Home Design: The Mid-Century Modern Revival

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Beloved by Boomers and embraced by Millennials, mid-century modern architecture is making a comeback.

October 07, 2014

With their light-filled, open floor plans and emphasis on indoor/outdoor living, mid-century modern homes are finding a new fan base in the 21st century. Homebuyers are eagerly snapping up and renovating the original homes, while architects and builders look for ways to incorporate elements of mid-century modern into new homes.

“The layout of mid-century modern homes resonates with the younger generation, with the kitchen, dining, and living spaces all being contiguous,” says architect Hunter Fleetwood, founding principal of Fleetwood/Fernandez in Santa Monica, Calif. “And indoor/outdoor living is something that mid-century modern architects in Southern California really tried to build into their designs.”
 
“[These homes were introduced as] we were coming out of a period where more is more,” says Phil Kean, president of Phil Kean Designs, Winter Park, Fla. “Mid-century modern isn’t about extravagance; it celebrates the beauty of simple things like concrete block.” 
 
Kephart’s as-yet-unbuilt designs have a mid-century modern flavor. The master-down plans will appeal strongly to empty nesters, says architect Doug VanLerberghe. Illustration courtesy of Kephart
 
Mid-century modern is, in short, the opposite of fussy, and that’s what appeals to Millennials. “They’re after more simplicity and elegance and efficiency,” says Jim Cioffi, a Palm Springs, Calif.-based architect. 
 
George Hale, founder of H. Hudson Homes, specializes in building modern spec homes on infill sites in Portland, Ore. “If we have a unique lot or opportunity, we’ll sometimes do a mid-century modern house,” Hale says. 
 
He sees mid-century modernism as more of a movement than a style of architecture. “I try to take pieces off that movement,” Hale says. “I think of it as more timeless, as opposed to contemporary, which is always a snapshot in time.” 
 
Mid-century moderns are easy to live in because they reflect how we live today. In Portland, specifically, they pair well with the culture of companies like Nike, Adidas, and Columbia Sportswear. “[Portland’s] economy is highly design focused,” he says. “But truly, design is more of a focus in America than it has been in a long time. We have IKEA furniture, which is affordable high-design. And if Apple was a house, it would be mid-century modern.” 
 
This 3,677-square-foot home in Winter Park, Fla., is based on a design from the Phil Kean WAYCOOL collection. According to Kean, almost all of the WAYCOOL homes are inspired in some way by mid-century modern design. Photo: Stephen Allen
 
Most builders and architects identify Millennials as the dominant buyer segment for mid-century modern homes.
 
“At some level, we see virtually all demographics interested in it,” says Dave Kosco, senior principal and director of design for Bassenian Lagoni Architects, Newport Beach, Calif. “But we believe Millennials will be the group to really put modern back on the map for mass-produced housing, based on their specific [intention] to stand out and be different.”
 
At Woodson, a collection of single-family detached homes designed by Bassenian Lagoni for TRI Pointe Homes in Playa Vista, Calif., the primary buyer is age 35 or younger. Price points are $1 million-plus. TRI Pointe has sold 50 homes at Woodson since opening in February 2014.
 
Jeffrey Tohl of The Architecture Studio, Los Angeles, has renovated a number of mid-century modern homes. “It’s a nice medium ground for people who aren’t necessarily ready for modern but want something much different than traditional.” Tohl thinks the appeal is in “clean open spaces with warmer materials and cabinets that make it less severe than more minimal, hard-line modernist homes.”
 

Mid-century or this century?

The single-family detached homes at Woodson in Playa Vista, Calif., have a look that architect Dave Kosco refers to as “this century modern,” rather than mid-century modern. Photo: Applied Photography
 
The prevalence of contemporary residential design in the United States bodes well for mid-century modern making a strong comeback, says Doug VanLerberghe, principal and project manager of the Denver-based architectural firm Kephart. “It’s a niche market,” VanLerberghe says, “but I think there’s a golden opportunity for locations that already have [existing mid-century moderns].”
 
New homes don’t have to be purist versions of the originals, he says. “We can design them to reflect the character of the region they’re in. You can have different elevations for Miami versus Denver, but still keep the open floor plan and the abundance of glass. Use simple construction techniques and put in the features that home buyers desire today.”
 
The block privacy walls at Murano are a nod to the original mid-century modern houses designed in Palm Springs by architect Albert Frey and his contemporaries. Photos: Megan Keane
 
One successful example of the new mid-century modern home can be found at Murano in Palm Springs, Calif. The homes have attributes of their mid-century antecedents such as angled metal roofs, large expanses of glass that open to outdoor living areas, and scored block and sandstone. But architect Jim Cioffi says, “Murano is not really mid-century product. It leans more toward this century [while incorporating] some mid-century evolutionary elements.”
 
Detached guest houses are available with select home sites.
 
“Our take on the ‘modern’ part is that the homes pay homage to the mid-century homes that put Palm Springs architecture on the map so many decades ago, but live, feel, and function as homes built for the 21st century,” says builder Scott Lissoy, president of Far West Industries, Santa Ana, Calif.
 
The living room, family room, kitchen, and breakfast nook are all one contiguous space.
 
