Mid-Century Modern Architecture: The Complete Guide

Dominated by sharp clean lines, minimal decoration, and a connection with nature mid-century, modern architecture was one of the major architectural movements initiated after World War II.

Founded by acclaimed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, there are many characteristics of this style of architecture which we will explain in this guide. When identifying any build of this period, you’ll find open planned spaces, huge windows, and a sense of bringing the great outdoors inside.

In general, a high prairie home of this time featured more decorative elements than a mid-century build. Therefore, you can often easily distinguish a build from this particular architectural movement based on its decorative elements.

There was a boom in mid-century modern architecture across America throughout the middle of the 20th century. In the years 1945 to 1969, many architects and designers picked up on the style and brought about a new movement. It rapidly grew in popularity across the USA, specifically in the state of California.

With this said, the architectural styles have seen a resurgence in recent years. In fact, interior designers today inclusive of those focused on Scandinavian design or Danish Modern, have made the mid-century modern design more accessible to newer generations of homeowners.

Read on to learn more about the history behind the architecture, key elements and we’ll also look at some of the most influential architects that contributed to this movement.

So, if you’re looking for an in-depth guide to this architectural style, this reading is for you!

What Is Mid-Century Modern Architecture?

This movement of architecture in the twentieth century drew emphasis on clean-cut lines along with understated curves. It also did not focus heavily on ornamentation as already described by lack of decor and instead focused on using the outdoors as a means of artistic flair.

This often involved implementing the use of large windows that helped to bring outside landscapes in along with focusing on functionality through the use of natural elements. Open floor plans were not uncommon as this helped to reaffirm the idea of minimalism and enjoying family time together.

A Brief History of The Mid-Century Modern Movement In Architecture

International and Bauhaus design movements, as well as American high prairie style homes, influenced this movement of architecture. A number of European architects that fled Nazi Germany brought it to the United States. Among these architects were Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. And, Frank Lloyd Wright, known as the Father of American architecture, trained many architects throughout this time.

Following World War II, Americans began to place more of an emphasis on lifestyle. This was seen in the amount of time spent with family and nature, two ‘free’ simple pleasures that could be enjoyed.

Because of this, mid-century modern homes in America’s suburbs had to consider the whole family and elements of the natural world. Often they would feature large windows, an open living area where the whole family could appreciate one another, and some technical aspects too which helped to minimize time spent completing chores.

Between 1945 and 1969, mid-century modern architecture developed across three distinct styles in America. These were known as international, contemporary, and finally, organic.

The international mid-century modern architecture style was inspired and heavily influenced by the infamous Bauhaus teachings. Most homes were extremely simple, with very minimal decoration, and typically finished with stucco rather than the excessive exterior decor found across other architectural styles.

The most popular contemporary homes were characterized by clean large windows allowing for plenty of light and the use of organic materials. Asymmetrical exteriors and exposed beams were also common, bringing the notion of the outdoors inside.

A very small number of architects looked to blend their homes into nature. Building structures with sharp lines and right angles were not favored. Instead, they preferred homes with more natural and free-flowing shapes.

This organic principle meant that depending on the locality of the building, building designs differed immensely. This was because organic homes were heavily influenced by their natural surroundings making each design quite unique.

What defines mid-century style modern architecture?

“Mid-century modern” primarily was rooted in a group of housing and structures built between the years 1945 and 1969.

Angular details, flat roofs, and asymmetrical profiles dominated this style. The style was also characterized by expansive walls of glass, clean lines, and spacious floor plans.

The Basic Elements of Mid-Century Modern Architecture

While mid-century modern style architecture is characterized by three distinct styles, most of the mid-century modern houses in the United States share these features:

Clean lines

In mid-century modern architecture, clean-cut lines are imperative. Most mid-century homes are characterized by flat roofs while many of the ranch-style homes found in areas of the U.S. often have asymmetrical features or traditional gable style roofs.

Flat roofs

Flat roofs are seen throughout almost all mid-century-style homes. With a huge emphasis placed on simplicity and clean lines, it made sense for the mid-century modern style to keep roofs flat as this echoed the idea of minimalism.

Asymmetrical

Many homes had an asymmetrical profile during this time and this was a popular approach to both art and architecture alike. Homes created in this style were made to complement natural surroundings and mimic the sense of asymmetry found in nature.

Open-plan areas

Open plan living in mid-century homes brought about the notion of ‘family time’. With greater accessibility between rooms, the interior was made to feel like a communal space in which everyone could gather.

