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Atomic-Age Interiors

Arcbitectural historians generally identify 1933 as the year mid-century modern design began in America. Certainly, the concepts that later influenced mid-century design began in the 1930s, more in Europe than in the U.S., but they did not really flower in the U.S. until the end of the World War stimulated the demand for affordable housing on a massive scale.

Post-war housing featured "minimalist" interiors, devoid of unnecessary ornamentation, and focused squarely on function.

New materials, many the products of war-time development such as plastics and engineered wood products, dramatically influenced mid-century designers. Plastics such as vinyl, Plexiglas, and Lucite found a place in post-war design for their own qualities, rather than as an imitator of other materials such as wood or stone.

Furniture was about being functional. It served a purpose, and its purpose was paramount in its design. Lines were kept clean. The period embraced modern materials — chrome, Formica, and vinyl — but traditional materials like wood, rattan, and natural fibers were also favored and the two were combined in new and innovative ways.

Plain doors and windows, and minimal trim, if any, and unadorned walls contributed to the "vanilla" look of the period. But, most homes did not stay vanilla very long. Homeowners immediately set about adding the special touches that made their new house a unique home.

Advances in technology and scarcity fueled much of the transition from a heavy emphasis on natural materials during the prior Arts & Crafts period to both man-made and more readily available natural materials.

Gypsum Drywall

The material that had the most influence on Post-war modern interior design was gypsum drywall which came into wide use to replace wet plaster walls. It was invented in 1916 by Sackett Plaster Company, a subsidiary of the United States Gypsum Corporation (USG) and originally called Sacket Board. It was promoted as a fire-resistant replacement for wet plaster that was quick and easy to install.

Acceptance of the new material was slow in coming, however. Plaster had been the standard wall treatment for hundreds of years and homebuilders, conservative by nature, were reluctant to adopt the unfamiliar material even after USG changed its name to in an attempt to draw more attention to the material.

But, the disadvantages of wet plaster to in-a-hurry post-war builders were numerous. It was time-consuming to install and required highly skilled labor. Plasterers often apprenticed for a decade before they were considered to have mastered the craft. The time and skill required made it relatively expensive.

Its long curing time often meant weeks and sometimes months of drying before a wall could be painted or wallpapered. In the frenetic Post-war housing boom which built more than 21 million new homes between 1946 and 1960, plaster slowed the building process substantially. Drywall, by contrast, could be installed and finished, ready to paint, in three days.

Builders were forced by competitive pressures to adopt the new wall system to save both time and money, and by 1950 it had become the standard in most of the country.

Retro Interior Moldings

Formerly, interior moldings were natural wood, mostly oak or cherry, with finishes that emphasized the figure of the wood. Profiles were wide and the trim boards thick (up to 1") due to the nature of wet plaster walls which necessarily included large gaps that required wide moldings to conceal and which were seldom absolutely flat.

Drywall had a major effect on interior moldings. Crown molding to hide potential cracks where plaster walls met ceilings was no longer needed. Nor was picture rail (needed to hang pictures on plaster walls into which a nail could not be easily driven ). Only the absolutely essential moldings were retained — baseboard along with window and door casings. Some builders eliminated even this minimal room trim.

In part, the change was stylistic, but it was also necessary because hardwood for moldings was getting scarce and harder to come by. Old-growth forests had been depleted and well-figured wood had become expensive. Gumwood, popular in inexpensive trim and moldings in the 1920s and '30s had been almost used up by 1945. It is now so rare and expensive that it is cataloged and sold as a hardwood — even though it is anything but. Old-growth pine was also largely gone. Only in the American west was suitable molding still available in the form of Douglas Fir, but the large old-growth fir trees suitable for knot-free molding would be almost gone by 1970.

Plantation trees — trees grown as a commercial crop — barely existed and the extensive replanting that has since provided molding grade lumber was still in its infancy. Builders turned to finger-jointed pine, a manufactured product made by joining small pieces of pine boards with modern adhesives. Stained, the joints were visible, so painted pine molding became the trim of choice.

