Modern style is the intersection of several design philosophies that were prominent in the first quarter of the 20th century. The early Prairie School, Bauhaus, and the International movements all contributed to the clean, streamlined furnishings, buildings, and industrial designs of the mid-century. Frank Lloyd Wright, with his passion for organic design and function, Charles and Ray Eames with their innovative furnishings, and George Nelson were just a few of the designers that departed from the traditional pathways to create a new way of looking at form and function.
Modern style is typically minimalistic and often takes advantage of many of the new materials developed from 1920 to 1960. In addition to streamlined forms for wood, metals like aluminum and stainless steel were used in new, creative ways, and "better living through chemistry" quickly proved that the marriage of science and technology would bear a prodigious amount of fruit.
The faux ivory of celluloid, which was popular during the 'teens and '20s, evolved to include new man-made materials during the 1920s. Bakelite, for example, was the first completely synthetic plastic and was often used in radios and telephones because it was heat resistant and non-conductive. However, its use was exponentially expanded with the development of the next generation of plastics that resulted in catalin. Unlike early bakelite, catalin could be colored. It was quickly adapted for use in various decorative and functional objects from jewelry to spatulas and radio cases. Because it could be molded, it lent itself to the new Art Deco and Moderne designs of the 1930s and 1940s. Lucite was another modern plastic that designers went nuts over from the 1940s to the 1960s.
The use of metals like steel, chrome, brass, and aluminum replaced copper and iron to a large extent.
Modern style owes much of its character to new materials, but technology and science played a huge role in its evolution as well. There was tremendous confidence that new discoveries would lead to better lives for everyone. Efficient processes, scientific know-how, and streamlined, functional designs were favorite subjects of the 1939 New York World's Fair, which was attended by more than 40 million visitors.
Though design and construction were put on hold during World War II, the attitude that modern materials and technology were superior to the old-fashioned, traditional designs was everywhere during and after the war. Grandpa's old mission desk was relegated to the basement for folding clothes or used as kindling because "oak burns good and leaves very little ash." The "Greatest Generation" was an optimistic lot in many ways, and because of their faith in the virtues of modernity, with cheerful abandon they automated, mechanized, and precision produced everything they could.
It could be argued that Mid-century Modern was a post-War design movement, but it it bridged the period of the Depression through the War and into the 1950s, so instead of merely being the material representation of the Atomic Age, it represents a transcendent design ideal more closely allied with the progressive design pathfinders of the mid-20th century.
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