Bringing Mid-Century Modernism Home

Associated with clean, minimal and elegant design, Mid-Century Modernism is an aesthetic temperament that emerged in post-war America. It was inspired by the International and Bauhaus movements, presenting organic shapes and textures with a retro twist – think Mad Men, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Tulip Armchair. While associated with architecture and design, you can find Mid-Century Modernism in visual art made both now and then.

Mid-Century Modernism was enabled by technological advances made during the Second World War. Psychologically, it reflected a culture hankering for a world free from complexity, horror and ugliness. In the best of this movement, designers and artists achieved a weightlessness – pictorial harmony, unified composition, finely tuned palettes. Industrialization in America meant Mid-Century Modernism could be executed at scale, allowing households across the country to take home chairs, lamps and household appliances inspired by the style. 

Fine art and design tend to be pitted against one another, the former “serious” and the latter “superficial”. Mid-Century Modernism was an affront to this. Artists rejoiced in the clarity and discipline of design principles while designers pursued the philosophical grandeur of fine art. Finnish-American architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen pledged war against the tangle of leg chairs beneath a table, saying they made for “an ugly confusing, unrestful world. I wanted to clear up the slum of legs. I wanted to make the chair all one thing again.”

In art, Mid-Century Modernism does away with excessive ornamentation in favour of harmony, simplicity and boldness. By creating the perfect composition, living room or chair, Mid-Century Modernism professed a hope that still resonates: excellent design, available to all, can make for a better world. 

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