Narrow and relatively thin, minimalist trim became the new standard. Baseboards were eventually reduced to 3-1/4" with a thickness of 3/8", the current standard. Door and window casings were standardized at 2-1/4". The decorative function of moldings was de-emphasized. They often were painted the same color as the wall on which they were installed to make them less obvious.

Some architects eliminated wood trim completely, creating a "reveal" where walls joined floors in which a recess at the bottom of the wall marks the transition rather than wood trim. At windows and doors, gypsum drywall was "returned" to make a recess for the opening that made wood trim unnecessary. Not only was the result very minimalistic but it was faster to build and less expensive, traits that appealed to post-war builders.

Atomic Age Doors

Until the last half of the 20th century, doors were made of boards usually in some form of panel door in which one or more central panels are held in a frame. This configuration produced a very stable door that did not expand and contract seasonally.

Better technology made frame-and-panel doors obsolete almost overnight. New and more powerful adhesives made possible the durable slab door, fabricated from pressure-laminated wood. These were direct inheritors of the stressed-panel technologies used to build plywood PT boats and lightweight aircraft for the war effort. A honeycomb of wood (later cardboard) strips supported two thin plywood panels. Wood blocks strategically located to support hinges and latches made the doors as strong and reliable as panel doors.

Doors were pre-hung in their frames at the factory, making them faster to install using only semi-skilled labor. In the 1930s a skilled carpenter was expected to hang four interior doors in an eight-hour day. By 1950 a team of two "trimmers" was expected to set four prehung doors every hour — 32 doors in an eight-hour day.

While the panel-look door still survives, these are often not actual panel doors. They are pressure laminated plywood or plastic shells over a honeycomb mesh — essentially slab doors with an embossed design. The same process is used to make exterior doors using steel or fiberglass shells shaped to look like panel doors with an interior of insulating foam — far more energy-efficient than even the best panel door.

Retro Colors, Paint, and Wallpaper

Exuberance characterized the immediate post-war years. America was thriving and the post-war economy was booming. The excitement was reflected in the bold color palette of post-war interiors.

The muted earth tones of the Arts & Crafts period were replaced with vibrant pastels and electric darker colors to create a palette unique to the time. Pastels such as pink, turquoise, mint green, pale yellow, and robin's egg blue were daringly comingled with "sunny day" yellow, electric blue, very orange, and fire-engine red to produce color combinations never before seen.

Only at the very end of the period did more muted colors again influenced by nature regain their popularity. These included brown, cream, gray, and green, leading to the mid-1960s in which Harvest Gold and Avocado Green became the de rigueur colors for kitchen appliances.

Although this vibrant color palette is indelibly associated with mid-century modern decor, it actually originated in the middle to late Arts & Crafts era. As early as the 1920s Eljer plumbing was showing many of these same colors in its bathroom advertisements. And, while Arts & Crafts houses usually featured muted colors taken from nature, kitchens were often an exception — brightly painted with colorful wallpaper very similar to that found in post-war kitchens decades later.

Wallpaper, deemphasized during the Arts & Crafts period, was resurrected in colors and patterns that better reflected an optimistic post-war America. Wallpapers were often considered the main feature of a room's decor rather than the backdrop against which the room's decor was displayed. It was common to use wallpaper on just one accent wall of a room with coordinating paint everywhere else. Pastels and large, bold botanical prints were particularly favored as were small geometric patterns in vibrant colors. Even where the colors were somewhat muted, the patterns were bold and distinct.

Post-War Flooring

The Levitts, the most prolific builders of the mid-century period, preferred tile flooring for their Levittown houses, set directly onto the concrete slab floor over radiant heat.

Outside of Levitt communities, especially where the house was set over a basement, the favored material was stained and varnished oak often in the form of parquet tiles or herringbone patterns rather than parallel strips or planks more common both before and after the mid-century period.

