There is no such thing as Mid-Century Modern?

Architect Thomas Wall's take on "Is this MCM?"

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Above: The Kunsthalle Bielefeld art museum in Bielefeld, Germany Designed by Philip Johnson in 1968. Photo: Fieser Hund

The world has a jones for mid-century modern. This is a statement of fact. Everywhere from Europe to Asia and of course, across America has fallen in a rather torrid love affair with this particular design style. But what is Mid-Century Modern exactly?

This is a question that seems to come up quite often in round about ways on websites and forums where someone will inevitably post a furniture piece and they will be met with a deluge of arrogant and seemingly angry posts denouncing the poster as a moron.

I once saw an appraiser beat another man at an antique mall with a hairpin table leg for not recognizing his chair as simply mid-century and not modern.

Ok maybe that didn’t happen, but the fact remains that in the world of mid-century “enthusiasts” there exists a ubiquitous debate over an items label.

“Is this mid-century modern?”

Well guess what? No matter what is decided by the group, or the individual, you are all wrong. That’s right kids. The simple fact is, that “Mid-Century Modern” does not exist as a stylistic distinction.

Mind blowing huh? It is, however, true. Let’s look, for a minute, at the meaning of the words “mid-century modern.” I know that the correct use of words has almost become taboo in America, but there are a few of us still holding onto the idea that universal communication is important. So with that in mind, let me break down our favorite phrase into two parts.

lax theme MCM Daily editorial modernism

Los Angeles’ Theme Building: 1961 by Pereira & Luckma. This is Googie style, not Mid Century Modern


Mid-Century: Ok, that’s a no brainer, right? It means the time period in the middle of the century. In our case in particular, the exact time period is a little hazy, and most likely a good topic for another article, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say it means 1930-1969.

Modern: Well, that’s easy too right? Modern. Who doesn’t know the meaning of “modern.” It means, well, it means modern, ya know. Like not old.

And herein lies the rub.

Modernism is notoriously hard to define simply because it is an all encompassing term that represents a collective of stylistic endeavors that took place after the turn of the 20th century. Art, literature, design, theatre, every conceivable form of expression had its “modernists” and the only unifying factor was a desire to do something new! Modernism is not a style as we believe it to be. Modernism does not describe a house or a piece of furniture in the way that we tend to use it. Modernism describes a mind-set, a goal. Modernism represents a revolution.

Schroder House Garret Rietveld MCM Daily editorial modernism

Schroder House by Garret Rietveld: 1924. This is De Stijl not Mid Century Modern.

In the late 19th century, artists and writers, composers and musicians, anyone with a creative bone in their body all wanted to break away from the staunch conservativism of Victorian aesthetics. The only parameter for something to be “modern” was for it to be different than the status quo.

When Le Corbusier drew his sketch for the Domino House in 1914, it was earth shattering. Coming from the age of highly detailed homes with intricate inlay and plaster work, the concept of something so simple and *gasp* mass produced was an insult to many people’s sensibilities. However, this simple concept led to what we consider to be contemporary architecture today. In fact, you may be hard pressed to find any famous living architect in the world who doesn’t credit LC for the development of contemporary architecture.

corbusier MCM Daily editorial modernism

Corbusier’s Dom-ino House: 1914. The Dom-ino house is actually a play on words. Not only does it appear to be dominoes stacked on top of one another, but the name also plays at the Latin word “Domus” meaning home.

And what he was doing was modern.

It broke the mold.

It was new.

Philip Johnson glass house MCM Daily editorial modernism

Philip Johnson’s Glass House: 1949. Not Mid-Century Modern. This is International Style. Photo: Photo:

So what is Mid-Century Modern?

Well, if we are to look at the definition, it is a misnomer. While there were many wonderful and fabulous designs from the period, and while I myself adore the aesthetic that arose in the middle of the century, one cannot in good conscious call it modernism simply because it is not.

It may be Dadaism, it may be Brutalism. It may be Googie or it may be surreal.

But the fact remains, that it is not modern.

Mid-Century Modernism does not exist.

MCM Daily editorial modernism

Tom is an architect living in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife Megan, his two sons Henry and Fletcher, his dog, and he begrudgingly accepts the presence of two cats as well. He is a partner/owner of Mitchell Wall Architecture and Design and is one of their lead designers. He got his undergraduate degree from Cornell University and his masters from the University of Kansas. While getting his masters, Tom had the opportunity to spend six months in Copenhagen where he fell in love with modernism. Upon returning to the US, he married Megan, and they moved to St. Louis where they purchased a home they lovingly refer to as “Little Versailles” (pronounced ver-sales intentionally) and have been working on ever since. They have a collection of modernist furniture and currently own two Clairtone Project Gs which Tom is also restoring. Photo: Four-Walls Photography


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That One Guy
That One Guy
6 years ago

If it wasn’t in a case study house or would not have been in a case study house it’s not MCM.

William Green
William Green
6 years ago

Having been born in 1952, educated in the applied arts, I recall when I first read, “MCM”. A friend explained the acronym. I appreciated the reference of my past years as a moniker for many things. It’s a human need to catch things of an era of times for many reasons. We can all split hairs into International Style, Brutalism, etc., and the purist in me says… Oh yes.

6 years ago

This is a classic case of writing an article with click bait for the lead and then the author unable to convince anyone other than himself. As they say in baseball… Swing and a miss!

6 years ago

Nope. Too precious, not buying it. Your argument is actually an argument for evaporating all labels. (Can’t say something’s Victorian because… ). Anyway, you don’t appear from your photo to have been around at the turn of the mid-century. That may have something to do with your getting it all wrong.