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The mid-century modernism movement lives on in the 21st century


One of these years, I'd like to attend the Palm Springs Modernism Week in Palm Springs, California. This annual celebration of mid-century modern architecture draws design enthusiasts from around the world and features home tours, film screenings, lectures and more.

In the book "Palm Springs Modern" the author says, "Palm Springs came into its own architecturally after World War II when it became a haven for such modernists as Richard Neutra, who was already practicing in the International Style in Los Angeles. Many other distinguished architects have left distinctive marks in the desert including Albert Frey, John Lautner, E. Stewart Williams, William F. Cody, John Porter Clark and Craig Ellwood.

By the late 1940s, Spanish anything was considered yawningly old fashioned and provincial. The Bauhaus teachings of Walter Gropius, the sophisticated elegance of Mies van der Rohe and the machine age functionalism of Le Corbusier were revolutionizing architecture. They made modern architecture seem light, bright, sophisticated and affordable. The building technology that was being developed in the Los Angeles basin and the increasing availability of materials had a direct effect on the architects and construction industry in the desert just hours away.

The best description of mid-century modern is that it is a design movement in interior, product, graphic design, architecture and urban development that was popular from roughly 1945 to 1969.

Mid-century modernism was appreciated not only by architects, but by a wide group of appreciators of the changes being made in society, changes that didn't look back so much as to the future. These changes were for an equalitarian culture and based on the Bauhaus's values of progressive thinking and attitudes. The works were concerned with simplicity and functionality.

Our own city of St. Louis has homes by Frank Lloyd Wright, who believed and preached that less is more and form follows function, but that form is function. But St. Louis also had its own nationally known modernist architects such as Gyo Obata, Ralph Fournier, William Bernoudy, Robert Elkington and Charles King. The Arch, Lambert Airport and the Climatron are all part of the modernist movement as are several of our religious institutions such as the COCA building (originally the B'Nai Amoona synagogue), the Priory and the list goes on.

A few years ago the St. Louis Art Museum had an exhibition entitled “St. Louis Modern.” The exhibition was curated by David Conradsen, Curator of Decorative Arts at the museum. This exhibition explored the dynamic period in our region's history (1935-1965) when St. Louis based architects, artists and designers made innovative contributions to mid-century modern design. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Eero Saarinen's modernist masterpiece, the Gateway Arch, the exhibition featured more than 150 modern design objects drawn from the Museum's collections and from more than 30 museums and private lenders around the country. Many of the works were shown for the first time.

Organized chronologically, "St. Louis Modern" traced the emergence of design in the early 20th century through an exploration of several themes: machine age, aerodynamic design, mass market design, the influence of architects and tastemakers, embellishments and Scandinavian design.

The exhibition celebrated 30 years of modernism in the built environment of St. Louis, including significant architectural commissions, public sculpture, murals and stained glass. It featured both rare and renowned examples of mass-produced designs that were popularized through exhibitions at St. Louis department stores and museums--exhibitions that promoted ideas about good design and helped make designed products more accessible to St. Louis consumers. Architects, artists and designers featured in the exhibition included Frederick Dunn, Charles and Ray Eames, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson and Dorothy Liebes.

Modern design's embrace of innovative materials and streamlined styling was captured by one particularly exciting object, a 1954 Chevrolet Corvette. Representing the first model year that was manufactured in St. Louis, the Corvette underscores the key role of the automobile in the growth of modern suburbia in postwar St. Louis.

St. Louis has many neighborhoods featuring mid-century modern architectural design. My friend Cynthia Prost, President and CEO of the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis, lives in one of these neighborhoods. Her neighborhood was built in 1955 by residential architects Ralph Fournier and Burton Duenke (who built the Tan-Tar-A resort in the Lake of the Ozarks).These homes were meant to replicate California Atomic Ranch Style and be affordable to GIs to purchase the homes with the GI bill after WW II.

Prost says, "What I love about the mid-century modern design of my home is how the architect sought to bring nature into the house by installing floor to ceiling windows, limestone fireplaces and California redwood walls and paneling. The single floor layout welcomes light in even on the cloudiest day. Mid-century modern is the same today as it was in the 1950s because it is based on original principles of design and livability and less on a style. It is interesting to note that all the original homes that were built in this subdivision are still intact. No tear downs in this, the Ridgewood subdivision, only lovingly restored homes being brought to life by the next generation of MCM enthusiasts."

Mid-century modernism went somewhat out of style for a while, but now is more in vogue than ever.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.