, 13. Eero Saarinen's famous pedestal table and Tulip chairs. Photo: Knoll, 14. Saarinen's Womb chair. Photo: Knoll, 15. A clean-lined sofa by Florence Knoll. Photo: Knoll

Bottom Row 16. A Flo-Kno credenza. Photo: Knoll, 17. Archival Knoll textiles. Photo: Knoll, 18. A photograph of Neutra's legendary Kaufman house by Julius Shulman, who captured modernist architecture like no other. Photo: Neutra Institute, 19. Louis Kahn's Esherick house in Pennsylvania via Design Addict, 20. Plates by Heath Ceramics, which still operates today in Sausalito, California. Photo: Heath

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