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The decades after World War II launched a new age of confidence and optimism in many parts of the world. Unprecedented prosperity led to a consumer boom in both America and Europe that allowed ordinary people from California to Copenhagen to live better than ever before. The buildings and interiors designed in the late 1940s and the 1950s reflected a renewed, forward-looking spirit in airy, open spaces and clean-lined furnishings. Rooted in the modern movement of the early twentieth century, the period's most innovative designs were developed for the most basic and personal of buildings the home.
Houses became the world's design laboratory for a simple reason: there was a dire need for new living units as millions of soldiers returned from the war to start careers and families. In the United States, for example, the Great Depression and the war had slowed housing starts; in 1944 a mere 114,000 new single-family houses were built. The shortage was so acute in some cities that Quonset huts, cars, chicken coops, and street trolleys were converted into temporary shelter.
The construction industry quickly responded by building houses using fast-track methods developed during the war. Leading this effort was the builder William Levitt, who applied assembly-line methods to manufacture a subdivision in Hempstead, Long Island. Levittown, as the community came to be known, was an instant smash. Thousands of two-bedroom, one-bathroom houses sold for $7,990, and for the first buyers, the developer threw in a television and a washing machine. As new roads and highways opened up vast tracts of land outside American cities, other builders soon copied Levitt's formula. Buying ahouse became as easy as buying a car.
The huge demand for new housing led architects and suburban developers to propose a change in style to go along with the change in attitude. Modern warfare helped promote modern design by fostering acceptance of experimental materials and technologies. Buoyed by the victory of war and a booming economy, many consumers were attracted to the idea of starting afresh in spaces as sleek as a fighter plane. Modern men and women, after all, deserved something more daring than a cozy cottage and a picket fence. Even Levitt considered hiring the California modernist Richard Neutra to design some houses but concluded that the Viennese émigré's flat-roofed, stripped-down architecture would not sell.
Proponents of the modern house took advantage of consumer confidence to boost their cause. They played up its associations with openness and freedom, comparing glassy walls and rooms without barriers to the ideals for which the war was fought. "A continuing struggle for growing liberty" is how the architectural historian Talbot Hamlin characterized modern architecture in a 1945 issue of House and Garden.
Similar support of the avant-garde had been championed decades earlier. In 1932 New York's Museum of Modern Art staged an exhibition, The International Style, to publicize the progressive housing designed by architects in Europe. Just a few years later, three of those founding fathers of modernism Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe departed Nazi Germany for academic jobs in the United States and soon opened their own offices. They joined other European architects who had come to America in the 1920s and 1930s Neutra and R. M. Schindler from Austria, Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero from Finland, Albert Frey from Switzerland to spread the gospel of high modernism.
The arrival of these important figures from the European modern movement helped create a climate of change. Influenced by their example, a younger generation of American designers began pushing modernism in a new direction. From Charles Eames in California to Paul Rudolph in Florida, architects developed a streamlined vocabulary that was less exacting than the severe white boxes of the Bauhaus. Their lightweight, modular houses, often built from standardized components and synthetic materials developed during the war, symbolized the era's buoyant mood. Flexible, flowing interiors and a strong indoor-outdoor relationship added to the dynamism of their structures.
Instrumental in promoting this new approach were publications such as how-to books and decorating guides. Particularly influential on the West Coast was Arts + Architecture, a Los Angeles-based magazine edited by John Entenza. In 1945 Entenza sponsored a program he called Case Study Houses to encourage new ways of thinking about postwar living. Manufacturers donated prefabricated components for the prototypes' construction in hopes that such systems would be embraced as economical alternatives to wood and brick. The public was invited to view the houses before they were occupied.
Elegantly minimal, the Case Study Houses represented some of the most sophisticated architecture of the postwar era. Many of the projects were published in European magazines and copied abroad. But their modernism never took hold among builders and buyers. Most of the prototypes were built in steel, a material demanding more skilled labor than wood required, and thus were too expensive for the average homeowner. The era's economy favored the cookie-cutter approach of suburban builders, which did not allow much room for individualistic expression. By 1955 Levitt-style subdivisions accounted for seventy-five percent of new housing starts in the United States.
Despite the public's preference for Cape Cods and colonials, several leading home builders successfully adapted modern architecture to the mass market. Joseph Eichler and Edward Hawkins, both admirers of Frank Lloyd Wright, introduced fluid, indoor-outdoor spaces and structural expression to subdivisions outside San Francisco and Denver. Robert Davenport similarly applied a modernist vocabulary to tract housing in a suburb of Washington, D.C. On the west coast of Florida, Philip Hiss built second homes with flat roofs, overhangs, and canopies for vacationing midwesterners.
