What Does ‘Mid-Century Modern’ Really Mean?

Are mid-century modern homes having a moment?

Mid-century modern homes have always held a special place in the Chicagoland real estate market. Our area is home to some of the most iconic mid-century spaces you’ll find anywhere in the country, and there have always been buyers who flock to these retro-futuristic homes, eager for a design that speaks to the past, present, and future, seemingly all at once.

As writer Cara Greenberg recently put it to House Beautiful:

“…It seems to appeal anew to each rising generation of young people. Mid-century design hasn’t been bested by any other movement since, so it remains the style of our own time, not of some antique past. And it still looks cool!”

And Greenberg should know: She literally wrote the book on mid-century modernism, coining the term in 1984’s Midcentury Modern: Furniture of the 1950s.

In today’s market, interest in mid-century design has reached a fever pitch. Turn on any home TV show or browse through an interior design catalog, and you’re bound to find the term pop up again and again.

“Mid-century modern” is a broad term, and has been used to describe graphic design, furniture, and, most importantly, architecture, dating from the middle of the 20th century.

Mid-century modern homes are hot items now — and their story is a fascinating one. What makes mid-century modern dwellings unique? What sets this style apart, and how did it come to be? Let’s explore:

Mid-Century Modernism: Progressive Designs for Changing Times

Mid-century modernism is generally considered to have reached its peak around the midpoint of the 20th century, in roughly the mid-1930s through the mid-1960s — though its roots go back a bit further, and its influence still continues to be felt today.

The origins of mid-century modern architecture and design can be traced back to World War I, and the movement truly flourished after World War II. These turbulent times led to enormous social and economic change all around the world. Mid-century modern aesthetics rose in reaction to this time of change, in many different ways.

For one thing, the post-War period saw an expansion of cities and increased suburbanization in the U.S. People were on the move, and looking to own homes, start families, and achieve the “American Dream.” More homes needed to be built to keep up with this growing demand.

Meanwhile, the post-War periods saw the introduction of new technologies and materials. Mass production meant that home furnishings — and, in some cases, entire residences  — could be constructed more quickly, and more cheaply, than ever before. New materials, including plywood, fiberglass, aluminum, steel, and plastic, also gained popularity during this period, for use in furniture and as building materials.

At the same time that this was happening, designers and architects were rethinking some of the ways in which we live, work, and use space. A new era, they felt, called for a new design philosophy.

As a result, in the aftermath of World War II, many designers and builders started to emphasize the aesthetic ideas that we associate with mid-century modern structures today — simple designs; clean, organized lines; close integration with nature; and the overwhelming belief that form should always follow function.

In part, mid-century modern architecture and design grew from some of the philosophies of the Bauhaus school in Germany. During and after the Second World War, many of the prominent members of this school emigrated to the U.S, bringing their ideas and influence to our architectural scene and developing the movement now known as the International Style.

One such design pioneer was Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, who led the department of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and whose work can be seen all across Chicagoland — including the legendary Farnsworth House in Plano, which has been called “a mid-century icon” and “one of the most famous houses in the world.”

Mid-century modern design also owes a significant debt to another famous Chicagoland resident, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was one of the leading voices in the “Prairie School” architectural movement, which emphasized strong lines, open spaces, and organic materials — all design elements that would come to be strongly associated with mid-century modernism, as well.

What Are Some of the Key Design Elements to a Mid-Century Modern Home?

Mid-century modern designs have gone in and out of fashion over the years. Today, these homes —  built primarily in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s — are firmly back in vogue. As one of the epicenters for the Prairie School and the International Style movement, the Chicagoland area is full of one-of-a-kind homes that bring the principles of mid-century modern design to life.

So, what sets a mid-century modern style home apart? Here are a few of the key elements and features that make these structures unique:

  • Straight, flat lines: Many mid-century style homes are single-story or split-level. Inside and outside, these homes are typically defined by their straight horizontal lines, including flat roofs, in many cases.
  • Lots of glass and large windows: Mid-century designers believed in connecting the interior and exterior worlds. As a result, many mid-century homes feature large picture windows, sliding doors, or glass walls, which let in natural light and provide sweeping views of nature.
  • Open, split-level spaces: Many mid-century homes experiment with open concept floor plans. To create separation, many mid-century designs included elements like partial walls or free-standing cabinets. Others played with elevation, and separated rooms with small steps up or down.
  • Immersed in nature: Many mid-century homes are built on larger plots of land, and may feature lots of natural elements on the property, including trees and gardens. Many mid-century designs were conceived with the idea of integrating houses with the natural world around them, and may feature sweeping views and easy access to the outdoors.
  • Period building materials: Mid-century modern homes are often defined by the building materials that were popular at the time, including exposed wood, steel, plexiglass, terrazzo, different types of stone, and plastic. Mid-century homes may feature deliberately contrasting materials, and some may include experimental or non-traditional building materials that are quite unique.
  • Minimal ornamentation: Generally speaking, mid-century modern designers tended to believe that form should follow function, and not the other way around. As a result, mid-century modern homes are often distinguished by their clean geometric lines and sparse, uncluttered spaces.

Finding Your Style

From Victorian mansions, to mid-century modern homes, to cutting edge condos, we’ve seen many styles take shape in Chicagoland over the years — and through it all, we’ve always focused on making the dream of homeownership easier for all.

The company that would become Baird & Warner got its start in 1855. Since then, we’ve adapted and innovated to become the largest independent and locally owned real estate company in Chicagoland. The Baird & Warner history is rich. But it’s where we are and what we stand for today that really matters.

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