Mid-Century modern is an architectural, interior, product and graphic design that generally describes mid-20th-century developments in modern design, architecture and urban development from roughly 1933 to 1965. The term, employed as a style descriptor as early as the mid-1950s, was reaffirmed in 1983 by Cara Greenberg in the title of her book, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s (Random House), celebrating the style that is now recognized by scholars and museums worldwide as a significant design movement.
These masterpieces of modern architecture are still influencing home design today — see if any elements appear in your own home!
SEE ALSO: MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME ACCESSORIES TO GET RIGHT NOW
Lovell Beach House
Year built: 1926
Architect: Rudolph M. Schindler
Location: Newport Beach, California
Visiting info: Only rare visits scheduled
Must know: In this third residence that R.M. Schindler designed for Philip Lovell (a lover of modern architecture if there ever was one, for he also commissioned Richard Neutra to design a house), he raised the house on five sculptural columns to gain ocean views over neighboring buildings. The bravado structure also responds to seismic considerations and survived an earthquake five years after completion, one that destroyed a nearby school. Schindler worked for Frank Lloyd Wright previously, and that influence can be found in some details, but with this house the architect crafted his own personal modern style.
Year built: 1937
Architect: Walter Gropius
Location: Lincoln, Massachusetts
Visiting info: Self-guided tours available
Must know: Walter Gropius, who had founded the influential Bauhaus School in Germany, emigrated to the United States in 1937. He taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and designed this house for his family in nearby Lincoln. Itsribbon windows and white surfaces express a Bauhaus aesthetic, but underneath can be found strong regional influences.
Eames House, Case Study House No. 8
Year built: 1949
Architects: Charles and Ray Eames
Location: Pacific Palisades, California
Visiting info: Reserved self-guided exterior tours only
Must know: Although this house/studio for designers Charles and Ray Eames is simply two rectangular volumes made of off-the-shelf steel structures and windows, it is a colorful expression of their design sensibility and a suitable backdrop for their collections and creations. It is also sensitively merged into the sloping site, showing that the house is as much about place as about universal modern ideals.
Year built: 1908
Architect: Greene and Greene
Location: Pasadena, California
Visiting info: Docent guided tours available
Must know: This house is a masterpiece of the Greene brothers’ synthesis of styles and means — Arts and Crafts, art nouveau, Japanese timber construction, bungalows. Many people are familiar with the house from the film Back to the Future, as its exterior served as Doc’s mansion (the interiors were filmed at a different Green and Greene house), but it deserves to be known by everybody on the merits of its well-crafted wood architecture, inside and out.
Year built: 1949
Architect: Philip Johnson
Location: New Canaan, Connecticut
Visiting info: Individual, private and group tours available
Must know: Philip Johnson was as much, if not more so, a proponent of architectural styles as a designer of them. He and Henry Russell Hitchcock, in their 1932 International Style of Modern Architecture exhibition at MoMA, helped to define what people think modern architecture is, even to this day. His Glass House, influenced by Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (next) but completed two years before it, is the first of many structures Johnson designed and built on his New Canaan estate. Many of the later buildings embody other styles, but this house is explicitly and unabashedly modern.
Year built: 1951
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Location: Plano, Illinois
Visiting info: Individual and group tours available
Must know: Like Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe emigrated to the United States before World War II, arriving in Chicago and heading the Illinois (then Armour) Institute of Technology. His influence on postwar architecture is massive, but mainly on the design of office towers and other urban buildings. Next to the Fox River, west of Chicago, he designed a raised glass box that turned out to be his last residential commission, after Edith Farnsworth sued her architect. She echoed van der Rohe’s famous dictum in her statement, “Less is not more. It is simply less!”
Year built: 1939
Architect: Alvar Aalto
Location: Noormarkku, Finland
Visiting info: Must inquire about tours in advance
Must know: Finnish architect Alvar Aalto was given almost total freedom by Harry and Maire Gullichsen for the design of their summer home. Aalto, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (1939 — Aalto saw it in project form in journals), strove for a design that was Finnish but modern. The resulting two-story, L-shaped house is an idiosyncratic design that expresses what British architect Colin St. John Wilson called “the other tradition of modern architecture,” which placed humanism above ideology.
Year built: 1931
Architect: Le Corbusier
Location: Poissy, France
Visiting info: Individual and group tours available
Must know: This weekend house near Paris for Pierre and Emilie Savoye has become one of modern architecture’s key icons, residential or otherwise. It perfectly encapsulates Le Corbusier’s five points that he developed in the 1920s: raising the building on pilotis(slender columns), a free facade that was independent of the structural system, ribbon windows based on a similar logic, an open floor plan, and a roof garden that regained the ground lost through the building’s occupation of the landscape.
Frederick C. Robie House
Year built: 1909
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Visiting info: Guided and group tours available
Must know: One aspect of Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius was the need to constantly reinvent himself and his architecture, perfecting a type of design and then moving on to something else. The Robie House can be seen as the apotheosis of his Prairie style, which he started to develop in the early 1890s and abandoned in favor of his democratic, Usonian designs. The low-slung house perfectly embodies the horizontal relationship of house to landscape of Wright’s organic architecture.
Year built: 1924
Architect: Gerrit Rietveld
Location: Utrecht, Netherlands
Visiting info: Audio tours or guided tours available
Must know: At first glance Gerrit Rietveld’s design for Schröder House is like a painting come to life. Traditional ideas of construction and enclosure, outside and inside, don’t appear; in their place are lines, planes and splashes of color. These traits also apply to furniture that Rietveld designed, pointing to the synthesis that he and his Dutch contemporaries realized through the short-lived De Stijl (“the style”) movement.
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