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A Mid-Century Modern Book Tour

By Stuart Mitchner

The most surprising stop on the tour of Midwestern cities my father treated me to when I was 12 was Racine, Wisconsin, home of the headquarters of Johnson Wax. Looking forward to Chicago with its skyscrapers, I wanted to drive on. “Just wait, you’ll see,” my father said. What I saw and was amazed by was a city of the future created by Frank Lloyd Wright. After Wright’s otherworldly Research Tower, skyscrapers seemed temporarily passé, so very 1950s. I left thinking of architects as writers whose works are big enough to live in.

Wright’s Vision

Wright’s cover design for Modern Architecture: Being the Kahn Lectures for 1930 would have charmed me then much as it does now fronting a new edition introduced by Neil Levine (Princeton University Press 2008). Truth be told, I still have an adolescent’s love-at-first-sight response to the blending of soft greens, oranges, and yellows in a work that turns geometry into poetry; it could be the template for another much more elaborate city of the future. According to the publisher, Modern Architecture is “a work of savvy self-promotion, in which Wright not only advanced his own concept of an organic architecture but also framed it as having anticipated by decades — and bettered — what he saw as the reductive modernism of his European counterparts.”

Rockwell Meets Saarinen

Another book from Princeton with a striking cover design is Kristina Wilson’s Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Power in Design (2021). If the wordy subtitle sounds somewhat uninviting, the graceful, stylishly dressed woman offsets it, the same way the sample of Norman Rockwell Americana facing the author’s introduction offers a disarmingly humorous point of entry. Taken from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post (May 16, 1959), “at the end of the period under consideration,” the scene is centered on a sheepish, disheveled man in a red robe, striped pajamas, and slippers, slumped in an Eero Saarinen Womb Chair, keeping a low profile while his wife, son, and two daughters “file out of the house” on their way to church.

The photograph of the stylish woman on the cover originally appeared in Ebony, the African American Life, a connection stressed in the text by contrasting the two magazines’ differing presentations of the same products to White and Black audiences. On architecturaldigest.com, Katherine Burns Olson notices overtones “both radical and racial” as Wilson makes “heretofore largely unexplored connections between race, gender, and modernist decor.”

Painting on a Glass Canvas

One of the best illustrations of the architectural synthesis of man-made material and nature is the cover of Cristina A. Ross and Jeffrey Matz’s Midcentury Houses Today (Monacelli Press 2014), from a photograph by Michael Biondo and a design by Lorenzo Ottaviani. The visual music that trees and glass make in this piece of architectural cinema is sustained throughout, with autumnal colors beautifully in evidence. The 16 houses, all located in the architect’s mecca of New Canaan, Connecticut, were both conceived and occupied by Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes, Landis Gores, Edward Durrell Stone, and others.

An Atlas and Sourcebook

Dominic Bradbury’s Atlas of Mid-Century Modern Houses (Phaidon Press 2019) is an immense global survey of more than 400 mid-century homes from more than 290 architects, including work by Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra, Alvar Aalto, and Oscar Niemeyer as well as noteworthy but virtually unknown houses in Australia, Africa, and Asia. Also edited by Bradbury, Mid-Century Modern Design: A Complete Sourcebook (Thames & Hudson 2020) is a hefty, if more compact, compendium of MCM design and architecture, with examples of everything from furniture and lighting to ceramics and textiles to graphics and posters to interior design and architecture. There are over 1,000 illustrations representing classic designs and rarities, as well as entries on nearly 100 major innovators. An additional illustrated dictionary features hundreds more influential mid-century designers, manufacturers, schools, and movements. The book is organized into three parts —”Media and Masters,” with six sections on applied arts; “Houses and Interiors,” featuring 20 seminal homes and their furnishings; and an “A-Z of Designers and Makers,” complete with 13 specially commissioned essays by renowned experts.

Marrying MCM

Following my marriage to a Los Angeles girl, the West Coast sequel to a bohemian Union Square wedding reception was held in a Mid-Century Modern ranch house in Mandeville Canyon, complete with a swimming pool and a spectacular view of the city through enormous sliding glass doors. Flash forward to fall 2023, and my wife and I are binging on films and series with LA settings, notably Netflix’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Even though I have an undaunted New York City lover’s instinctive resistance to the MCM style, I find myself admiring the title character Mickey Haller’s house on El Mirador Drive. Every evening Haller (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) comes back to his Baldwin Hills sanctuary and sits down to dinner with the lights of the city spread out in the distance, I think “I could live in that house.” The work of Kemper Nomland Sr. and Jr., designers of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Haller’s house is a showcase of the Nomlands’ architectural style: built of concrete, glass, and wood, it has a spacious open floor plan and minimalist decorative furnishings, with numerous sustainable features, such as solar panels and a rainwater harvesting system.

Atomic Ranch

Given my wife’s distinctive sense of style, I knew right away which interior she’d respond to in Atomic Ranch: Design Ideas for Stylish Ranch Homes (Gibbs Smith 2006) by Michelle Gringeri-Brown, with photographs by Jim Brown. True to form, she connected with the “Kitchen Kollectibles” chapter, which features a colorful and imaginatively arranged display of Fiesta and Bauerware like the pieces she had collected in the past.

Gringeri-Brown’s introduction (“Architecture’s Underdog”) promises a book that shows “there’s more to America’s architectural stepchild than meets the eye.” According to the publisher, Atomic Ranch is “an in-depth exploration of post-World War II residential architecture in America. Mid-century ranches (1946-1970) range from the decidedly modern gable-roofed Joseph Eichler tracts in the San Francisco Bay area and butterfly wing houses in Palm Springs, Florida, to the unassuming brick or stucco L-shaped ranches and split-levels so common throughout the United States.” Founders and publishers of the quarterly Atomic Ranch magazine, the authors “extol the virtues of the tract, split-level, rambler home and its many unique qualities: private front facades, open floor plans, secluded bedroom wings, walls of glass, and an easy-living lifestyle. There are updated homes with high-end Italian kitchens, terrazzo floors, and modern furniture as well as homeowner renovations.” The 25 homes showcased in Atomic Ranch are the subject of “before and after shots, design-tip sidebars, and a thorough resource index.”

Returning to Wright

While cleaning out a closet full of memorabilia, old letters, photos, scrapbooks, and manuscripts dating back to the summer my father took me on that tour of Midwestern cities, I found a junior high English paper about the powerful impression Wright’s artistry made on me during our visit to the Johnson Wax headquarters. In the paper’s lone compound sentence, I wrote: “The amazing thing about this building is that its tower, which rises 15 stories from the ground, is supported completely by one central core which is only eight feet in diameter.” Next to that stunning sentence, the teacher wrote “very good,” and the paper received an “A.”

When Frank Lloyd Wright was given mixed grades on his design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, with some artists claiming that the design would distract from, rather than display, their art, he said, “I am sufficiently familiar with the incubus of habit that besets your minds to understand that you all know too little of the nature of the mother art — architecture.”

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