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How can Modern be retro?

August 15, 2011

Many young people in this university town furnish their homes with mid-century-modern flotsam found at one of the several purveyors of this particular decor. Television obliges with “Mad Men” and even the martini has made a huge comeback. Postmodern irony plays a small part in this movement, and some of this is pure nostalgia for a vanished era; but much of it is a genuine appreciation for the rectangles, trapezoids and curves of mid-century modern design.

Every movement has its heyday and then a slump, followed by a later revival, so this renewed interest in the 1940s – 1970s is not surprising. But the part that does surprise is that we feel the need to look to bygone times for our concept of “modern.” By definition, isn’t “modern” supposed to mean cutting-edge design that looks to the future? In Europe modern design is unquestioned and ongoing; new public buildings are almost always modernist rather than conventional or traditional. But in the United States, for most architectural purposes (excepting the occasional skyscraper or museum), modernism is virtually off the radar — unless it’s mid-century modern.

Why has American modernism rolled over to die? Why do we look to the past when we think of modern furniture? Have we run out of ideas for our own homes and living spaces? Have all the good ideas already been imagined? I don’t believe any of this, even if others accept it.

When modernism first appeared it was avant-garde. We need a new avant-garde today that doesn’t mindlessly replicate the past. I’m not saying that mid-century modernism was bad, or that it should not be praised or written about. But much of what we accept as “modern” (the famous named furniture, the famous houses) dates to circa 1950. Would it be amiss to expect a modernism that’s contemporary rather than sixty-plus years old? “Atomic Ranch” is extremely interesting to read, but in one important way it’s no different than reading “American Bungalow”:  both magazines so obviously embrace the idea of living today in the style of a bygone era.

Americans enjoyed modernist architecture and decor for decades during the last century. Modernism is still important today, but our concept of “modern” needs to evolve and move on beyond its mid-century origins. We need a modern style that offers contemporary design principles for living in our own times, in order that we don’t have to dwell in the past.

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From → Houses

One Comment
  1. Gini P. permalink

    When I was reading your little essay I couldn’t stop thinking about the connection between the time period of “modernism” (1940s-1970s) and the economic boom of those same 3 decades. Maybe what people are really longing for is economic security and it plays out in these unstable times as home decor and clothing from that same period? Just a thought…..

    love the photos, by the way. soooooooooooo retro!

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