As one of the 20th century’s most popular interiors movements, mid-century design gave European modernism a new lease of life and saw the style spread to the world’s most far-flung corners. Read on for our introduction to this month’s The Edit.
Immortalised in the photography of Slim Aarons, the ‘desert modernism’ of California saw buildings entirely embedded in the natural landscape.
What did the modernists do for us? More than you might think. The utopian design project that emerged in the early 20th century, reaching wider attention following the popularity of Bauhaus and the International Style, offered a new vision for how to live in the post-industrial world. Gone was the frippery and heavy decoration of the 19th century, and in its place came a new design language that offered style and functionality to all. Under the rubric of form follows function and truth to materials, the modernists proposed their idealistic belief that everyone, from all echelons of society, deserved to live with taste and style.
Mid-century interiors are always in dialogue with the landscape surrounding them, often using planar horizontal windows to frame the outside world.
Later in the century, a variety of different strands sprung from this fertile creative moment — but arguably none with the enduring popularity of what we now term mid-century modern. Spanning three decades (from roughly the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s), it was, in many ways, a logical evolution of the modernist styles that came before. Taking the ideologies of these early movements, the mid-century architects and designers looked for an approach that would see form and function working with equal importance — as well as giving their predecessors’ work a quiet, tasteful injection of luxury.
“It is not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. What attracts me is the free and sensual curve — the curve that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuous course of its rivers, in the body of the beloved woman.”
The movement also had a presence in Britain: take for example this dramatic space in Hampshire, packed with graphic details.
While European modernist pioneers placed an emphasis on hard lines, industrial materials and a largely monochromatic palette, following the mass migration of many artists and designers to America in the period surrounding World War II, the style found itself gradually relaxing into something more organic. With a newfound interest in natural materials crafted into fluid, curvilinear shapes, alongside bold statement pieces of art and furniture that spoke of America’s more audacious design culture, it’s a look that retained modernism’s interest in functionality and carefully placed statement pieces, but moved them into a more playful realm.
Spanning three centuries, the mid-century style is unusually diverse — this living spaces offers a lighter and more colourful take on the movement’s philosophy.
With epicentres of the movement extending as far as California, Florida and even Brazil, these various offshoots of the style began to develop their own distinctive languages. The iconic designs of Oscar Niemeyer, closely involved with the development of Brasília in the 1960s — the newly founded capital of modern Brazil — are some of the most celebrated works of architecture ever created. His ambitions for his breathtaking designs were to turn his buildings inside out, elevate them so they appeared to float and provide them with a lyrical grace and femininity that had been absent from the modernist architecture that came before.
“I try to make a house like a flower pot, in which you can root something and out of it family life will bloom.”
For Brazilian mid-century modernists, the emphasis lay on transforming the rigid lines of previous generations into something more fluid and feminine.
In Palm Springs, another hotspot for mid-century modernism, these trends were adopted on a more modest, domestic scale. Instead of Niemeyer and his contemporaries’ interest in sweeping, mercurial shapes, the Californians had a greater interest in incorporating luxurious materials, such as statement patterned rugs, treated timbers and polished metals like copper and chrome, that could sit in dialogue with the geometric landscape of stark desert and vertical palms. Taking an increasingly flexible approach, it was more about allowing your home a sense of individualism in the face of what they understood as the bland uniformity of European modernism.
A quintessential mid-century living space brings the outside in: using organic materials and earth tones to temper geometric shapes with a natural ambience.
“The role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.”
Despite falling out of fashion during the 1970s and 80s, when American design became ever more brash, the mid-century style experienced a resurgence in the mid-1990s and its popularity has never waned since. Managing to successfully speak of the practicality of early modernism without its more austere shapes and colours, its perfect for anyone for whom clutter is anathema, but still wants to give their residence a little extra character. This month, Kairos will be looking at some of the greatest mid-century spaces, alongside tips on how to take elements of the style and make them work in any home.