Do you love MidCentury Modern?

Do you love MidCentury Modern?

Remind me: When was MidCentury Modern?

People can’t agree on WHEN Midcentury Modern (MCM) actually WAS!

Architectural Digest magazine says MCM lasted from about 1933-1965.  Encyclopedia Brittanica concurs, while Wikipedia says 1945-1960.  I’m settling for fifteen years on either  side of 1950:  1935 - 1965

Weird Fact:  MCM (like Mid Century Modern) in Roman Numerals actually means 1900 (match shown)


What does MCM style look like?

MCM interior of Rosenbaum House, lots of teals, wood, oriental carpet, big windows.

Photo by Courtney Pickens, Unsplash


This interior photo of the Rosenbaum House (Florence, Alabama) shows many MCM concepts.  Here’s a multitude of clean straight line: the furniture, ceiling levels, lines in the flooring and windows.  The chair is low to the floor, with splayed spindle legs so small it almost seems to float - contrast this with the massive upholstered furniture of Victorian times! 

There’s a combination of manufactured and organic materials:  The brick, the upholstery fabric and the concrete floor are all fabricated, whereas all the wood and accents like the flowers on the piano clearly bring nature inside.  The carpet combines both, being obviously human-made, and containing so many nature motifs!

Notice too the large windows, allowing a great view of the outdoors and providing lots of indoor natural light, a hallmark of MCM design.  There was also an emphasis on making affordable designs so many people could enjoy them.  

Was MCM the only style popular then?

Not at all!  There a lot of overlap, with other styles waxing and waning during this time.   Which makes it easy to get confused about what is and isn’t MCM.  

Art Deco

Art Deco was named after its first major appearance appearance at the Paris Expo in 1925.  It was a  departure from the sinuous lines and intertwined flowing organic shapes of Art Nouveau.  It was a breath of fresh air after these intricately ornate Art Nouveau designs.  

Photo showing the top of the Chrysler Building in NYC

Chrysler Building in Manhattan, by Dan Smedley via Unsplash

The Chrysler Building in NYC showcases the nested arcs and crown-like triangles that are typical of Art Deco design. 

 A computer generated example of an Art Deco necklace on a grey backgroundA watch pendent in Art Deco style by Van Cleef & Arpels

              Art Deco-style necklace                                                                Van Cleef and Arpel Pendent Watch 
            generated by Canva Text to Image                                                       Photo by Tim Evanson

 This necklace uses and arc of tapering lines along with nested chevrons.  The pendent watch shows a more angular design, with multiple cross-pieces suspending the parts below.  Again, we see a  chevron-style motif at the very top.

 Art Deco was transitioning out of style at the beginning of the MidCentury Modern era, but was still often used or even combined with the more organic shapes of MCM.

Googie Style

A googie style gas station with swooping roof line

 2006 photography by Googie Man.  Googie Gas Station.  Wikimedia Commons

This is one of my favorite styles, extending (according to Wikipedia) from 1945 to the “early 1970s”.  It was used mainly for one-story commercial buildings like coffee shops, gas stations, and car washes.

If you’ve not heard of this style before, I bet when you see these examples, your mind screams 1950’s Southern California!  And it’d be right!  Googie was thoroughly contemporary, worshipping swooping roofs and lots of curves, like the gas station above. Growing out of the last bits of Art Deco (Streamline Moderne) style, important parts of this Googie were lots of windows and extensive use of neon lighting.  Asymmetric soft shapes without straight lines were another feature, things like a funky rectangle with very rounded ‘corners’ or an artist’s palette.  

The old TV show The Jetsons showed a lot of space-age Googie design, all built around the flying cars (rather than the extensive highways of SoCal car culture!

Original bowling alley with swooping roof lines, and then an after photo in which these swoops have been truncated.
Kona Bowling Lanes, before and after 1980’s remodel.  Photo by  Victor Stapf Jr.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Here’s a sad example of a remodeling removing all the character of the enthusiastic optimistic Googie Design. 


Retro design

Retro style is often confused with vintage style, but they are different.  Vintage style uses the original items, usually made decades ago.  Retro (short for retrospective) means looking back, borrowing cool ideas from earlier times to incorporate into today’s designs.  

Many people use retro to refer to iconic 1950’s design-  the circles and other basic shapes, boomerangs, elongated cats and poodles.  Many of the color schemes feature just two or three colors- often in muted nature tones like avocado green, harvest gold, mustards, reds and rusts. 

An old-style small stand-along diner.

West Side Diner, formerly '''Poirier's Diner,''' is a historic restaurant at 1380 Westminster Street in Providence RI.  Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel via Wikimedia Commons

Diners are an archetype of 1950’s retro style.  Picture the black and white checkerboard floors and the bright vinyl counter seats.  Where you could get a great home-cooked meal without being home.  Real comfort food!  The neon Coca-Cola sign- and don’t forget the jukebox!!  

Black formica with pink and white boomerang outlines

Cool boomerang formica tabletop I met recently at a diner-style restaurant!

How does this all fit together?

This has been a rapid trip through some of the styles impacting design in the middle part of the twentieth Century.  We saw Art Deco yielding to the more organic MCM, while (especially in Southern California) architects explored the exuberant excesses of Googie architecture.  Retro design was sort of a “low” to MCM’s “high” design, a more common and friendlier, sometimes even kitschy, version.

In this compact history of mid twentieth century styles, we’ve left out a lot.  There was Bauhaus, Pop Art, Atomic Age, Space Age, vitalism, surrealism, abstract expressionism and more.    There were a ton of interesting design schools during the twentieth century, and we’ll take a closer look at each of these in future blog posts.

Where can I go to learn more about MidCentury Modern?

I consulted a lot of websites while researching this blog post.  Here are the some of the really good ones:

Architectural Digest: Accessed 9.19.2022
Wikipedia:   Accessed 9.19.2022
Brittanica:   Accessed 9.19.2022
Masterclass Mid Century Modern Design Guide.  Accessed 12.30.2022
What is Midcentury Modern? Accessed 12.30.2022
HGTV Midcentury Modern  Accessed 12.30.2022
Atomic Age Heritage Accessed 9.19.2022
Wikipedia: Space Age Accessed 9.19.2022
Wentworth Studio Art Deco  Accessed 9.19.2022
Circa Old Houses: Art Deco Art Moderne  Accessed 9.19.2022
Googie 101:  A Space Age Pop Architecture Primer  Accessed 12.31.22
Retro Style: Accessed 1.1.23
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