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Mid-century Design: Iconic Revitalization

Design Trends

Mid-century style has been a Southern California standard for decades and – as we discussed in our 2013 trends report and as evidenced by Pacific Standard Time Presents' summertime series highlighting the continuing relevance of California architecture – while it is enjoying a revitalization in its original region, it is also uptrending far past its birthplace. This white paper by Pam Meyer, ASID, CID, Principal at Meyer Architecture, traces the history of 1960s architecture and how the bold, distinctive style moved from the drawing board and into neighborhoods throughout Southern California – and beyond.

When one thinks about modern architecture in Southern California in the 1960s many images come to mind. Mirroring pop-culture in the 1960s design was becoming freer, more organic, and creativity was exploding. Images like “Tiki-torch" architecture, Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, and “Googie" Architecture come to mind. Different from the 1950s, when people were celebrating the end of World War II and enjoying a simpler and more traditional time, the 1960s saw a new rise of change.

The changing design aesthetic of the '60s was exciting and dynamic as seen in the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Deborah Sussman reflects in a video interview regarding her work with Eames which was included in an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this spring called, “California Design, 1930-1965." “Something new in the world was going on – it was modern". Barbara reflects on her work with Charles and Ray Eames as a time bursting with excitement and color. “It was a brave new world – nobody looked at kites this way before – nobody looked at bread this way before. The ordinary became extraordinary."

Just as the culture of the 1960s was changing with a developing counter-culture and cultural revolution, architects followed suit stretching the limits of new technology and experimenting with new materials. Architects in the 1960s drew upon the forms developed by the international style and modern architects in the early and mid-century, and expanded upon these principles creating homes for a new wealthier elite clientele in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. The vernacular of the Case Study Homes that were designed as affordable housing for the masses evolved into a larger more glamorous version. This new wave of architecture was more daring and dramatic. Transparent architecture which emphasized the indoor – outdoor relationship developed in the earlier part of the century became more organic where the demarcation between indoors and outdoors completely disappeared.

Architectural Context
During the preceding decades of the 1940s and 1950s mid-century modern architecture was born. Originally developed by the International Style Architects, modern architecture came into its own in Southern California where architects had the task of providing affordable housing for its exploding population of immigrants, returning WWII veterans, and people drawn to enjoy the California Lifestyle as described by Kirse Granat May in “Golden State, Golden Youth."

Capitalizing upon this burgeoning market, Arts and Architecture Magazine sponsored the Case Study House Program. The experimental program which ran from 1945 to 1962 began as a plan by the magazine's editor and publisher John Entenza whose mission was to promote “good architecture" for this new market. Entenza feared that creative architectural designs would die on the drawing board for lack of financing or road blocks at the building department, which typically challenge architectural plans from being built without compromising their design integrity. Entenza also feared that the task of hiring an architect would be too difficult for the average homeowner who did not have the knowledge or sophistication to understand the architectural process. The magazine itself took on the role as client in The Case Study House Program and commissioned the architects directly to design homes with the only goal to “create a good living environment".

Architects were encouraged to design within budget and to experiment with new building materials and techniques. There were no set principles other than “not to use materials without a clear intention of purpose or function".

The outcome of the program was the construction of 25 homes mostly in Los Angeles. The influence of the program caused a more lenient attitude towards modern architectural design by the local building departments, as well as greater financing becoming available by banks. The resale value of these homes was 90 to 125 per cent above their original cost.

The style became an icon in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. What had started as a plan to provide “good living" for the masses would be adopted as the style for the wealthy and trendsetters in the 1960s.

To read the full paper, click here.