The History of Mid-Century Modern

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Mid-Century Modern

Mid-Century Modern is a term originated by Cara Greenberg to describe a particular style of architecture and furniture design that was prominent in the US during the post-World War II years. The originations of this particular style along with the accessories that accompany it, were created from the exuberance period when American soldiers came home, the economy boomed and new homes were being built across the country.

Out of this time period came a wealth of new design ideas that shaped architecture and furniture based on the technology of the day. As technology changed and a new generation of children was being born into the post-nuclear era, the mid-century modern style began to fade rapidly. By the 1980s, the mid-century modern style was no longer considered “hip”, although many people to this day grew up in homes and furnishings that were of that time period.

Mid-century modern style should not be confused with Art Décor which dominated the previous era after the end of World War One in particular. However, it did take a few cues from that former style in terms of the lines and angles used in larger structures.

The Beginnings of the Mid-Century Modern Style

The end of World War II brought about great change across the US as returning soldiers along with their brides created huge demands for new housing. The sudden surge led to what was known as “tract housing” which sprang up in former rural areas at the edge of cities and towns. Tract housing was simple in design and cut corners in certain places so that the homes could be built faster.

Mid-Century Modern Housing

Mid-Century Modern Housing

However, the speed of building the homes also created new designs that became a hallmark of the post-war period which lasted until the early 1970s. The emphasis on horizontal lines and a clean, open flow setting make mid-century modern style rather apparent in architectural designs for residences. Even afterwards, mid-century modern style has re-occurred as retro-trends often do, particularly on popular period series such as AMC’s “Mad Men”.

One of the biggest changes to the modern home was the inclusion of the garage to house the vehicle. This new addition to homes began in the 1920s when vehicles were becoming popular, but it really took off with tract housing after World War II. Car ports were another feature that was in place of garages depending on the overall design.

In addition to houses, larger commercial structures also reflected the mid-century modern style that emphasized clean lines which were sometimes stylized in terms of their angles or sweep. Buildings such as the Riverplace Tower in Jacksonville, Florida or the Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental design featured the straight, rectangular shapes that are familiar across the skyline. However, the main terminal at the Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia or the striking North Christian Church in Columbus, Ohio reflects more the sweep and angle of lines that really stand out.

While Frank Lloyd Wright was arguably the most notable figure of mid-century modern style in terms of crafting commercial and private structures, he was certainly influenced by others, including the Bauhaus movement and the works of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

Furniture and Mid-Century Modern

Egg Chair

The furniture also reflected this particular look as well with clean, simple designs that emphasized curves, geometric shapes and other angles instead of the more elaborate and ornate appearance that was common in both furniture and housing of the pre-World War II era.

Examples of the mid-century modern style in furniture include the famous Egg chair created by Arne Jacobsen or the Eames Lounge Chair as fashioned by Charles and Ray Eames, a chair that was prominently featured on such television programs as “Frasier”.

The Rise of Multipurpose

Tulip Table and Chairs

Arguably the most telling rise in furniture design was how it was not regulated to a single purpose. For example, chairs could be used for many different reasons rather than being regulated to the living room, kitchen or den. Tables became places where people would eat, write, stack magazines, play cards and more. No longer was furniture limited to one purpose which in turn created a more uniform style in many different homes.

Even furniture that was still used for a singular purpose took on a simpler, straightforward look. Coffee tables for example became neat and clean in design with an emphasis on lines and angles as opposed to being ornate.

In addition to homes and furniture, accessories such as lamps, clocks, glassware and even artwork took on a more simple, straightforward design that reflected the new age.

The simpler, multipurpose style also reflected an approach to casual living which brought about more comfort accessories such as toasters, time-saving gadgets, barbeque sets and the like which either saved time and effort or helped create a more casual atmosphere around the home. With the explosion of popular music in the 1950s, stereos or “hi-fi’s” were becoming quite common as well. Of course, all of these new appliances and accessories needed a place to be stored when not in use, so simpler closet designs were crafted as well.

The most notable works of mid-century modern style in terms of furniture and accessories includes Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Isamu Noguchi, Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner and many more. 

The End of the Mid-Century Modern Style

By the mid-1960s, the era of the mid-century modern style was fading fast as the slowdown of new housing and new tastes in design, furniture and accessories became more fashionable. It is not surprising that the mid-century modern style coincides with the Baby Boomer generation which consists of babies born from 1946 to 1964. The beginning of a new generation combined with advances in technology and materials led to the construction of larger homes that abandoned most of the typical mid-century modern style that had been so prevalent before.

Today, the mid-century modern style is now considered a retro-look that respects the attitudes and practicalities of the time. While it is an era that has passed, it has certainly not been forgotten and vestiges of that style continue to influence designers of today.

May 01, 2014