Parquet and herringbone patterns made more efficient use of increasingly scarce lumber by making effective use of even very short strips. But, it was also more time-consuming to lay. Wood flooring manufacturers helped solve the labor problem by providing the flooring in blocks or tiles that could be installed relatively quickly.

Typically a two-person flooring team could install, sand, and varnish the flooring for an entire house in two or three days, then return and apply the final varnish coat a few days later after the first coat cured.

In warmer climates, ceramic tile was often used, particularly in Southern California and the Southwest where the Spanish influence is dominant. It was used almost everywhere in wet areas like entryways, baths, and kitchens, along with linoleum, brick, and stone tile. Unlike the colors used in the rest of mid-century decor, tile in entryways was muted, often earth-colored rather than the bright hues used elsewhere.

Early resilient tile made from asphalt and asbestos was popular from the 1920s. It was low-cost, easy to install, and resisted abrasion and moisture, but grew brittle over time. Its range of colors was limited and tended to be dark due to the inherent limitations of the material. It was replaced during the mid-century with vinyl tile which was brighter and retained its flexibility over time.

Polyvinyl chloride was not a new material. It had been discovered in the 19th century by a French physician. But it was not until 1926 that an American research chemist named Waldo Semon invented a plasticized version that was flexible, but not adhesive. Stickiness was a serious limitation of earlier formulations.

As flooring, it was introduced to the public at the Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago in 1933 but received only modest attention during a period in which most homeowners preferred natural materials such as linoleum, cork, or wood.

The World War accelerated its development to replace materials made scarce by the war, primarily rubber. It blossomed in the 1950s once it began to be manufactured in Europe and North America on an industrial scale, and in the 1960s largely supplanted asbestos and asphalt tiles as well as true linoleum.

Mid-century decorators took full advantage of its design potential. Unlike asphalt tiles in which colors were muted by the limitations of the material, vinyl could be brightly colored and mid-century colors were bold and varied and commonly set in patterns that were even bolder and more varied — often in contrasting color combinations seldom seen since.

By 1960 wall-to-wall carpeting was the sought-after flooring and by 1965 was almost universal in new housing.

Wall-to-wall carpeting was in the early post-war period an option in new housing. If the homeowner selected carpet, it was commonly laid over a brand-new, never-walked-on wood floor. We have been often pleasantly surprised to find an almost pristine wood floor under the old, shaggy carpet we remove in post-war housing renovations.

By most accounts, wall-to-wall carpeting became popular only after some way of keeping it clean became available. Loose rugs and carpets could be removed for cleaning by hanging them on a clothesline and vigorously beating to remove all dirt and dust. But wall-to-wall carpeting, fixed to the floor, had to be cleaned in situ.

The device needed to maintain wall-to-wall carpeting was the vacuum cleaner which had become small and affordable by 1940 when it first appeared in an upright configuration. The Hoover beater bar (introduced in 1926) duplicated rug beating to loosen and then vacuum up any debris embedded in the carpet (and scare the bejeezus out of the cat).

Wall-to-wall carpeting was the dominant floor covering until the 1990s when prefinished natural and engineered wood floors and laminated plank flooring made installing a wood or wood-look strip floor a lot easier and much less messy.

Atomic Age Furnishings

Furniture design borrowed heavily from the Bauhaus school of the 1920s bypassing much of the intervening design motifs favored in Art Deco forms of the immediate pre-war years.

The Staatliches Bauhaus commonly known as just Bauhaus was arguably the most influential design and architecture school of the 20th century. Under the guidance of architect Walter Gropius, teachers and students embarked on a voyage of design discovery that lasted just 14 years but that would change forever the face of modern architecture, furniture design and, interior decor.

The curriculum stressed the merging of design with industrial arts. Students were taught to create designs that could easily be mass-produced. Pragmatism with an emphasis on simplicity and austerity was the core of its design philosophy the credo of which was "form follows function". Applied ornamentation was shunned as was anything else that did not contribute to an object's essential purpose.