Accents of vibrant color

Much of mid-century modern design focused on using accents of vibrant color. Both in architecture and interior design alike, bold colors were used to highlight features and bring about a modernist style.

Motifs running through the interior and exterior

Patterns and motifs with striking graphic details were found throughout the interiors and exteriors of modernist architecture. It is not uncommon to find geometric motifs either on the outside or inside the home.

Combines man-made and natural materials

The combination of man-made and natural materials were a hallmark of houses and architecture of the movement. Wood and cement were often combined for example as a way of honoring the capabilities of both humans and nature alike.

5 Mid-Century Modern Architects You Need To Know

Below, we have included an overview of the most renowned architects of history and today who have inspired the world with their iconic mid-century modern style designs. Here are some of the most iconic architects that helped shape the movement.

Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto became one of the most famous Finnish architects and designers when he earned his diploma in architecture at the Helsinki Institute of Technology.

He is known for many notable accomplishments, including the L-leg design for the kitchen interior. As a result of his invention, homeowners began attaching these types of legs to tables, chairs, and stools. This trend can still be found in many kitchen interior designs today.

Ray & Charles Eames

Known for their groundbreaking contributions to architecture, furniture design, manufacturing, and photography, Charles and Ray Eames are considered some of the most significant American designers of the 20th century.

Ray and Charles were married in 1941 and designed plywood furniture together. They made molded plywood chairs that Evans sold in 1946. A famous architectural critic, Esther McCoy, referred to these chairs as the ultimate chairs of the time.

Le Corbusier

Known also as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, this Swiss-born architect was not just gifted in this type of design but he was also a designer, sculptor, and painter. Although he studied classical architecture, he was always interested in learning about other types of culture. As an architect, Le Corbusier integrated his own heritage along with modernism.

Most buildings designed by him are constructed on the basis of five principles that continue to be followed even today: external walls should be glazed; terrace roofs should also function as roof gardens, columns and beams should form a structural framework, placing concrete columns in place of supporting walls rather than other types, and there should be no structural constraints.

Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray carved a niche for herself in the male-oriented world of Modernism and architecture alike. Having achieved success as a furniture designer, she decided to pursue her love of architecture as a career, and without training, she created an iconic building that showcased warmth and comfort.

Until the late ’60s, she was not recognized for her work, but she was an inspiration to the Modernist and Art Deco movements and continues to be.

Eero Saarinen

In the 1950s, Eero Saarinen, an American architect born in Finland, was one of the biggest pioneers in exploring the depths of architectural design in the country.

Throughout his life, he designed large buildings such as churches and chapels. He also built the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – and a red-bricked cylinder chapel.

Famous Mid-Century Modern Buildings That Shaped the Future of Architecture Design

We’ve included some of the most notable buildings that emerged during the movement below:

  • Lovell Beach House built in 1926 by Architect Rudolph M. Schindler
  • Eames House, Case Study House No. 8 built in 1949 by Architects Charles and Ray Eames
  • Glass House built in 1949 by Architect Philip Johnson
  • Farnsworth House built in 1951 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
  • Villa Mairea built in 1939 by Architect Alvar Aalto
  • Villa Savoye built in 1931 by Architect Le Corbusier
  • Frederick C. Robie House built in 1909 by Architect Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Schröder House built in 1924 by Gerrit Rietveld
  • Bauhaus building built in 1925 by Walter Gropius

Final Thoughts

With the development of suburban America, mid-century modern builds evolved. You can find mid-century modern homes in virtually every town and in every state in the US.

Palm Springs, however, has one of the largest collections of mid-century modern homes. The world’s most famous mid-century modern architects built homes, hotels, motels, and other structures can be found in this area and Palm Springs, and many homeowners are building new homes while still being influenced by the style.

FAQs

What’s the difference between mid-century and mid-century modern?

Mid-century and mid-century modern are two distinct and different styles. While mid-century modern refers to the design movement that became popular after WWII in 1945, Modern Design originated in the 1930s.

Which city has the most mid-century modern architecture?

Palm Springs is known for its abundance of mid-century modern architecture, and its reputation is well-deserved. In the desert oasis, you’ll find exemplars of architectural gems in this style including Elvis’s Honeymoon Hideaway.

Which are the best books on mid-century Modern architecture?

There are many excellent books that have been published to inform and educate about the mid-century architectural movement. Some of the books we recommend include Julius Shulman. Modernism Rediscovered, Between Earth and Heaven, The architecture of John Lautner – Rizzoli, Case Study Houses, The Complete CSH Program, and Neutra. Complete Works.