A Mod, Mod World

The world’s finest and most comprehensive holdings of 20th-century art, the MoMA in mid-town Manhattan, is the go-to destination for those who want to fuel their love affair with modern design. This week I trekked down to NYC for interior design inspiration that filled my heart with desire and solidified what works for my home and what doesn’t. While I was in the Big Apple, I also visited the International Art+Design Fair.

What interior designers tout as “period pieces,” and what I consider the fusion of functional art with things I love, leads me back to the design era of the mid-20th century. Looking at past design helps us understand the future with enhanced clarity. Maybe it’s a baby boomer moment, but acquiring an understanding of the historical social responsibilities and sensibilities fits a present day eco-aesthetic for style and sustainability. Let’s face it, the form and function of these “pieces” are the real deal. They’re always hip and stylish.

“Modernism” was firmly established in home design for most of the 20th Century. In its heyday, Modernism was defined as the cutting edge of style in art, architecture and design. Starting with the Art Deco period in the 20s and ending with the Op-Pop Art of the 70s, modern design was a major feature of the culture. The social, economic, political, cultural and technological events of this period truly defined Modernism.

Here’s a quick synopsis of what this important period was all about (from the MoMA and Modern Retro by Neil Bingham and Andrew Weaving):

1920s and 1930s: The term, Art Deco was derived from a French exhibition and was deeply steeped in the ornamental fashion world of Paris. This gave way to mechanization and mass production of building and home design. German designers of the Bauhaus School of Design defined this period. Two notable designers, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, produced unornamented and functional buildings and objects. In the 30s, the hard-edged look softened with the influence of Scandinavian designers.

1940s and 1950s: WWII erupted and put design on hold. Wartime manufacturers forced designers to adapt and create new materials giving rise to improved methods of production. The end of the war saw a new optimism. A design boom emerged from a new school of architects and designers, such as Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Richard Neutra, Hans Wegner and Iasamu Noguchi.

1960s and 1970s: Radical social change brought a new generation of designers with bolder and more vibrant posters, graphics, wallpapers and textiles. Two artistic movements dominated–Op and Pop Art. Op Art grew out of the Op Art movement created by British painter Bridget Riley’s bold canvases, black and white patterns that make the head spin. Remember the art toy Spirograph? Pop Art came from what was considered the counter culture. Think lava lamps, flower power and psychedelic designs. Scandinavian design countered the wildness with its complementary minimal style.

I’ve acquired fabulous furniture from this era and some are in dire need of restoration. Reupholstering the furniture would bring it through this next century. Unfortunately, the textile industry is a notorious environmental polluter that employs processing that is chemically intensive. The company Knoll, was at the center of mid-century modern furniture design and exhibited at the International Art+Design Fair. I was elated to learn that Knoll is still at the forefront of fabric design. Their Earth-friendly fabric options make them a contender for my furniture. Treehugger lists other eco-fabrics with a variety of cost and function.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this historical foray into the world of modernism. The breadth of mid-century modern design with its aesthetic of self-expression, experimentation, social and global consciousness make retro “period” pieces collectible, comfortable and meaningful.

For those of you who are lovestruck with a new or nostalgic interest in mid-century design, what inspires you? How do you choose what works in your home and what should be buried in some old shag rug?

Ronnie Citron-Fink lives in New York with her husband, two children (when they come home to the nest), two dogs and a cat. Ronnie is a teacher and a writer. She has been a contributing writer for Family Fun magazine. She currently writes articles about education and home design. Her writings are in four books including Family Fun Home and Some Delights of the Hudson Valley.


Dan S.
Dan S.7 years ago

Interesting home theater seating history, I didn't know that the art deco term is dating from the '20s