Bauhaus had only a modest impact on early 20th-century design, especially outside of Germany, before the school was closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazis for being "un-German". Its faculty dispersed throughout Europe and the U.S. — the Bauhaus diaspora — taking with it the Bauhaus ideals which became the cornerstone of post-war modernist design.

Most of the school's associates settled in England and America. Had they stayed in Germany, it is doubtful that Bauhaus design would have had nearly the influence on post-war design that it ultimately exerted.

Walter Gropius emigrated to England, then to the U.S. where he joined the faculty at Harvard University, Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus School's last director, became the director of the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the first institution in the U.S. to offer a Ph.D. in product and industrial design.

Bauhaus artist Josef Albers taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and later became the head of the department of design at Yale University. His work became the basis of modern art education programs in the U.s. László Moholy-Nagy also briefly settled in the U.K. before moving to the U.S. where he established the School of Design in Chicago which later became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Marcel Breuer, a Hungarian-born American architect and industrial designer was responsible for two of the most enduring chair designs of the mid-century, the Wassily Chair and the Cesca Chair, recognized as "among the 10 most important chairs of the 20th century."

New materials, particularly plastics and laminated wood panels, many developed during the World War for military use, made newer shapes possible. Furniture, especially chairs, were reimagined by designers such as Charles & Ray Eames, Arne Jacobsen, and Eero Saarinen using sweeping curves that better fit the shape of the human body. Where earlier chairs almost demanded an upright, formal posture, chair designs of the 1940s and '50s encouraged lounging in a relaxed bearing, often in a semi-reclining position.

Despite the advances in newer, man-made materials, however, wood was still the first choice for furniture. Teak was favored in the furnishings of the Scandinavian school of design, so much so that most teak forests were depleted by the 1980s. Today's teak is primarily plantation-grown in Asia and South America.

Some of the more faddish post-war decorating trends came and went quickly. Remember Campaign furniture and the (best forgotten) Mediterranean style? Both appeared and disappeared in about five years, leaving virtually no trace that they ever were — thank you gods of good taste.

But, the nice thing about mid-century houses is that they can adapt to just about any interior styling. They are extremely basic and, therefore, flexible. While fussy Victorian may look out of place, any of what are termed the "modernist" styles can be used: art nouveau, art deco, industrial, and Scandinavian. Colonial houses lend themselves well to Colonial styles. cape cods can adopt any of these as well as a toned-down Arts and Crafts look.

Art Nouveau/Art Deco

Art Nouveau ("New Art" in English) originated in the late 19th century as the French version of the Arts & Crafts movement. It was the first widely popular design movement of the 20th century, conceived as a "new style for a new century," With a focus on decorative and applied arts.

It was, like most Arts & Crafts motifs, inspired by nature and minimalism. Its goal was less clutter and cleaner lines in a direct rejection of the busy fussiness of late Victorian-age design. Its primary characteristic was the extensive use of curves and free-flowing lines, particularly evident in furnishings.

Art Nouveau greatly influenced architecture but never became an architectural type in its own right. It was more an interior design motif with some fairly characteristic features including a preference for hardwood flooring and a palette of soft colors: grays, soft yellows, browns, olives, and lilacs.

By the 1930s Art Nouveau had morphed into the Art Deco (or Art Moderne) movement that lasted in somewhat muted form until the 1970s. Art Deco was very popular in the 1930s, not so much for homes as for public and commercial buildings. The style gave period movie theaters their characteristic look. It was the overarching style of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings and Rockefeller Center. The Golden Gate Bridge is an Art Deco-inspired structure as is the Nebraska State Capitol building, the only state capitol to be built in the style.

Art Deco never became a true architectural style. It was a style of decoration. Unlike Art Nouveau which favored curves and free-flowing lines, Art Deco emphasized precise geometric shapes and forms using parallel straight lines, zigzags, chevrons, and stylized floral motifs. It represented industrialism, technology, and speed. The first "streamlined" locomotives and automobiles were, in fact, Art Deco motifs. The style made extensive use of novel Post-War materials including aluminum, stainless steel, and plastics while continuing the use of some Art Nouveau materials, such as glass in both interior detail and furnishings. It favored bold use of color in carpets and accessories.

