Photo by Rich Montalbano

Mid-Century Modern design came onto the scene before color television. But rather than appearing antiquated today, it inspires contemporary designers and homebuyers.

The popularity of Mid-Century Modern design continues to accelerate, confirmation that the masters who introduced the look in the ’40s and ’50s were visionary innovators. Decades later, the work of those architects, interior designers and furniture makers still appears fresh, and current expressions of modernism invariably build on the mid-century movement.

Sam Lubell, a leading authority on Mid-Century Modern design, whose books include Mid-Century Modern Travel Guide: West Coast USA and California Captured, believes the genre’s enduring appeal can be attributed to simple, elegant aesthetics, the success in reducing architecture to its most basic elements, and nostalgia. “Mid-Century Modern is a blend of technology, simplicity and a style that’s very ‘cool,’ for lack of a better word, enhancing people’s appreciation of it,” says Lubell. The writer suggests that vintage photographs from the era reveal how truly revolutionary Mid-Century Modern architects were. “Cars in the photos appear to have nothing to do with the houses. It’s hard to describe just how radical and ahead of their time they were,” he observes.

In the U.S., passions for Mid-Century Modern residential design burned first and most intensely in and around Los Angeles, responding to trends already underway in Europe, but not so elegantly applied to single-family residences. In a city where challenging established convention was not discouraged, disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright — pioneering architects Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and John Lautner — transformed residential aesthetics and attitudes.

The genesis of Mid-Century Modernism may have occurred in the City of Angels, but today’s epicenter of the style is Palm Springs, the desert resort city 100 miles east of L.A. Practically the entire municipality is a living museum of mid-century design, and that signature aesthetic has become as much a tourist attraction as Palm Springs’ legendary golf, tennis and shopping.

Every February, the community celebrates its architectural legacy with Modernism Week, where architects, designers and collectors from around the world draw inspiration from home tours, seminars, film screenings, and receptions in famous settings that include not just residences, but Mid-Century Modern hotels and restaurants.

Lisa Vossler Smith, who served as a volunteer for Modernism Week when it debuted in 2006 and was named executive director five years ago, reports the 2018 edition drew 126,000 people from 15 countries, more than double the attendance in 2015. She has observed an ever-increasing commitment by local residents to embrace their city’s architectural heritage and believes Modernism Week has profoundly influenced preservation efforts in Palm Springs and beyond. “Our goal is to educate visitors, so they can take back what they’ve learned to their own communities,” says Vossler Smith, who actively supports similar events across the country. 

Vossler Smith insists the fascination with Mid-Century Modern design is multigenerational, while conceding popular shows like Mad Men have contributed to the genre’s hip factor. “Clearly, there’s a sense of nostalgia for the baby boomer generation, but we find younger homebuyers are also attracted by the more simplistic, minimalistic lifestyle offered by these homes,” she says. “We’re now starting to explore new building projects informed by the mid-century design period,” says Modernism Week’s executive director, noting the influence of trailblazers such as Neutra and Schindler is evident in contemporary modern architecture.

While Vossler Smith admits Mid-Century Modernism is ideally suited to Southern California, she reports outstanding examples from the era are plentiful in places like Denver, Phoenix and Chicago. In Denver, real estate broker Adrian Kinney is a local expert on Mid-Century Modern homes, and his personal renovation of a Cliff May-designed residence reinforced his enthusiasm for quality design from that period. Finding some modernism too austere, Kinney was delighted to discover the warmth that many mid-century architects, like May, brought to their craft. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to educate everyone about what this modernism thing was all about!,” says the real estate professional.

“Buyers of Mid-Century Modern properties range from boomers to millennials, all wanting something different, functional and livable, with a sense of character,” says Kinney, who co-founded Denver’s own Modernism Show to draw attention to the Mile High City’s architectural assets. “After attending Palm Springs’ Modernism Week many times, I knew Denver needed to have one,” he says. Identifying more than 6,000 Mid-Century Modern homes in metro Denver, Kinney declares, “I want to showcase these to the world.”

Best known for its sugar-white beaches, the Gulf Coast city of Sarasota, Florida, shares a rich Mid-Century Modern heritage. Local broker Martie Lieberman of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty is recognized by both the real estate and architectural communities as an authority on the “Sarasota School of Architecture.”

Lieberman, who co-founded the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, is passionate about Mid-Century Modern homes and has made the sale of those properties her specialty.

A prefabricated home designed by legendary Mid-Century architect Cliff May, erected in 1955 in Denver.

Real estate broker Adrian Kinney restored this 1955 Cliff May property in Denver, fueling his passion for mid-century design.

Photos by Atom Stevens

Observing that many houses from the Sarasota School elicit a sense of delight at first glance, she suggests the interiors are equally impactful. “You’ll see some of the most sophisticated uses of space and light, which most people have never experienced,” she insists.

Architects like Paul Rudolph and Victor Lundy created low-slung, glass-ensconced homes that were a dramatic departure from the prevailing Mediterranean style, explains Lieberman, noting they attracted idealistic young designers to Sarasota in the ’50s and ’60s. “They thought they would change the world with their new ideas, new materials and a new architecture,” she says. According to the niche broker, newcomers to Sarasota are quickly won over by the community’s architectural legacy, and Lieberman reports that significant Mid-Century Modern homes can command premiums of 15 to 35 percent.

This originally appeared in Unique Homes Fall 2018


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