There is no homeowners’ association; buyers own the house and the land, and the lots are a minimum of 10,000 square feet. Standard features include a 4-kilowatt photovoltaic solar system; R-38 roof insulation; R-19 wall insulation; cool roof systems; and tankless water heaters. There are eight floor plans, or palettes, ranging from 2,188 to 2,671 square feet. 
 
Every home at Murano includes a pool and spa, enclosed in a private patio with views of the San Jacinto Mountains to the west.
 
Mid-century or just modern?
 
What makes a house mid-century modern rather than just modern? Here’s what our design experts say:
 
It has a playful side not often seen in pure modernist structures. “They’re a little more fun, such as the homes by [Los Angeles architect] Craig Ellwood and Palm Springs architect Albert Frey,” Fleetwood says, “whereas Mies van der Rohe’s Glass House — while technically mid-century — is a very serious building. The use of pitched roofs [on a modern house would be] anathema to him,” he says.  
 
Ornamental screens and other details often show up on mid-century houses, whereas pure modern tends to have a lack of ornamentation. 
 
There is a strong connection between the indoors and outdoors. In some schools of modernism such as Bauhaus/International, the home is closed off from the outdoors. 
 
Natural materials such as wood and stone are used to soften the starkness often associated with modern. 
“What we appreciate about Jim’s design concept is that he, as a local Palm Springs architect with vast custom-home design experience, understood how to design production mid-century modern homes with different variations of each plan so that each lot could take advantage of mountain views,” Lissoy says. “Furthermore, he knows how to balance the use of glass for maximizing views without compromising private outdoor living space, through the use of strategically located, precision block courtyard walls or staggered walls that also serve as part of the architecture.”
 
Far West has sold 31 of 40 homes at an average price of $625,000 since the community opened for sales in November 2013, and expects to complete the project by the end of 2014. Many buyers are full-time residents who are either retired, actively working, or working from home. There are also second-home buyers from Los Angeles, northern California, the Midwest, and as far away as England. Most do not have children living at home.
 

The origins of mid-century modern

Bassenian Lagoni developed this design for the Escena master plan in Palm Springs, Calif. Beazer Homes is the builder. “The guidelines specifically dictate a mid-century/Eichler-like design aesthetic,” says architect Dave Kosco. Illustration: Bassenian Lagoni Architects
 
Mid-century modernism started with an ambition to mass-produce housing that was affordable, efficient, and driven by an indoor-outdoor lifestyle. The California Case Study Houses Program, initiated by John Entenza of Arts & Architecture magazine in the 1940s, was an effort to develop models for this type of housing. From the 1950s to the mid-1970s, mid-century moderns by designers such as A. Quincy Jones, Albert Frey, Craig Ellwood, and Cliff May popped up around the Golden State. 
  
This modern spec home in Portland, Ore., by H. Hudson Homes is 3,600 square feet and sold for $800,000. Wood siding warms up the front elevation. A deep covered porch offers protection from the rain and a peek at the views from the rear. Photos: Barefoot Studios/Kent Skewes
 
While Southern California is generally recognized as the cradle of mid-century modern housing, examples can be found elsewhere. As a college student in St. Louis, Mo., architect Phil Kean admired the mid-century modern homes of William Bernoudy, who had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. Mid-century moderns can also be found in Connecticut, Florida, New York, and parts of the Midwest. 
 
The rear elevation has a deck running the full length of the house, partially shielded by deep roof overhangs.
 
Some of the best-known mid-century modern homes are associated with builders, not architects. Developer Joseph Eichler built more than 11,000 in Los Angeles and northern California between 1950 and 1974, featuring walls of glass to the back yard, central atriums, open floor plans, and skylights. Innovations included post-and-beam construction and in-floor radiant heating. 
 
“The two biggest things I take from mid-century modern are open floor plans and lots of windows,” says builder George Hale. Clerestory windows and skylights illuminate the kitchen while a painted brick wall and wood cabinets warm up the space.
 
Many Los Angeles architects ventured into the desert during the era of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. From the 1950s to the early 1960s, Alexander Construction Co. built more than 2,000 mid-century modern homes in Palm Springs, Calif.
 
Below are before and after photos of a 1960s mid-century modern house that was remodeled by The Architecture Studio and Kaiser-Odlum Custom Builders, both based in Los Angeles. The main objective was to restore the home’s sense of openness and connection with the outdoors.
 
“The house is probably 1,200-to-1,300 square feet,” says architect Jeffrey Tohl. [The clients] have two daughters who are off at college, so they really didn’t need to make it any larger.”
 
BEFORE:
The original house had an addition that looked tacked on, and only a shallow roof overhang. The pool’s brick coping had the wrong vibe for a 1960s home. Photos: Robert Evans Photography
 
AFTER:
An architectural trellis extended the roofline and created an outdoor living/dining area. The new peninsula fireplace can be enjoyed from either side. New concrete coping around the pool has a soft, curvilinear form that is more typical of mid-century modern.
 
BEFORE:
In this 1960s mid-century modern home, the main living space was bisected by a large soffit that chopped up the plan and defeated the purpose of the high ceilings.
 
AFTER:
The soffit was eliminated, exposing the original high ceilings. The walls flanking the fireplace were replaced by wood built-ins. PB
 

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