Editor’s note: Today’s centerpiece concludes Patti Cowger’s 13-part series on the history of architecture, art and design. If you missed any part, or would like a handout of the entire series, along with illustrations, send her an email at email@example.com.
Weeks ago, I began a series that took readers from ancient Egypt, Greece, Byzantium, and Rome to Western Europe and Great Britain, highlighting architectural and design movements along the way. I also described how and why such movements came to be.
In December, my series crossed the pond from England to the United States introducing Arts and Crafts and the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. Today, I’m coming full circle. That is to say, just as Egyptian design consisted of clean-lined, sculptural, and purposeful sensibility, so too does Mid-century Modernism.
Mid-century Modernism generally applies to architecture and interior furnishings developed from 1933 to 1965 in the United States. It was influenced by the International Style, the Bauhaus School, and the Arts and Crafts movement.
The goal was to bring modernism to the suburbs after World War II and with the notion that function was as important as form. Homes were built with an open floor plan and over-sized windows to connect the indoors to the outdoors. Post and beam construction made it possible to replace the spans of sheet-rocked walls with glass. While this type of construction had been described as “ground-breaking,” the ancient Egyptians who used posts and lintels, may balk at that claim.
Joseph Eichler, a California real estate developer who had been inspired by his childhood home in Hillsborough, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, built more than 11,000 homes in California known as “Eichlers.”
His homes were open planned with floor-to-ceiling windows, transoms, skylights, concrete slab floors with radiant heating, mahogany paneling, and sliding doors. The exteriors had narrow, vertical wood siding, flat or low-sloping A-framed roofs and few, if any, front-facing windows. He later added enclosed atriums that acted as open-aired, entrance foyers, another nod to Wright’s concept of living with nature.
Potential buyers initially felt leery of Eichler’s modern designs. Many were war-weary veterans seeking convention rather than innovation. Joseph Eichler also faced competition from other developers who copied his stylistic elements but in diluted and more conventional designs. They were called “Eichleresque.”
Eichler’s simple form and function may have even influenced the design of Apple products. Steve Jobs grew up in an Eichleresque home in Mountain View and Steve Wozniak grew up in the real deal in Sunnyvale.
While Joseph Eichler was building modern homes in California, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was doing so in Chicago. Mies had been the last director of the Bauhaus school in Germany and progressed into modernism when he moved to the States.
He is associated with the quotes, “Less is more” and “God is in the details.” Mies defined his interiors with industrial steel and plate glass. Today, he may best be known for his Barcelona Chair, an armless, chrome on steel frame with a tufted leather seat and back. The legs were shaped by two X’s, similar to the ancient Egyptian curule chair, by the way.
Perhaps the most iconic of modern chairs is the Eames Lounge Chair designed in 1956 by the married duo, Charles and Bernice Eames, for the Herman Miller Furniture Company (known today for its ergonomic desk chairs). Bernice remarked that the chair looked “comfortable and un-designy.” It was composed of three curved shells — headrest, backrest, and seat, made of thin layers of plywood covered by a veneer of Brazilian rosewood. The fronts and armrest were upholstered in leather.
California-born Isamu Noguchi also collaborated with Herman Miller. No doubt you’ve seen his free form glass and curved wood coffee table — balanced, sculptural art in the form of furniture. Noguchi’s collection of ephemeral light sculptures has also been re-invented as round or rectangular paper lanterns often seen at Cost Plus.
Scandinavian designers Alvar Aalto, Michael Thonet, Arne Jacobsen heavily influenced Mid-century Modern design in the States. Their furnishings are characterized by simplicity and natural shapes using fiberglass, chromed steel, and bent plywood with an emphasis on the needs of the average family.
Even ceramics made its Mid-century mark — and close to home. Industrial designer and potter Edith Heath created lines of dishware, pottery and architectural tile. “Heathware” is still operating in Sausalito.
I have found that those who favor Mid-century Modernism do so with unwavering dedication. They are consistent in their choices of furnishings, accessories and lifestyle as well as their commitment to form and function. They are also loyal to the notion of natural materials, simplicity and purpose.
Such is the case with clients whose project I call “Mid-century Mountain Modern.” Their home is constructed with minimal framework, which allows for unobstructed views and a connection with their outdoor environment. The interiors are largely open spaces with an uncluttered arrangement of furnishings reminiscent of the style of Mid-century designers. Inside and out, this home implies a sense of freedom and integration with nature.
Mid-century Modernism is the last of the 17 design styles that I’ve described in my series. I hope you’ve enjoyed this 5,000-year trip down memory lane. Let me know your favorite.