One of these years I would love to attend Palm Springs Modernism Week in Palm Springs, California. This annual celebration of mid-century modern architecture attracts design enthusiasts from around the world and features home tours, film screenings, talks and more.
In the book “Palm Springs Modern”, the author says: “Palm Springs took off architecturally after World War II when it became a haven for modernists such as Richard Neutra, who was already practicing the style international in L.A. Many other of the distinguished architects left distinctive marks in the desert, including Albert Frey, John Lautner, E. Stewart Williams, William F. Cody, John Porter Clark and Craig Ellwood.
In the late 1940s, anything Spanish was seen as gaping and provincial. The Bauhaus teachings of Walter Gropius, the sophisticated elegance of Mies van der Rohe and the machine age functionalism of Le Corbusier revolutionized architecture. They made modern architecture light, bright, sophisticated and affordable. The building technology that was developing in the Los Angeles basin and the increasing availability of materials had a direct effect on architects and the construction industry in the desert just hours away.
Mid-Century Modern is best described as a movement in interior design, product, graphic design, architecture, and urban development that was popular from around 1945 to 1969.
Mid-century modernism was appreciated not only by architects, but by a wide group of people who appreciated the changes taking place in society, changes that looked not so much backwards as towards the future. These changes were for an egalitarian culture and based on Bauhaus values of progressive thinking and attitudes. The work focused on simplicity and functionality.
Our own town of St. Louis has homes of Frank Lloyd Wright, who believed and preached that less is more and form follows function, but form follows function. But St. Louis also had its own nationally known modernist architects such as Gyo Obata, Ralph Fournier, William Bernoudy, Robert Elkington and Charles King. The Ark, Lambert Airport and the Climatron are all part of the modernist movement, as are many of our religious institutions such as the COCA Building (originally the B’Nai Amoona Synagogue), the Priory and the list goes on.
A few years ago, the St. Louis Art Museum held an exhibit called “St. Louis Modern. The exhibition was curated by David Conradsen, curator of decorative arts at the museum. This exhibition explored the dynamic period in our region’s history (1935-1965) when St. Louis-based architects, artists, and designers made innovative contributions to mid-century modern design. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Eero Saarinen’s modernist masterpiece, the Gateway Arch, the exhibition featured more than 150 modern design objects drawn from the collections of the Museum and more than 30 museums and private lenders across the country. Many works were shown for the first time.
Organized chronologically, “St. Louis Modern” traced the emergence of design in the early 20th century through the exploration of several themes: the machine age, aerodynamic design, consumer design, the influence of architects and creators of taste, embellishments and Scandinavian design.
The exhibit celebrated 30 years of modernism in the built environment of St. Louis, including major architectural commissions, public sculptures, murals, and stained glass. It featured rare and renowned examples of mass-produced designs that were popularized by exhibits in department stores and museums in St. Louis – exhibits that promoted ideas about good design and helped make products designed more accessible to consumers in Saint-Louis. Architects, artists and designers featured in the exhibition included Frederick Dunn, Charles and Ray Eames, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson and Dorothy Liebes.
Modern design’s embrace of innovative materials and streamlined styling was captured by one particularly exciting object, a 1954 Chevrolet Corvette. Representing the first model year built in St. Louis, the Corvette underscores the key role Automobile in the Growth of Modern Postwar St. Louis Suburbs.
St. Louis has many neighborhoods featuring mid-century modern architectural design. My friend Cynthia Prost, President and CEO of the St. Louis Arts and Education Council, lives in one of these neighborhoods. Its neighborhood was built in 1955 by residential architects Ralph Fournier and Burton Duenke (who built the Tan-Tar-A complex in the Lake of the Ozarks). These homes were meant to replicate the California Atomic Ranch style and be affordable for GIs to buy the homes with the GI bill after WWII.
Prost says, “What I love about the mid-century modern design of my home is how the architect sought to bring nature into the house by installing floor-to-ceiling windows, limestone fireplaces and California redwood walls and paneling. even on the cloudiest day. Mid-Century Modern is the same today as it was in the 1950s, as it is based on original principles of design and habitability and less on styling. It is worth noting that all of the original homes that were built in this subdivision are still intact. No demolition in this Ridgewood subdivision, just homes lovingly restored and brought to life by the next generation of MCM enthusiasts.
Mid-century modernism went somewhat out of fashion for a while, but it’s now more in vogue than ever.
Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for over forty years on numerous arts-related councils.