Mid-century Modern: A Love Story
I knew the nanosecond the words bellowed from his Pilsner scented breath.
“You like all that modern shit,” he said.
Momentarily, the only thing saving him from an Angela Bassett, Waiting to Exhale response was the Danish mid century modern table resting between us.
Of course adulting has taught me to remain calm in moments like this.
So, I leaned forward and said: The words you’re looking for are ‘mid-century modern.’ And it’s a style that reaches well beyond architecture and décor.
It’s not just the design aesthetic of obvious things like this table or a George Nelson pendant. Or even the Kai Kristiansen chair you’re sitting on. Everything from the Adidas on your feet, to the iPhone you caress in your hand, share a design aesthetic rooted in this.
And guess where it started?
Architect Walter Gropius
In 1919 Weimar, Germany, Walter Gropius had a genius idea. He decided, “to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist.”
He opened the Bauhaus school and ushered in students to indoctrinate into a curriculum that taught the principles of architecture, sculpture, and painting with crafts and engineering.
According to metmuseum.org the preliminary courses were taught by visual artists like Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers and included the study of materials, color theory, and formal relationships.
From there students moved on to specialized studies in metalworking, cabinetmaking, weaving, pottery, typography, and wall painting.
What developed was a school that “churned out so many pioneering architects and designers that it fleshed out an entire artistic movement”
It gets better.
Mass Production & Affordable Housing
I take a much-needed gulp of wine and consider a bathroom break.
I decide against a bathroom break because a) I don’t really need to go and b) I’m now doing three of my favorite things ever: drinking a salivating glass of wine, talking about houses, design, and architecture, and knowingly torturing him with all my talking.
(I can’t decide which one gives me more pleasure. … besides, maybe this will help move this man’s conversation beyond Liverpool and politics.)
To use as references I grab the books Prefab and heave Case Study Houses off our shelves.
When it comes to architecture the term “modern” is really about innovative, affordable, and stylish ways of building a home.
I hold the palm of my hand really close to my face to demonstrate my point: When we’re so close to something it’s hard to see. And often, new ideas emerge when we look outside ourselves.
I see from his puzzled look that he starts to wonder what the hell I’m going on about.
Let me explain.
It took Henry Ford building the Model T for a light bulb to flicker in the residential construction industry.
With a moving assembly line Ford was able to build more cars, in less time, and for less money. So, if Ford could do this for cars surely a similar production technique could be used for housing?
The idea caught on.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. (Yes, that Sears.) was the most notable manufacturer of pre-fab homes aka CA Bungalows.
From 1908 – 1940 Sears sold over 70,000 pre-fabs via mail order catalog. You could buy a home for as little as $900, have it delivered in easy to assemble sectionals, hire a local carpenter, and in true DIY, weekend warrior style, build a home.
But materials like steel, concrete, and glass were still not considered for housing.
Introducing Walls of Glass
Architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock and architect Philip Johnson helped to change this.
They curated an exhibition called Modern Architecture: International Exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. It was the first architectural exhibition ever held at MoMA. It featured the works of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, J.J.P. Oud and Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, and Raymond Hood.
Thousands of people showed up, strolling from room to room to check out photographs, drawings, and models show casing this new style in construction. Steel, reinforced concrete, uninterrupted interior spaces, and simple geometric shapes in housing became the buzz of the town.
You see, visitors at MOMA that day weren’t excited about the introduction of new materials – they were excited about the introduction to a new way of living in a home. An open floor plan and how walls of glass bring the outside in.
They were excited about a new way of living at home.
Los Angeles Becomes A Midcentury Modern Mecca
He adjusts several times to get comfortable in his chair (which to this day still needs to be re-upholstered.)
I take this as my cue to continue. (Knowing full well it was not my cue to continue.)
Resort style weather and relatively cheap land made Los Angeles the perfect setting for the Case Study House Program.
The program developed as the result of “endless discussions in the comfortably shabby editorial offices of Arts & Architecture where during WWII John Entenza (editor in chief) and a number of relatively young architectural guns would talk about new ideas in residential design and construction.”
The goal of the Case Study House Project was simple – build stylish, replicable, and affordable housing for millions of returning soldiers.
The magazine sponsored the project by commissioning many of the famous architects we’ve come to love today: Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Craig Ellwood, Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, Eero Saarinen, A. Quincy Jones, Ralph Rapson. J.R. Davidson, Whitney Smith, and Thornton Abell.
Love Ends & Begins
It was getting late. I wanted to highlight how architect Frank Lloyd Wright promoted the concept of Organic Architecture. And how he was driven by “an attempt to integrate the spaces into a coherent whole: a marriage between the site and the structure and a union between the context and the structure.”
I wanted to dive deep into how real estate developer, Joseph Eichler, built subdivisions throughout Los Angeles bringing modernism to America’s post-war suburbs. Eichler’s projects were filled with mid century modern architecture often referred to as California Modern.
And I really wanted to discuss how this artistic movement continues to influence architects like Barbara Bestor, Beth Holden of New Theme, and real estate developers like Elan Mordoch.
And dive deeper into this design ethos many of us choose to live by.
Instead, I polished off the last drop of my Pinot and went to bed.
As I laid in bed, gazing up at the cracks that withstand every spackling attempt, my tears did their best Cirque du Soleil balancing act before tumbling down my cheeks.
We were over.
My heart was pummeled but yet I felt strangely optimistic and free.
Free to pursue modern everything: architecture, décor and furniture.