Coined in 1984, the phrase “midcentury modern” encompasses a particular style of architecture, industrial design, and graphic design that rose to prominence during the middle of the 20th century. While the original movement lasted roughly from the early 1930s to mid 1960s, a resurgence of interest in the style appeared in the ‘80s, which carried over into the present day. Yet despite the immense popularity of midcentury modern in the contemporary design world, the term itself eludes explicit definition. Instead, we can reach a better understanding of the spirit of the movement by examining the basic elements and history of midcentury modern design.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence on residential architecture is often cited by experts as one of the cornerstones of midcentury modern, but the pioneering work of international architects such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was also instrumental in creating the style we know today. In the United States, the hallmarks of midcentury modern homes—flat roofs, clean lines, striking angles, and huge windows—first appeared in the post-war suburbs of the West Coast before taking the rest of the country by storm. Multi-level floor plans and an emphasis on blurring the line between indoors and out gave these residences their iconic, asymmetrical profiles.
The historically notable designs of Boulder, Colorado-based architect Charles Haertling embody this desire to blend architecture with nature, often by incorporating the surrounding environment. The Usonian-inspired Menkick House, built into a local outcropping of rock, demonstrates one such example. Four tiers of floors, each with its own perfectly flat roof and lineup of large windows, give the Menkick House an instantly recognizable midcentury modern look.
Furniture of the midcentury modern movement also bears an unmistakable style, featuring clean lines, a mix of organic and geometric shapes, and neutral tones punctuated by pops of bold color. Materials both natural and synthetic blend together to create sculptural pieces as timeless as they are functional.
In 1946, George Nelson released his Platform Bench, widely considered to be one of the first major designs of midcentury modern style. It was created for mass production, a new idea at the time, bringing art and design within reach of ordinary Americans—not just the wealthy. Manufacturers Herman Miller and Knoll produced the work of designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and Eero Saarinen, now household names. Their designs—the Eames Lounge Chair, the Noguchi Table, and the Tulip Chair—remain some of the most iconic home furnishings to this day.
Due to the influence and popularity of midcentury modern in today’s design scene, it’s easy to confuse its elements with those of contemporary postmodern design. While the two styles share many similarities, there are a few key differences. Contemporary postmodern takes less inspiration from nature, features fewer bright colors, and uses more industrial materials than midcentury modern. Likewise, midcentury modern is a vibrant style that doesn’t always mix well with others, while contemporary postmodern is deliberately flexible and minimal in order to emphasize the elements of other styles.
Despite fading away for a few decades, midcentury modern’s classic character is back and here to stay. Join us next time for the second installment of this two-part series, “The Comeback of Midcentury Modern Design,” in which we will explore how and why the style of a bygone era has made its way back into our hearts and homes.
By Jennifer Egbert, Porch Light Real Estate Group. Jennifer is a Realtor at Porch Light Real Estate Group and specializes in Luxury neighborhoods, home builders and current market conditions. Visit jenniferegbert.com, e-mail [email protected] or call 303.619.3373.