Guide to Midcentury Modern Architectural Style


The popularity of the midcentury modern style is enduring. If you have seen all the pastel-pink sofas and Danish sideboards on social media, it’s proof that midcentury modern décor is still having its moment. Though it’s timeless and sleek, it can quickly make a room appear dated. The key is to prevent it from looking like the set of Brady Bunch while understanding its history and adding a modern mix. Here’s what you need to know about this timeless and classic architectural style:

History of Midcentury Modern Architectural Style

The midcentury modern architectural style gave us clean lines, gentle and organic curves, and a love for different materials that designers use until today. While there’s no clear answer as to when it started – as to whether it lasted from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, this period continues to appeal to today’s homeowners.

This style grew in America based on the earlier styles, such as Bauhaus in Germany, and the International Style, which originated from the Bauhaus style in America. After World War II, many Bauhaus architects and designers migrated to America as a result of the changes in Germany. There became an expansion of cities and suburbanization in the US, and along that emerged demand for modern furnishings. And along with the modern furnishings arose a desire for modern architecture.

The widespread use of midcentury modern architecture was mainly due to the rise of architects trying to reach something new and something different. During the 1940s to 1950s, the great architects believed that their modern-looking style would be a vehicle for social change to create a better society. In fact, this was the time when public garages started appearing, trying to mirror the social changes.

It all started in Europe, and architects such as Arne Jacobsen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen were at the forefront of this movement. It quickly made its way to America, where it immediately received a full reception, especially on the West Coast.

Types of Midcentury Modern Style

Most modern houses with the mid-century modern style are finding new respect among homeowners. Typically, it’s grouped into two different styles: the ranch-style and split-level.

1. Ranch Style

Ranch houses originated in Southern California during the 1930s to 1940s, with the many examples in the West Coast. Ranch homes were built close to the ground, with low-pitched roofs and low-pitched gable roofs. This ranch style was influenced by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style home. It’s indicative of the wide-open land areas the United States is known for. The integrated garages were often built into the house design, and the abundance of land lead to ranch-style homes being referred to as “ramblers.”

2. Split-level Style

Within the midcentury modern style comes the unique house form known as the split-level, and it’s usually designed the same as a ranch or contemporary-style home, but in the split-level configuration. The split-level style home is popular with home buyers in the 1950s, and it cost-effectively makes efficient use of space. These types of homes usually have three or more separate levels with partial flights of stairs linking the levels. These houses can have a bi-level split or tri-level split.

Characteristics of Midcentury Modern Style

1. Combination of old and new materials

New methods of construction and materials emerged in the mid-1900s, and materials such as plastic influenced the designers of the era. Plastic was used for its own qualities, rather than to imitate wooden furniture. New materials such as metal, glass, plywood, vinyl, Lucite, and Plexiglass, were used liberally along with traditional materials such as natural stone and wood.

The exterior materials used for homes were varying, and the geographic area influenced it. The kinds of stones used and the manner it is used varies depending on the area. Usually, stone was used as a veneer, but in the Washington, DC area, it’s not unusual to see the local Carderock stone as veneer. Brick is also used on many ranch houses, as well as stucco. Wood siding is used and installed horizontally, like a clapboard, or vertically as a board and batten.

2. Flat planes

It’s easy to categorize midcentury modern homes compared to older styles. Most of these homes have regular and rigorous geometric lines, especially flat roofs. It’s common to see flat planes, and it instantly becomes one of the most popular features of midcentury modern homes.

3. Large windows


Midcentury modern homes, either ranch or split-level homes, borrow on a variety of window types. Large, sliding glass doors are conventional to allow light to enter rooms from different angles. There are also close-to-ground windows with varying designs of window: hopper, casement, awning, and double-hung windows. The picture window became a feature of varying ranch or split-level homes.

4. Low-pitched roof

Low-pitched roofs, usually hipped, are most common for midcentury modern homes. It is followed by a low-pitched gable. In this style of home, there was minimal attic space, so dormers were not used.

5. Split-level spaces

It is common for midcentury modern homes to have small steps going up and down between rooms, creating split-level spaces. It also creates partial walls, and sometimes designers use cabinets of different heights to create different depths in the area.

6. Simple entrance

The practical feature of midcentury modern homes is its recessed and protected front entrance. The simplest front entries are recessed and protected under the main roof. The more complex homes use a porch at the front of the house, tucked beneath the main roof or entrance placed in a corner at the intersection of two wings protected by the main roof. The recessed entry is often decorated with different cladding material to emphasize the entrance.

7. Minimalistic design

Midcentury modern homes are appealing because of their simplified and sleeker design. The majority of these houses only have one floor, and makes a statement without adding too many bells and whistles. Houses have linear pavilions with flat roofs, fluid and informal layouts, and a strong connection between indoor and outdoor living.

8. Sharp angles and boxy shapes

The architects and homeowners wanted to take risks, and the midcentury modern style exemplified this desire. Many homes and buildings from this movement had sharp angles and boxy shapes that created homes that feel look modern and sculptural.

9. Lots of glass

The midcentury modern design movement pioneered the trend for modern houses today – where there are glass panels replacing portions of a house where regular walls are commonly seen. It makes it impossible for the house to get real privacy, but it also allows more natural light to pass through, which is an innovative feat for its time.

10. Asymmetrical façade

Looking at midcentury modern homes, you will find a common theme: it’s asymmetry. It varies from design to design, but many midcentury modern homes deviate from the standard symmetrical homes in the earlier 20th century. Midcentury modern architects experimented with ways to make a house that feel aesthetically exciting. The asymmetrical nature of homes makes them look more modern even until decades later.

11. Organic designs

As styles of midcentury modern homes used industrial materials for inspiration, nature also played a big role in the design. These houses are typically built in areas with lots of natural surroundings, and even inside the home. There are houses with live trees growing up through the floor of a house and out the roof. There are also some with designs featuring houses that seemed to float above nature as if it has been plopped right in the middle of it.

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