Defining Mid-Century Modern Style

I am a long-time lover of the mid-century modern style, and curate a list of mid-century/modern homes listed for sale in the MLS each week as part of my weekly newsletter and market update. But what defines the mid-century modern style?

The style is difficult to clearly define because it is actually a collection of design styles from roughly the 1940’s to the 1970’s. Mid-century modern architecture had roots in Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles of organic architecture combined with elements from the International and Bauhaus styles in Europe and embraced by Scandinavian designers. It was characterized by simplicity, and the style emphasized creating structures with ample windows and open floor plans, with the intention of opening up interior spaces and bringing the outside in.

The birth of mid-century modern in the US was after World War II, which birthed experimental technologies and materials like steel, concrete, insulated glass and plywood. Function was as important as form, and its creators believed the forward-looking style could be a vehicle for social change to create a better society. For example, in a traditional home the window height is 4-5 feet and you can’t see out as a child. With walls of glass and windows extending close to the floor they believed children would become engaged and open-minded because being open to the environment stimulated the senses in a different way.

When someone tells me they are looking for mid-century-modern homes I have learned that the first thing I need to ask is what mid-century-modern means to them. Many times they will describe a home with exposed beams and vaulted ceilings, angular roof lines, floor-to-ceiling windows, a unique open floor plan… but it can go way beyond that.

Mid-century modern design can include late prairie style homes with Frank Lloyd Wright influence, boxy international and contemporary styles, futuristic Atomic ranch style homes with angular roof lines popular in California, multi-level homes and distinctive custom designs. What they have in common is an emphasis on soaring living spaces, big windows/glass doors, and bringing the outside in.

Mid-century modern’s minimal look and clean lines give it a sense of timelessness, versatility and strong functionality. It’s a style that transcends time, and many of its elements are found in current modern architectural design.

Defining traits of MCM architecture

  • Simplicity… flat planes, clean lines & low profiles with little ornamentation
  • Asymmetrical designs… asymmetrical facades and entries create a thoughtful transition
  • Lots of glass… infusion of light & expansive views
  • Sliding glass doors opening to a patio… it’s hard to believe this ubiquitous feature now found almost everywhere started here
  • Sprawling, open floor plans… improves light flow inside, better sightlines outdoors, and a vehicle for better family cohesiveness
  • Changes in elevation… multi-level splits started here
  • Integration with nature… emphasis on bringing the outdoors in
  • Use of natural materials… natural wood, stone
  • Fusion of geometric and organic forms… angular structures inside and out
  • Less is more mentality… clean, minimalist aesthetic

Below is a sampling of some of the MCM properties that I have played a part in… either as a listing agent or a buyer’s agent. They don’t all look alike, but they do have their own characteristics that help define the genre… a number of them were homes designed by the architect for themselves.

  • Exposed brick construction internal and external
  • Floor to ceiling windows blur the division of inside and outdoor spaces
  • Terrazzo, burnished concrete and tile floors
  • Few windows facing public view, but extensive windows communing with nature on the back side
  • Low profile, low slope or flat roof
  • Balcony with low angled railing
  • Integration with nature
  • Natural materials… wood, stone, copper
  • Sprawling, open floor plan
  • Changes in elevation
  • Angled ceiling
  • Red tile floor
  • Balcony with angled railing
  • Floor to ceiling window at entry
  • Angled wood ceiling
  • Prominent fireplace, often indoor grill
  • Unique natural wood shelving
  • Distinctive lighting

Mid-century modern went beyond just the structure of the house… note the house above…

  • Futuristic elements, such as the ‘Atomic’ door handle
  • All wood ceiling, walk-out patio doors, huge central fireplace
  • Metal kitchen cabinets
  • Pink tile bathroom with angled vanity
  • Fanciful figurines

University Grove next to the UMN St. Paul campus is one of the most unique enclaves of mid-century modern homes in the country. The early homes were mostly Tudor or colonial styles, but later houses showed the strong influence of the Bauhaus and international styles. This group of 103 homes built for UMN professors and administrators over a 60-year period on land owned by the University of Minnesota is an architectural time capsule. Because each home had to be designed by an architect with a maximum ceiling on costs, no two houses are alike and they create a cohesive mix. There are 14 homes in The Grove designed by noted Minnesota architects Winston and Elizabeth Close, including the one on the left below by Elizabeth Close that I sold at the beginning of the pandemic.

Perhaps the style most closely associated with the mid-century modern style is what many refer to as California Modern, with a focus on making indoor and outdoor living spaces merge. These open flowing spaces and the sunny feel continue to draw people to this architectural style today. The home below is not far from University Grove, also designed by an architect from UMN.

Searching for your own mid-century modern? They are currently in short supply, along with the rest of the housing inventory… but if you are patient, we can help you find one of your own.

Sharlene Hensrud, RE/MAX Results – shensrud@homesmsp.com

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I love what I do! Highly insightful, analytical and creative, there is nothing I love more than helping you find the right solution for your real estate transition. My mission is to serve my clients with honesty and integrity, exceeding their expectations in service and support… and to help others by donating a portion of every transaction to Habitat for Humanity.

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