What Is Mid-Century Modern Architecture?

A mid-century modern exterior.

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In This Article

Best-known for its sharp, clean lines, minimal decoration, and connection with nature, mid-century modern architecture is an American architectural movement that kicked off after World War II. Inspired by high prairie style—which was developed by infamous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright—mid-century modern homes are characterized by very wide, low footprints with large, open spaces, floor-to-ceiling windows, and an emphasis on bringing the outdoors in. Despite their simplicity homes, high prairie homes typically have more decorative features than mid-century modern homes—meaning, mid-century modern has an even simpler look and feel than high prairie.

Although mid-century modern architecture boomed all across America from 1945 to 1969, its seen a major resurgence in recent years. Interior decorating styles, like Scandinavian design and Danish Modern, have made mid-century modern style accessible to millions of newer generation homeowners.

It's important to note: mid-century modern was originally considered a collection of homes built after World War II, rather than a specific style. Today, however, "mid-century modern" often denotes a particular building or decorating style.

History

Taking influences from the International and Bauhaus design movements, as well as American high prairie-style homes, mid-century modern architecture was brought to the United States by European architects fleeing Nazi Germany. Some original mid-century modern designers include Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breur; Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of American architecture, actually trained many mid-century modern architects.

After World War II, the American public put a major emphasis on lifestyle, family time, and spending time in nature. Mid-century modern homes built across America's suburbs reflected those ideals, with large windows that provided views of homeowners' backyards and golf courses; open living spaces where the whole family could entertain; and technological upgrades—especially in the kitchen—so homeowners spent less time cleaning, and more time with their families.

During its original boom from 1945 to 1969, mid-century modern architecture divided into three distinct styles:

  1. International: Inspired by international architects—as the name implies—this version of mid-century modern architecture was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus movement. Homes were extremely simple, with little to no decoration, and were typically finished with stucco.
  2. Contemporary: The most popular mid-century modern style, contemporary homes featured clean lines, floor-to-ceiling windows, and more natural, organic feeling materials, like wood, stone, and brick. Many of these homes have asymmetrical exteriors with windows extending to the roofline and exposed ceilings and beams in the interior.
  3. Organic: A smaller subset of mid-century modern architects put an emphasis on blending their homes into their natural surroundings. Rather than building structures with sharp lines and right angles, they embraced homes with more natural shapes. Because organic mid-century modern homes were so heavily influenced by their natural surroundings, an organic mid-century modern home in a forest would look entirely different than an organic mid-century modern home in the desert.

As previously mentioned, "mid-century modern" originally referred to a group of housing and structures built between 1945 and 1969. Many of today's mid-century modern homes have retained the original architectural styles and inspirations, but "mid-century modern" can also refer to an interior decorating style.

A gabled roof on a mid-century modern home.
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Must-Have Elements

Although there are three versions of mid-century modern architecture, most of the mid-century modern homes in the United States share these elements:

Clean Lines and Geometric Shapes

Straight lines and right angles are essential to mid-century modern architecture. Although many modern ranch-style homes feature gabled roofs or asymmetrical facades, most mid-century modern homes have low, flat roofs with straight lines.

Floor-to-Ceiling Windows

Nature and lifestyle were emphasized in the original mid-century modern homes, so they were built with floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the yard, sliding glass doors, and many access points to the outdoors.

Changes in Elevation

Many mid-century modern homes are split-level, with short staircases connecting rooms throughout the house. Partial brick or glass walls, fireplaces centered in rooms, and cabinetry also add depth and variation in elevation in the homes' interiors.

Minimal Decoration

Although some mid-century modern styles are more ornate than others, simplicity is a key characteristic to the movement. Simple furnishings with clean lines and a muted color palette complement the homes' simple exteriors.

A mid-century modern interior.
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Access to the Outdoors

Connecting with nature is a key value in mid-century modern architecture, so most mid-century modern homes have multiple access points to the outdoors. In some homes, even single rooms have several doors and windows to access the outdoor living space.

Where to Find Mid-Century Modern Homes

The rise of mid-century modern homes coincides with the development of suburban America. When soldiers returned from World War II, they built mid-century homes all across the United States—meaning, you'll find high prairie and mid-century modern homes in virtually every town in every state in the U.S.

The largest collection of mid-century modern homes, however, can be seen in Palm Springs, California. Some of the world's most famous mid-century modern architects built homes, hotels, motels, and other structures in Palm Springs, and many homeowners building new construction replicate the style.