When Mid-Century Met Modernism

By Karrie Jacobs

Interior of the Inland Steel Building, designed by SOM, circa 1959. Photo © Hedrich Blessing

Is modernism endlessly relevant, or a thing of the past? In an essay for SOM Journal 10, design writer Karrie Jacobs delves into the origins of a term that, for some, defines a movement.

If you ask Google — and why should this inquiry be different than any other? — it will tell you the term “mid-century modernism” or “mid-century modern” came into regular use during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Because the Ngram viewer, the Google device that charts the appearance of phrases over time, doesn’t show results beyond 2008, it’s impossible to say if that use has crested or if we’re in the midst of peak mid-century modernism.

However, it is possible to pinpoint the beginning of the upswing. It clearly started with the 1984 publication of a book titled Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, written by design maven Cara Greenberg, once a familiar byline in magazines like Metropolitan Home. The book, a cavalcade of Eames chairs, George Nelson storage systems, with a little Saarinen and Jacobsen thrown in, codified and popularized a trend that was just rising to the surface. The odd thing is that, while the word “modern” is generously sprinkled throughout the book, and the term “mid-century” comes up now and then, the title phrase doesn’t show up until page 48, in a section entitled “The End of an Era.” “Mid-Century Modern’s golden age was over,” Greenberg wrote, arguing that the era of furniture that truly embodied new manufacturing techniques, unorthodox use of materials, and form driven by a cheerful approach to functionalism began in 1947 and ended in 1957. She blames the downfall of the movement on a plague of bad knockoffs and a fickle public, for whom modernism was just another style, like Italianate or chinoiserie.

What Greenberg’s book made obvious was that the 1950s, despite the decade’s reputation for conformity and kitsch, was a wildly innovative time. During World War II, architects like Eero Saarinen and Arne Jacobsen had few buildings to design, so they turned their attention to furniture that embraced new forms and materials. Then, in the postwar years, pent up demand drove furniture sales, and a new aesthetic — stripped down and emphatically non-traditional — was embraced by the general public. Even my own parents, who were not the least bit interested in design, picked up a shockingly minimalist sofa and arm chair for our TV room in a style that was called Danish Modern. The pieces, I’m fairly certain, had not come from anywhere near Scandinavia, and were bought at discount store along a New Jersey highway. That presence of even a whiff of Danish chic in my childhood home suggests to me that the mid-century was a moment when we shed traditions easily, without necessarily being aware we were doing so.

Generally, mid-century modern is a term we use today without thinking too much about it. Say it and Case Study Houses or a George Nelson clock ringed by colorful balls comes to mind. It’s an easy way of codifying a certain stylistic lightness, a proclivity for making materials perform new tricks: bent plywood, glass walls, strong plastic. Unlike the prewar modernism of the Bauhaus, De Stijl, and other largely European movements, mid-century modernism implies an American joie de vivre. It was less about engineering a machine for living and more about establishing an aesthetic that expressed the insouciance of this country after the war. (Note that when we refer to mid-century modernism, we don’t generally mean certain other works from the same period, such as the Pruitt-Igoe Houses [1954], which became the symbol of the bad kind of modernism, the kind that was shorthand for the dumb imposition of bureaucratic power, a strain of modernism that we prefer to associate with the 1970s.)

So where did the notion of mid-century modern come from? Greenberg, who still writes about residential interiors, believes she coined the term. When I suggest that she might not have been the first to use it, she bristles. But when I searched the New York Times archives, a prior use of the term instantly came up in a 1953 article headlined “Modern Furniture is Getting Fancier.” The story, a brief one, concerns a line of furniture on sale at Wanamaker’s department store: “Practically none of today’s popular motifs and materials have been omitted from a new collection … Called ‘Mid-Century Modern’ the group is by J. Stuart Clingman.” According to the article, Clingman was mainly known for his traditional furniture, but he turns out to be a rather interesting designer, lost to history or, at least, to the readers of Greenberg’s account of the era. He was a second-generation furniture maker and worked out of that Athens of home furnishings, Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was design director for John Widdicomb Co. His pieces, lean and eccentric, still turn up in online marketplaces like eBay.

I found it remarkable that right smack in the middle of the century, Clingman was self-aware enough to coin a term that positioned his work in its moment. Though maybe that wasn’t so unusual after all: according to lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, formerly an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary, “People in the 1950s were definitely aware of being mid-century.” However, Sheidlower cautions, “That doesn’t mean that ‘mid-century modern’ then means what it does now.” Sheidlower’s words make me question whether “mid-century” circa 1953 actually implies the cloudless optimism I associate with it, or whether the notion of “mid-century” also incorporates the looming threat of the bomb, much as the idea of the Millennium, a half century later, carried with it a hint of apocalypse.

