How Did Los Angeles Midcentury Modern Develop?

David Plick — 

Courtesy of Holger Ellgaard

Before I get to Los Angeles midcentury modern, where did the term “midcentury modern” even come from?

Since movements are rarely named while they’re happening (unless you’re Andre Breton and write a manifesto), but rather, have scholars name them decades later, it is unsurprising that the term “midcentury modern” was first coined by Cara Greenberg in her famous book published in 1984, Midcentury Modern: Furniture of the 1950s. Because of the book’s popularity, and the resurgence of interest in mid-century design, marketers in the industry and the general public started using the term to describe the period of post World War interior, architectural, furniture and graphic design.

Rooted in Bauhausian minimalism and the functionality of the International Style, American midcentury modern’s ultimate goal was comfort for everyone, for the 1950’s middle-class families fleeing cities for the suburbs, and artists fleeing suburbia for California. In architecture there was also the influence from simple Scandinavian lines & symmetry, yet also the free-flowing texture of Oscar Niemayer’s work. In California, this meant square, geometric shapes amidst open floor plans, abundant windows to allow sunlight to stream into the house, and the movement from indoor to outdoor space. It was a square, but it moved, ya dig?

Why was Los Angeles Midcentury Modern so prominent?

While there are many reasons for the rise of Los Angeles midcentury modern, including post-war real estate booms, the influential design trends that led up to it, the weather of Southern California, the Hollywood film industry, the vibe that something special was happening in California, something that widely goes unnoticed, which also happens to be the primary reason for its success, was the presence and influence of the American military industrial complex in the region. As the US entered WWII approximately 60% of American manufacturers of aerospace products were located in Southern California, mostly in Los Angeles and San Diego. All of this wartime production meant a lot of money was streaming into the area—$70 billion in federal funds to be more precise. Los Angeles emerged as a military production hub and the city grew. Among the beneficiaries of US military funds was Charles Eames, who was commissioned to build plywood splints for soldiers, a modification of his innovations on plywood furniture.

Money, time, people, and space (mostly money)—that’s what makes a movement. Trends come and go, but a movement will always come back. Think about it: in any movement, there were just too many of them doing it, too many people that took part and wrote essays, articles, pieces in The New York Times fifty years later called “Why Won’t Midcentury Design Die?” for it not to make a continual impact. It’s true that we have short attention spans and we forget. We also have a tendency to reject what the previous generation loved. But a movement will always come back. Sometimes it just takes a show like Mad Men to remind us that it was all so cool.

By: David Plick

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