What’s so damn special about Mid-Century modern design? I mean, why does this style prevail to this day when we’re nearly to the middle of the next century? Why do names like Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Joseph Eichler and R.M. Schindler elicit wide smiles, from so many modern design enthusiasts and um, Tesla drivers? How many major stores have you been to that are entirely dedicated to selling originals, copies or new pieces styled from the 1970’s, 80’s, or 90’s? I’ll bet you that it’s probably zero, okay, maybe Raymour and Flanigan and Bob’s Discount Furniture are stuck in 1996 but even they have a mid-century inspired collection. So, what was so great about the 50’s?
Well, in my opinion, it’s the last time we collectively had a new idea in American interior design.
The War at Home
Sometimes the brightest ideas come from the darkest places. In the period between 1939 and 1945 much of the world was in the midst of our second world war; it was our deadliest war, which saw the demise of more than 80 million people worldwide. This physically, emotionally, and economically taxing battle left those back home to contemplate what life would be like in post-war America.
In 1945, Editor of Arts & Architecture Magazine, John Entenza, was entertaining these thoughts in the editorial halls of his publication alongside some of the world’s budding architectural giants. Architects like Richard Neutra, Charles Eames and Ralph Rapson were among the group of architects who debated what would become the post-war home. The intellectual volley between one visionary and another along with the general public conversation about life after the war instigated one of the largest and most daring industrial experiments ever commissioned by a private publication to explore modern home design.
These experiments became known as the Case Study program. In this program, Arts and Architecture magazine commissioned the design and construction of eight homes in Southern California by eight nationally known architects to explore new styles, new methods of building, and the newest construction materials to create attainable, livable and repeatable homes for the average American home buyer. The game was set and the specifics of the program were laid out in an announcement made in the magazine.
In the January 1945 issue of Arts & Architecture, John Entenza announces the Case Study program and details the conditions and expectations for this experiment. He writes:
“We hope to be able to resolve some part of that controversy now raging between those who believe in miracles and those who are dead set against them. For average prospective house owners the choice between the hysterics who hope to solve housing problems by magic alone and those who attempt to ride into the future piggy back on the status quo, the situation is confusing and discouraging. There it occurs to us that the only way in which any of us can find out anything will be to pose specific problems in a specific program on a put-up-or-shut up basis. We hope that a fairly good answer will be the result of our efforts.”
Arts & Architecture Magazine’s Case Study program would commission the work of influential architects like Eero Saarinen, A. Quincy Jones, Charles Eames, Pierre Koening and Richard Neutra to name a few. This began a major exploration into what would be the most idyllic post-war American home life. These experiments were just the beginning of the redefinition of residential architecture as exterior studies brought about interior innovation and a contemporary modern style emerged.
Form Follows Function
In my view, the Case Study program was instrumental in not only advancing the exploration into modern post-war architecture but in parallel, the advancement of interior design. Architects began to apply the same set of criteria to the design of the furniture they used in the design of their homes. How will this be used? Who will be using it? How comfortable does it have to be? How much visual and physical space does it take up? Perhaps some of the most important questions became, what materials would be used and how would it be constructed. All these questions, along with war-time restrictions led many architects like Charles Eames and his wife and partner Ray to explore materials like plastic, fiberglass and the malleability of ply-wood.
Towards the end of the 1940s, Eero Saarinen, a good friend and partner to Charles Eames, began exploring the development of a chair that achieved its comfort from its shell design and not merely the plushness of its seat cushions. He was challenged by his long-time friend, designer Florence Knoll to design a big chair that felt like a basket full of pillows and was comfortable enough to curl-up in. In 1948, Eero Saarinen, designed the now iconic, Womb Chair which was a masterful study into how the form of the chair follows its function for comfort. Explorations and creations like these changed home design dramatically and left an indelible mark on how we design and live today.
Contemporary Now or Contemporary Then?
Let’s not forget that Mid-Century modern design was not referred to as mid-century during the mid-century! At that time, it was referred to as contemporary design because it was the design of the time. That’s what contemporary design is, the design of the present time. It just so happened that much of the contemporary design of the late 40’s to early 60’s outlasted the many styles that followed.
So what’s the contemporary style of today in 2021 and why hasn’t anything thus far been as generationally sticky as the stuff from the 50’s? In my view, it’s because while we’ve had many style changes since then, we haven’t seen a collective shift in thought. That is, until right now. I believe we are entering into the first significant shift in collective design thinking about the home since the late 40’s and I’m glad about it.
With governments and economies upside down, populations on the rise and ecosystems on the breaking brink, there’s a new focus on reusability and sustainability. There’s increasing consideration on the where, how and with what our things are made. Globally, interior space is decreasing inversely with home prices and more and more people are living transient lifestyles.
How does interior design reflect these times? You see it in the rapid development of modular furniture and modular homes, that is, furniture and spaces that can change as you change. Sofas and shelving that can flip, rotate, expand and shrink to your changing environment. This means we are starting to not only think about furniture that is beautiful and functional but also about how it changes over time and how we can reuse it in new and different spaces. This question alone is one about sustainability because it asks how we keep our things longer and how do we make them work harder?
A New Era
I define this new era of contemporary design as the “Mod Modern” era or “Mod Mod” if you’re that guy. Now of course all modern roads lead back to the 50’s and modularity is not an entirely new thought. Luminaries like George Nelson explored modularity in the past but never before has it become necessary. Every major retailer from Ikea to Design Within Reach features modular furniture as it has become a major selling point for furniture investment.
Companies like Civil Furniture and Floyd are building entire brands on furniture that’s beautiful, high-quality and adaptable to any space. These companies are also thinking about their environmental impact and injecting fair and sustainable processes throughout their supply and distribution chains.
As we are again, in a post-war “ish” America, our dark times are influencing some major changes in how we think and live. Droughts in places like California are forcing us to rethink how we consume and as cities grow, we must often consider the practicality of moving before the beauty of the design. Modular, flexible design is a concept that will continue to influence future generations no matter what new style emerges and that is why I think we are at another defining point in design history.
Designers of the mid last century set the stage for this kind of open design thinking and designers of today will draw the blueprints.