Case Study House #22 by Pierre Koenig.

Whatever the term “mid-century modern” evoked in 1953, Clingman’s bright idea failed to catch on. Other pre-Greenberg uses show up, a rate of one or two per decade. For example, the lead sentence of a Washington Post article previewing a 1975 furniture exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery says, “Mid-century modern as a style may be said to have arrived.” And, given that the exhibition involved pieces produced by Knoll and Herman Miller, the expression meant to the Post reporter exactly what it did to Greenberg nine years later. “I didn’t know about that show,” Greenberg insists.

Eventually I found my way to Clark Malcolm, who’s spent the past thirty-three years working as an in-house writer and editor at Herman Miller, the furniture maker that produced all those iconic George Nelson designs, the “voice and soul of rational, elegant design” in Greenberg’s estimation. His first response to my query about how the term “mid-century modern” was applied at a company where it should have meant a great deal, was short and sweet: it wasn’t. Malcolm attributed the phrase to Greenberg and explained that, in the 1980s, when her book was published, “Herman Miller had little enthusiasm for the people and products it describes. It was exactly that year that George Nelson visited Ann Arbor on four occasions to lecture at the school of architecture and no one from Herman Miller had time to take him to dinner. We had discontinued many of his and the Eameses’ products, and would discontinue more before the taste pendulum began to swing in the other direction.”

The 1967 Sears catalog showcases modern design as a mass consumer product.

When you think about it, the fact that mid-century modernism was not a part of Herman Miller corporate culture in the 1980s is not so surprising. The 1980s is when I first began to navigate design culture and, at the time, critics and theorists mostly talked about modernism as something we’d finally — finally! — transcended. All the deep thinking was about postmodernism. I devoured essay collections like The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983) edited by Hal Foster and Design After Modernism: Beyond the Object (1988) edited by John Thackara. The message in these books was that modernism as a powerful force in contemporary life had expired because a) it had been reduced to a mere style and b) it was no longer a radical, anti-authoritarian movement but rather, the default way authority presented itself. Modernism was boring. It was uncool. It was over. A typical sentiment from Thackara’s compilation can be found in an essay by architect and author Nigel Coates: “By the mid-sixties, when the old ideological crusades of modernism actually seemed to have been won, the architectural visions of this century finally took shape identically in suburbs from London to Moscow. The home in particular had become a formula, capable of being repeated, labeled and stacked … .”

If Modernism was “of the moment” some sixty years ago, what is it now?

And so it was in the 1980s. Modernism was passé. We had moved on. Which made the 1990s resurgence of everything from Brasilia to East German Plattenbau apartment blocks to New York’s long detested Pan Am building both entirely predictable and a complete surprise. This swelling of interest in mid-century design was lucratively advanced by Wallpaper magazine, which launched in 1996. The publication initially embraced mid-century style because, as its founder, Tyler Brûlé, recently told me, it was what people his age (he was twenty-eight at the time) had grown up with. “There was a familiarity to it,” Brûlé says. “These were the tables that helped you take your first steps.” In other words, Wallpaper’s role in reviving modernism as an architectural style was sparked by nostalgia for the furniture, specifically Danish modern, perhaps the same bargain basement version my parents brought home. From there, the magazine’s editors began to develop a taste for the architecture, seeking out and publishing modernist buildings, often ones like those in Canberra or Yokohama, that would appear exotic and alluring to readers in London or New York.

So, a decade after the architectural profession declared an end to modernism, substituting hothouse variants such as deconstructivism, Wallpaper took great pleasure in showcasing mid-century buildings and populating them with cool, expressionless models. Brûlé claims the magazine was motivated, in part, by a preservationist urge, “racing against the clock to chronicle places that we know probably wouldn’t be with us much longer.” But really, Wallpaper transformed architecture into a fashion. And once that happened, mid-century modernism became a lingua franca, transmutable, easy to reference, and subject to revival upon revival.

Today, the icons of the postwar decades, whether we’re talking George Nelson’s Marshmallow Sofa or Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal are so universally beloved that it is often difficult, in this country, to think about modernism without its familiar modifier. And this is a problem, historically and philosophically. The popular enthusiasm for mid-century modernism, arguably, is the death of Modernism — with a capital M — because the adjective undercuts the meaning of the noun.

Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal. Photos courtesy of samsebeskazal.livejournal.com

Greenberg can tell you why: “The word modern always means the same thing. It means of the moment, as I understand it.” Accepting her definition of modern — which is also what the Random House Dictionary says — and coupling the word with a historic period turns it into a paradox. If Modernism was “of the moment” some sixty years ago, what is it now?

