I think I am proud to say that I remember the Mid-century interior design style firsthand. I know I am pleased to announce that this time around, given personal experience with the original modern interiors, that the revival of Mid-century, or International Design, is really nice! It’s handsome, livable, warm, yet sculptural and clean. I like it much more. The original Mid-century design was stark, cold, somewhat awkward in application and not particularly livable. A glance into history helps this to make sense.
The first Mid-century design emerged when the Western world was exploring new designs, new materials and new ways to manufacture good design using machines. This was revolutionary, because the previous Victorian era held dear a manufacturing and decorating philosophy stating, “If a little is good, a lot must be better.” That meant that every conceivable way to decorate, proliferate, cluster and clutter elements indicated wealth and success in a frantically upwardly mobile society. Mid-century design successfully deflated that egotistic balloon with well-placed verbal darts and the ensuing new designs that bespoke “form follows function,” and “good design is knowing when to stop.”
The term International Design first emerged between World Wars I and II in several European countries simultaneously. In France, Swiss-borne LeCorbusier espoused his “the house is a machine for living in” philosophy. In Germany, designers and artists converged in a school called the Bauhaus where students were trained to create good machine-made design using both natural and man-made materials such as leather, glass and steel. Most of the Bahausian men (and one woman) faculty fled Germany toward the end of WWII, came to America and impacted with zeal and energy the landscape and interiors of modern architecture. Names familiar to International Design aficionados include Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rhoe, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers and Marcel Breuer.
In Scandinavia, particularly following World War II, these four countries had largely escaped the Victorian over-furbelowed interiors and moved flawlessly from a quaint, handmade folk style and clean Gustavian Swedish Neoclassic directly into the machine age. Scandinavian architects and designers included Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobsen, Eero Saarinen, Finn Juhl and Alvar Aalto among others. Their works included laminated bent wood pioneered by Michael Thonet. Woods such as teak and birch have tight, fine grain and sturdy compositions that allowed designers to fully expose joints in a type of Old World craftsmanship style.
Scandinavian designers also pioneered molded plastic furniture and accessories, ribbon (flat) and tubular steel furniture arms and legs, large graphic printed fabrics and a fresh clean, sophisticated yet imaginative quality that continues to inspire interior designers today. In more recent decades, the Italian designers have joined the International ranks with innovative designs in furniture and textiles that thrill the lover of great modern style.
THE AMERICAN EVOLUTION
As the International Style came to America it became the impetus for the glass and steel skyscraper, as well as the influence for clean and sleek interiors—admittedly also cold and stark. Large sheets of glass available post WWII became picture windows that have today been somewhat scaled down and sometimes merged with the Medieval-inspired Arts & Crafts movement to create uniquely beautiful windows with transom segments (windows above the windows) framed in wood rather than aluminum.
The evolution of this style was interrupted during the ’80s as a flashback of both Victorian and Traditional style interiors that swept the country in a fervor. However, as the high-tech information age has made our lives filled with instant messages and virtual experiences, there has been a mass-exodus away from over-furnished interiors towards more understated interiors. Psychologically, this helps people think more clearly.
The side effects of our return to Mid-century International design include a welcome simplicity, the ability to conserve personal energy and resources—fewer elements to maintain and less ornament to distract. The graphic element has also clearly evolved, while fabric and wall art designs have remained abstract they are less harsh today and are even lighthearted or fun.
The original Mid-century was a serious foray into a world just being discovered. Today we find this style stress-relieving, so we enjoy it for different reasons. The clean approach de-clutters not only the interior, but also our personal lives and overtaxed brains loaded with information and the ensuring demands of technology.
Concurrent with the post-WWII development of pristine starkness was the influence of Asia. The Japanese traditional home received much attention and was a foundation for the Arts & Crafts style, merged with Medieval influences.
In a quality Japanese home, there were mortise-and-tenon joints (tab A fit into slot B) and dowels that required no screws. Wood was carefully and endlessly polished to create a patina or mellow glow. Humility is evident in this style, including asymmetrical designs inspired by nature elements such as bamboo, cherry branches, clouds and complex elements that suggest designs also from Korea and China.
Japanese zabuton pillows atop tatami mats invite guests to be seated on the floor for a meal or the traditional tea ceremony. Tall tables are Chinese, as are ornamental vases. The Japanese gave the world the shoji screen—sliding or folding partitions made of wood-framed mulberry paper. When painted, the screens were called fusuma and were means of bringing art and beauty into an otherwise high-quality structural and simple interior.
The overall effect of a traditional Japanese / Korean / Chinese-inspired interior is one of peace, yet intellectual challenge. While the occupant is at one with nature, the mind is also absorbed with the contemplation of great questions of life. Today, the Zen philosophy is inherently a part of many Asian-style interiors. Zen is derived from the Chinese Chan'an-na, which is a corruption from the Buddhist Dhyana, meaning meditation. It means that users contemplate the present without prejudices, opinions, external ideas or false appearances.
Zen design is a way to create calm and a tranquil sense of being where “no mind” or nothingness is the goal. It has been defined as a type of spiritual path that encourages joyous spontaneity through a careful balance or order of space and form and function. The Asian interior is often devoid of clutter—simple spaces that appear larger than they are and thereby offer a soul-soothing quality to the occupant. This minimalism is somewhat parallel to the International Mid-century style, except that it must be combined with an Earthy beauty that often shuns the precision and predictability of the machine.
To accomplish a Zen approach, all unnecessary elements are removed and the items left have a specific practical use. Then a few items are carefully and mindfully selected as decoration. Thus, less furnishings and accessories allow more attention to be focused on what is placed in the interior. The idea of “less is more” is also seen in the empty space where ideas are left to grow, leaving breathing room or a type of spirituality to the space.
Feng Shui, the familiar art of placement, deals with the flow of energy through a space and all colors, furnishings and their placement are calculated so that ch’i (pronounced chee) or positive energy comes into the interior, bringing resonating good feelings between occupant and space and between people.
Light is a key factor, as it also is in Zen design. The dynamics of natural light are filtered so that a soothing glow enters the interior during daylight hours and a light and pleasing quality is seen at the window at night. Further, light emphasizes those few items placed in an interior, creating a sculptural effect that is dynamic, ever changing.
Colors for serene Asian-influenced interiors are often based on earth tones. The palette is harmonious and individual. Color accents are found in artwork rather than large wall or floor spaces. This also is akin to the International interior approach to color—accents placed on a background of neutrals.
It may be evident by now that although the finished interiors in the manner of International Design and Asian design are decidedly different, the goals are identical. Both seek to de-clutter, to simplify and streamline. The restriction of material goods means that space is open and free of decorative debris. The result is a space where thinking clearly, free from constraints, is possible; where a clearer perspective of life is possible. The reward is peace and calming effects. A desirable reward indeed in a day when worry, confusion and information overload are unwelcome intruders in many lives. These philosophies will empower the client to enjoy more fully the journey and meaning inherent in life.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.