It was love at first sight for a couple of friends who had recently toured a Los Angeles open house on a whim. It was an unpretentious fixer-upper teetering on the edge of Mount Washington in LA’s sleepy Highland Park. Aside from a few necessary repairs, the house was perfect. The only real problem, they said, was its million-dollar price tag which, given the high cost of real estate in California, would have otherwise been considered a steal. It was a real bummer, they added, especially since the house was totally their style — mid-century modern.
Like most millennial metro transplants, I’d too hopped onto the mid-century modern bandwagon, having first encountered the style while dating a guy who mentioned it with such manic frequency it became increasingly clear it was the only style he knew. He wasn’t, I soon realized, alone in this. It’s rare to peruse a real estate website and find a house or apartment that hasn’t been staged with knock-off mid-century emblems: the low and broad walnut credenza, chairs with flared and tapered legs, or the sleek, sans-serif numbering more commonly known as the “gentrification font.”
Whether mid-century modern aesthetics are ubiquitous because of their undeniable appeal or appealing as a result of their ubiquity is hard to say. What is clear is the widespread appreciation for the style’s ability to eschew superfluous embellishment by placing equal emphasis on form and function with sleek lines and tranquil austerity. Mid-century modern spaces aren’t made to be filled but be just that — space — acting as a less-is-more refuge from a more-is-more world. In a noisy, high-tech society, it’s no wonder they’re all the craze, but it appears mid-century modernism’s cultish popularity has all but blinded us to the basic needs it was initially meant to address.
In their heyday, mid-century modern architects were designing homes not for America’s upper crust, but its White middle-class. The Case Study House Program, which was devised by Arts & Architecture Magazine, ran intermittently from 1945 to 1966 as an experimental effort to address the post-war housing shortage with easy-to-build, economical homes for the average White American family. Hard to believe such an effort would later result in the crème de la crème of real estate. Today, these Case Study Houses are heralded as lasting works of art. A few of them even operate as museums, like Case Study House #22, better known as the Stahl House, which sits perched atop a West Hollywood cliff so that from the inside it appears to be floating just above the hazy glow of LA’s urban sprawl.
However artistic, a Case Study House isn’t exactly a Picasso. Even the price of one designed by Richard Neutra (a mid-century modern Picasso of his time) would be paltry in comparison, but it’s a price very few present-day, middle-class, not to mention working-class, Americans can pay. Celebrities like Kristin Wiig, on the other hand, can. In 2017, she snagged Case Study House #10 for nearly $3 million, just a stone’s throw from Meryl Streep’s — though hers is technically not a Case Study House. According to Architectural Digest, Wiig’s purchase “made history.”
While the nation’s top earners may be the present-day victors of mid-century modernist history, companies like Design Within Reach have worked to make it more, well, within reach. Founder Rob Forbes started the company shortly after trying to, “furnish his flat with modern classics he’d come to appreciate while living in London.” He soon realized that designer works were, “‘out of reach’ for anyone who didn’t know the secret handshake or have the patience to wait months for delivery.” (The above quotes are from the “About Us” page on the company’s website.) One shouldn’t, however, conflate accessibility and affordability. The company’s catalog contains a myriad of pieces, one being the Cesca Chair, a striking, yet simple replica of one originally designed by Marcel Breuer in 1928, later displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. The purchasable replica, which is made of a tubular chrome frame whose seat and back are woven with flaxen cane, costs just under $1,000 apiece. In 1928, a Cesca Chair would have cost $24 (almost $400 today with inflation).
Dazed by our nostalgia for modernist aesthetics, it’s also easy to ignore mid-century modernism’s not-so-sexy sides. Plein air spaces with uninterrupted floor-to-ceiling windows are unequivocally dazzling, but less so are their carpeted floors and boxy furniture which — no matter how innovatively styled — give the impression of an office that hasn’t been occupied since John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Mid-century modern is, after all, mid-twentieth century modern, a period that began nearly a century ago. Perhaps it’s time we emulate the better civic efforts that gave rise to mid-century modernism rather than just its aesthetics by addressing the yawning wealth gap and exorbitant cost of housing of our own time.
For now, I told my friends, they’d have to get over the house that got away. They bobbed their heads and asked if I ever planned on buying a home. I hadn’t really thought about real estate, I told them, but probably would once I could comfortably afford my rent. I would however, splurge on a replica of a Hans Wegner chair. Its price of $275 is one I can afford to pay.