The minimalism, functionalism, and appreciation for nature that set Mid-Century Modern architecture apart in its era also gave the style a broad appeal that endures to this day. More than just an aesthetic preference, the Mid-Century Modern style was born of an attempt to re-invent the ways living space was used.
Design for a New Era
The Mid-Century Modern style took shape during the Modernism movement from the 1930s to the 1970s, but its exact time period is up for debate. Aspects of Mid-Century Modern design appeared in the mid-1930s and lingered into the 1960s, but the mid-1950s was the height of its popularity. The term itself was coined in 1984 by art historian Cara Greenberg.
The movement’s philosophy of better living through design arose largely from the social and economic upheaval of World War II. After the war, cities and suburbs grew with returning soldiers looking for affordable, functional homes for their future families. Wartime scarcity of traditional building materials, as well as the development of new materials, encouraged experimentation with non-traditional materials such as plastic, fiberglass, and plywood.
The period’s social climate also fueled the visions of many architects. Anticipating the dawn of a new era, they viewed their work as a vehicle for social change and sought out fresh, forward-looking approaches.
This emphasis on creating a better tomorrow is what’s behind Mid-Century Modern architecture’s futuristic vibe and emphasis on function. While it draws inspiration from the earlier Bauhaus movement’s streamlined simplicity and functionality, it shows little other historical influence.
The style openly rebels against its more decorative recent predecessors, such as the Beaux-Arts and Arts and Crafts movements. Close connection with nature is another defining characteristic of Mid-Century Modern design. This focus tied into the growing public concern about pollution that later developed into the 1960s environmental movement.
The Modernist movement started in Europe and later came to America with architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Eero Saarinen. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s penchant for simple organic forms and harmony with nature also helped popularize and develop what we know today as Mid-Century Modern architecture. California was a hot spot for the style, with Joseph Eichler in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Richard Neutra working in the south from Palm Springs to San Diego.
Love of Mid-Century Modern wasn’t limited to the West Coast, though. The style’s simplicity appealed to a broad range of society, helping it flourish for decades around the country. The wealthy hired architects to design boldly innovative homes, while housing developers applied the easily mass produced design principles to tract housing, filling whole neighborhoods with the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic.
By the mid-1960s, demand faded along with decreasing demand for new housing and experimental design. Today, Mid-Century Modern is considered a retro architectural style, but it still boasts a strong following.
Function Before Form
The belief that form should follow function and the drive to re-imagine the modern living space carries through every element of the Mid-Century Modern architectural style. It’s most apparent in the style’s straight horizontal lines, sleek geometric forms, gentle organic curves, flat planes, asymmetry, and uncluttered spaces.
Most Mid-Century Modern homes are single-story or split-level buildings with flat roofs and asymmetrical profiles. In fact, the Mid-Century Modern style was among the first to use the split-level design. In climates with heavy rains or snowy winters, A-frames are a common alternative to the flat roof. To maintain its characteristic connection to nature, the ideal location for one of these homes is tucked away somewhere into a large plot of land lush with trees and gardens.
Indoors, expansive open floor plans are favored. Sections are separated by elements such as partial walls and shelving or by elevation, with one room a few steps up or down from the next. The open floor plan allows for large windows and glass walls that provide sweeping views of the outdoors and let natural light in from multiple angles, a preference carried over from Northern-European traditions. Sliding glass doors invite residents to step out and enjoy their surroundings. Building material is often extended from outdoors in with features such as a stone patio wall that extends into the living room.
These homes incorporate a wide variety of building materials, but exteriors tend toward combinations of wood, brick, and stone. Narrow shiplap and natural stone are a favorite combination. Concrete, steel, and other industrial materials are also popular. Many architects intentionally paired contrasting materials, such as wood and steel, in their search for a fresh look.
Beyond variations in material, facades feature little to no ornamentation. A major exception to this norm is the Googie style, pioneered by Morris Lapidus and known for its distinctive “cheese holes,” abstract “woggle” shapes, and decorative “bean poles” designed to evoke a futuristic, atomic-age feel. Even this style, most often seen on commercial buildings, is devoid of intricate detailing.
Color palettes range from rich 1940s colors such as deep reds, blues, and greens to 1950s pastels to the warm, earthy tones of the 1960s. Other Mid-Century Modern homes play it safe with subtle, natural color schemes that blend into the surroundings.
Today, some of the Mid-Century Modern architectural style’s more experimental elements might look like the past’s misguided vision of the future, but the principles of simplicity and harmony with nature remain relevant. Whether you’re looking to renovate an original or build your own Mid-Century Modern home, staying true to these fundamentals will help you get an authentic, yet contemporary look.