Where modern design made the most impact was inside the home. In the 1950s liberal, middle-class Americans relaxed on organic plywood and fiberglass chairs, dug their toes into Scandinavian rya rugs, dined on sculptural ceramic dishes, and swiftly cleaned their plastic-laminate topped tables. Promoted by the Museum of Modern Art and sold by leading department stores, much of this "good design" was created by young architects and designers who had helped the war effort. They eagerly applied materials and methods used in military applications to create light and comfortable furniture that mirrored the shape of the human body, such as the molded plywood and fiberglass chairs of Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen.
While American at heart, the midcentury era also spawned innovations abroad as countries throughout Europe rebuilt their industries after the war. Scandinavia, in particular, produced modern furniture, textiles, glassware, and ceramics. Based on handicraft traditions, exports such as Danish teak furniture appealed to a wide spectrum of Americans as a bridge over the gulf between contemporary and conventional styles.
Leading European architects, like their American counterparts, became involved in the design of furnishings, treating the engineering of chairs, tables, and cabinets as seriously as buildings. In 1952, for example, the French architect Jean Prouvé, who had devised innovative prefabricated building systems after the war, collaborated with the designer Charlotte Perriand and the artist Sonia Delaunay to devise colorful shelving for student housing in Paris. Some custom-designed pieces were subsequently put into production. The Danish architect Arne Jacobsen created his curvaceous Egg and Swan chairs in 1958 for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, but they were soon mass produced by Fritz Hansen.
American and European companies also began commissioning architects to create furnishings for instant mass production. In 1941 Hans Knoll tapped Jens Risom to create a line of chairs with upholstery woven from parachute webbing. Five years later, Herman Miller appointed George Nelson as its first design director, beginning a long tradition of product innovations. In the early 1950s the Italian architect Gio Ponti created chairs to be made by Cassina as well as glassware for Venini, bathroom fixtures for Ideal-Standard, and a host of decorative objects for other companies. Soon furniture design emerged as a profession in its own right. Leading specialists included the English designer Robin Day, who won MoMA's 1948 competition for low-cost furniture, and his wife, the textile designer Lucienne Day. Through their work for Hille and Heal's, they came to be regarded as Britain's version of Charles and Ray Eames.
In addition to furnishings, midcentury design's greatest influence was on the planning of the house. By the mid-1950s ideas that modern architects had proposed in the late 1940s had trickled down to standard-issue suburban homes. Kitchens were the biggest recipients of high-style experiments, becoming larger and more open with push-button appliances built into the walls. Living rooms turned more informal and often incorporated the dining area into one unobstructed space. Spawned by the proliferation of television sets, the family room emerged from the basement as a second living room on the house's main level.
The average homeowner, however, never wholeheartedly embraced modern design. Sensing the public's distaste, magazines began denouncing what House Beautiful Editor Elizabeth Gordon called the "stripped-down emptiness" of the International Style. "No wonder you feel uneasy and repelled," wrote Gordon in "The Threat to the Next America" in the April 1953 issue. "They [architects and designers] are trying to convince you that you can appreciate beauty only if you suffer." Voicing concern over the "unlivability" of "modernistic" homes, she pointed to the "self-chosen elite who are trying to tell us what we should like and how we should live." Gordon went on to characterize architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier as dictators seeking regimentation and control.
Modernism may not have been completely accepted at home, but it was considered an asset for businesses seeking power and prestige. By the 1950s the sleek glass-and-metal facade had become the preferred style of North American corporations. Early examples include the Saarinens' General Motors Technical Center (1956), Lever House (1952) by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building (1958). Inside these headquarters, desks were eventually replaced by office systems, derived from the modular shelving units designed for the home. What began as a domestic revolution soon spread to businesses, schools, government buildings, even churches. In war-torn Europe, entire towns and cities were rebuilt in the new modern mode.
Today this once-revolutionary style is considered historic. Mass-produced vintage furniture fetches record-setting prices at auction, and manufacturers have reissued classic midcentury designs. Houses filled with plywood and plastic laminates and entire subdivisions are being preserved as landmarks. This renewed interest is rooted in the appeal of an era marked by unparalleled energy and boundless possibility.
Copyright © 2000 by Archetype Press, Inc.