Even though I was writing regularly about architecture for most of the 1990s, I didn’t give much thought to the notion of mid-century modernism until I started working on the 2000 start-up of Dwell, a magazine launched specifically to champion modern residential architecture and design. One of the things that happens when you work on a start up, is that you spend a lot of time explaining what you’re doing. And my well-worn spiel on the nascent magazine was often greeted with the same vexing question: Are you going to publish just mid-century houses? The answer — obvious, I thought — was no. And initially, at least, I didn’t understand why anyone would even think that.

The Foster Residence in Granada Hills, California, developed by Joseph Eichler.

At the time, the one U.S. magazine that focused on modern homes was completely devoted to houses built from the 1940s through the 1960s. Many of them, like those erected by the pioneering California developer Joseph Eichler or the ones conjured up for experimental postwar subdivisions like Gregory Ain and Garrett Eckbo’s Mar Vista Tract, were quite wonderful, innovative in their flexible use of space, their blurred barriers between indoors and outdoors, and their structural simplicity. It was easy to understand why homeowners cherished and obsessively restored their mid-century landmarks.

But that wasn’t what we, at Dwell, were interested in. I came to realize that I had to find a way to make it impeccably clear that what we meant by modernism was different: we were not planning to look backward. So I did what any respectable Modernist would do, I wrote a manifesto. In the magazine’s first issue we declared: “Rather than being an historical movement from the first half of the 20th century, left over and reheated, we think of modernism as a frame of mind. To us the M word connotes an honesty and curiosity about methods and materials, a belief that mass production and beauty are not mutually exclusive, and a certain optimism not just about the future, but about the present.”

As far as I can tell, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the moment we’re in right now.

It was so obvious; modernism is not something that happened once, and came to an end. Rather, it is a way of looking at the world. It is a constantly changing set of technologies and opportunities, a method for integrating a ceaseless pageant of radical breakthroughs into our mundane routines. Modernism is a technique for taking the explosive forces that are constantly reshaping the human environment and domesticating them. For that reason, modernism is infinitely, endlessly relevant.

Except that it’s not.

Because there’s another problem, one that is not so easily dispatched. Even if you detach it from “mid-century,” the word “modernism” itself is redolent of the past. In our present moment, “modern” sounds oddly quaint, the signifier of a future that didn’t quite pan out. But it seems wrong to jettison the word unless we know how to replace it.

Except that we can’t.

As far as I can tell, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the moment we’re in right now. What word do we use to describe it? A composer friend suggests “contemporary,” which works to an extent in music and the fine arts, but carries its own troublesome baggage when you’re talking about architecture, where it’s often a euphemism for modernism-lite. All the defining terms that anyone comes up with are either too narrow or have no legs. Remember the Information Age? In architecture nothing has the sweep or grandeur of modernism: postmodernism, deconstructivism, blobism, parametrics, passive design, sustainable architecture. None of it is broad enough. Or visionary enough. Or simple enough.

Sheidlower points out that “modern,” when it became an -ism took on the same baggage as “catholic” did when it became The Church. “This is a common problem when you have words that theoretically have a broad application, but come to refer to something specific — the general sense gets skunked by the specific one,” he explains.

So we wind up talking about post-postmodernism or meta-modernism. (Meta-modernism even has its own manifesto: it has something to do with oscillation.) Brûlé, for his part, talks about the present by employing the prefix “re-” as in, “I feel that we’re in this period of renewal and relaunching.”

Probably the broadest current trend in architecture is form that is generated by an astonishing level of function, buildings that brilliantly advance a societal goal: net zero or carbon neutrality or improved health. But what is this very au courant data-driven type of building if not modernism? Today’s office complexes and apartment towers are, quite literally, machines for living. Le Corbusier would be gobsmacked. Modernism has never been more vital; it’s a way of thinking that could easily carry us to the middle of a newer century. Except that that modernism is solidly a century old which means that, by definition, it’s over.

Pruitt-Igoe demolition. Watch the full video at: https://youtu.be/2UntpCv3nFU

Karrie Jacobs is a contributing editor at Architect magazine, a regular contributor to Curbed, and a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts’ graduate program in Design Research, Writing, and Criticism. The author of The Perfect $100,000 House (2006), Jacobs was the founding editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine and the founding executive editor of Benetton’s Colors magazine.

SOM Journal 10 is part of a series that highlights conceptual undercurrents being developed at SOM. This edition, which focuses on how a large architectural firm confronts questions of ethos and legacy, presents a selection of recent SOM projects, as well as essays and commentaries. It is available for purchase.