Exploring Elements of Midcentury Modernism

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer. Photography Courtesy of Knoll.

Midcentury Modernism is generally defined as a design style that spread through the United States and Western Europe from the late 1930s to early 1960s, although it saw the most prevalence from around 1945 to 1955. However, since it pulled influence from designs like Prairie Style in the US and De Stijl in the Netherlands, early 20th century characteristics can be mistakenly attributed to modernism.

Modernism was a wholly optimistic style that took rejected historical styles and the tradition of looking to the past for inspiration. By the mid-20th century, industrialization and advancements in technology and engineering were commonplace. Mass production had allowed the middle class to emerge and machinery had become symbolic of the potential for a new Utopian future. Proponents of Modernism believed that by defining “good” design as both rational form and technology-forward in material innovation. This includes, for example, the use of bentwood and seamless fiberglass forms—two of the most commonly recognized forms of Midcentury Modern furniture. The information that follows explores and overview of the elements that define this design style.

The style saw a revival in the early 21st century, both in the trade of original Modernist furniture and in utilizing its aesthetic elements. While not an exhaustive list, the most common elements can be broken down into the notions of form and function and being devoid of decorative elements. While not an exhaustive list, the most common elements can be broken down into the following:

  1. Form and Function: For proponents of Modernism, there wasn’t debate between whether form or function was more important in design—advancements in technology and material science allowed for both. What’s more, “good” design was defined as that which could be both functional and beautiful in form.

  2. Devoid of Decorative Elements: One reason why form and function could and is be used as equals in Midcentury Modernism is due to the lack of decorative elements. Unlike classical styles like Gothic, Baroque, and even Federalism that relied on decorative elements, Midcentury Modernism pares down the design to what is necessary.

For proponents of Modernism, there wasn’t debate between whether form or function was more important in design—advancements in technology and material science allowed for both. Moreover, “good” design was defined as that which could be both functional and beautiful in form. One reason why form and function could and is be used as equals in Midcentury Modernism is due to the lack of decorative elements. Unlike classical styles like Gothic, Baroque, and even Federalism that relied on decorative elements, Midcentury Modernism pares down the design to what is necessary. As an example of this, Viennese architect Adolf Loos—who, despite working in the early 20th century, is a father of the Modernist aesthetic—believed ornament should be completely removed from all forms. This lack of decoration also led to other design movements, such as Brutalism and International Style.

  1. Geometric Elements: Because decoration was stripped down on Midcentury Modernism, geometric elements that had been covered over before came to the forefront of Modern designs.

  2. Ancillary Products as Decorative: Although decorative elements were stripped off of furniture and architecture during Midcentury modernism, it found its way into other aspects of design, especially within home goods and textiles. Design think-tanks like the Bauhaus would preach holistic designs that meshed form and function with new machine capabilities and traditional craft, which lead to experimentation within textiles. It should be noted that textiles were one of the industries women were allowed to participate in at the Bauhaus. They were able to use weaving and textile manufacturing as a method of exploring form and aesthetic.

  3. Utilizing Post-War Technology: One of the reasons why Midcentury Modernism was at its height during the 1940s and 1950s is that technological and material advancements were suddenly available after World War II. The war period was a time of scarcity as resources were funneled into wartime efforts, the post-war economy was able to provide designers and consumers with goods that had been advanced during the war like aluminum, large-scale glass, fiberglass and more. While elements like bent wood and solid fiberglass forms are commonplace today, the technology that went into designs like the Eames’ chairs, the bent tubular aluminum frame of Marcel Breuer’s chairs, and Eero Saarinen’s Tulip chairs and tables was ground-breaking at the time and utilized wartime materials and technology.

  4. Nature and Machinery in Harmony: Although devoid of decoration, Midcentury Modernism continued the trends of previous styles like Arts and Crafts and Neoclassicalism in continuing to honor nature in design; the difference was that Modernism used machinery to celebrate the natural world in much more understated ways, including using tulips as inspiration to form Saarinen’s Tulip chairs and tables, using wood grain as a finish rather than covering it over, celebrating nature’s colors and characteristics in textiles, and utilizing glass throughout the home to allow views of nature and sunlight into the space.

Modernist aesthetics were later juxtaposed against Postmodernism—a broad movement of style, art, philosophy, and criticism that followed in the mid- to late-20th century. When compared to Postmodernism, modernist style appears far more inflexible and serious, Modernism continues to find a place in Western design because it not only delighted in rationality, but was able to use seemingly simplistic forms to blend form, function, nature, and technology in a cost-efficient and clean manner that was—and continues to be—more widely available to the middle class than any design style that came before.

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