Both Art Nouveau and Art Deco, although often somewhat muted, fit well inside post-war houses. Interior walls are typically mono­chrom­attic and light to keep the look clean and crisp. The tone of a room is often conveyed through its rugs and furnishings rather than its architectural elements which were deliberately kept bland as a neutral backdrop.

Furnishings usually contained rich colors and strong stylized shapes. A comfortable sofa, at least one club or lounge chair, and a coffee table are almost required elements of the Art Nouveau or Art Deco living room.

Scandinavian Modernism

Called by many names, the most common being "Danish Modern", no style captured the post-war spirit quite like Scandinavian Modernism, a celebration of simple, uncomplicated designs, minimalism, and functionality.

The style was an extension of the European Arts & Crafts movement, particularly through the work of Scandinavian designers such as Kaare Klint, Herman Gesellius, and Armas Lindgren but was also fertilized by ideas from other countries. Stylists and designers such as the Americans, Charles and Ray Eames, Charles Le Corbusier of France and the German Bauhaus School made full use of the possibilities of new materials such as bendable plywoods and moldable plastics to design furnishings with sweeping curves.

Klint, in particular, was very influential in stamping a particularly Danish look and feel to the Norse version of Arts & Crafts. His special interest was seating, and he designed a great many chairs from 1914 to 1936, most of which are still available. Klint's carefully researched designs were based on the positions and functions of the human body, careful craftsmanship, and the use of high-quality materials.

All of these traits carried over into the design school he founded in Copenhagen in 1924, and to his students whose works popularized Modernist design throughout Europe and the Americas.

In full flower by the 1930s, the movement was refined during the austerity of the World War of the 1940s, a time when most imported and man-made materials became unavailable and Scan­dina­vian designers were forced to return to local, native materials such as oak, birch, rush, clay, and linen cloth.

After the War a few exotics slipped in, notably teak and rosewood but the designs generally remained faithful to their wartime roots in native, natural materials and simple finishes. Designed always with an eye toward low-cost mass production, Scandinavian furniture was not just beautiful and functional, it was also affordable, and often well within the means of a typical suburban family.

Taking hold in New York City soon after the 2nd World War, the Scandinavian Modern look quickly swept all across the country, becoming the defining furniture and interior design style of the period.

Young American families found it to be the ideal expression of the new, informal, suburban lifestyle. The simplified lines were geometric, clean, and unpretentious and the scale was well-suited to the smaller rooms of the post-war period. "Hand-rubbed" oil-and-wax finishes on wood furnishings meant freedom from worry about the interaction between young children and fine furnishings. If a table got damaged, it could easily be repaired. Framed seating with removable, slip cushions meant that a new look could be had at any time with some simple reupholstery.

Increasing its appeal to young post-war families was its low cost. Most of the principal designers of the style were schooled to fashion designs that were not just elegant and functional but also easily mass-produced in large quantities.

Lightweight Scandinavian furniture made cleaning and re-arranging a snap; and the natural materials and fine craftsmanship were a welcome counterpoint to the mass-produced, man-made materials that seem to explode into the middle of the century: plastics, nylon, Orion®, Selma®, vinyl and, Formica®, to name just a very few.

The Mid-Century Kitchen

The mid-century kitchen was in all respects a modern kitchen. It contained every feature of a contemporary kitchen: gas or electric range, electric refrigeration, modern plumbing, and fitted cabinetry with recesses into which appliances were neatly tucked.

Later kitchens even had early microwave ovens and automatic dishwashers — appliances not yet invented when the period began and which would not become common until the 1970s. It was sanitary and efficient .... (Continues)

Updating Your Mid-Century House?
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Rev. 04/06/21