Midcentury modern style dominates the market for medium-expensive furniture, as anyone who’s recently tried to buy a couch from the glut of Instagram-friendly direct-to-consumer furniture retailers can testify. (We went with the Article Sven, which is on its way; if it’s bad, don’t tell me.) Mad Men (2007–15) amplified a growing 21st century affection for the style, but when that show came out Dwell magazine (2000–present) had already taught me to salivate over expensively restored ranch homes with huge glass windows, and Ikea (which came to the U.S. in 1985) had brought midcentury-ish knockoffs well within the purchasing reach of American twentysomethings.
How did we get here? Art historian Kristina Wilson’s new book, Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Power in Design, gives the ubiquitous decorating style the historical context it deserves. We spoke about how midcentury modernism appeared when it was new, in the magazines Life and Ebony; how furniture can demand you sit a particular way; and how nostalgia for the midcentury look also idealizes the white suburbia of decades past.
Slate: How do you define “midcentury modernism”—what it was back then and what it is now?
Kristina Wilson: One of the stories that’s been told about midcentury modernism in scholarship is the idea that modern design—simple forms, lack of ornament, new materials—was breaking from the past, it was affordable, it was kind of this bright new day of the booming consumer culture of the 1950s. It used new technologies after the war. It’s the liberation of the American consumer economy.
The way we remember it looking, and the way it sometimes did look at the time, is open: simple rooms with these bizarrely clean floors, with no clutter whatsoever. And the open floor shows off the very elegant little metal legs or sculpted wooden legs of a chair or a coffee table, highlights the surprising silhouettes of these unusual designs.
Part of the starting point for me, with this project, was to say there’s something that seems ideologically pat about that [scholarly celebration of the style’s innovations]. The counterpoint to this is we know now that the landscape of suburbia was legally and rigorously segregated on multiple levels. It wasn’t a bright, new, shiny opportunity for lots of Americans … and also for the white women who were living in suburbia, it wasn’t necessarily a land of exciting freedom.
With this work I wanted to ask: What ideas was this kind of design really being deployed to support? Because not everyone is buying into the idea that this is a newer, better world in the 1950s. Certainly it’s nice to have furniture that requires less dusting! But not everyone is feeling that life is improved.
So I wanted to see the ways that the story that’s been written about midcentury modernism is actually a white story. I want to call out the way that this particular popular history is not really about morning in America—it’s about whiteness and control. About controlling bodies and cleanliness. And I want to talk about the ways that different audiences who were buying modernism at the time were participating in it. Those audiences haven’t all had equal visibility, in part because the design history establishment is very white.
Something that helped me get my mind around this was to think of the whiteness of the midcentury suburbs as having been created at an urban planning level—the practices of housing covenants and redlining—and then on an architectural level, as in the work of Dianne Harris, which you reference. She argues that the way suburban houses were supposed to look at the time was coded as white: clean, open, crisp, a contrast to the city’s crowding and dirtiness. Then you’re sort of turning to the design of the objects in those houses and seeing how whiteness works there.
The parts of Harris’ argument that I found the most resonant were where she talks about how media representations of these midcentury suburban houses always had white people in them. I was interested in that, in looking at Life and Ebony: Where do we see white people interacting with modern design? Where do we see Black people doing the same? How does it look, when we see it? Designs take on different meanings depending on the context in which they’re used, so it’s not like these designs are definitely white or definitely not. It’s about the narratives [modern designs] are put into, about how they look in the advertising that a company like Herman Miller puts forward, or how they get used as props in other ads for cleaning companies or car companies, how they’re used as props in editorial images.
What I found was you see persistent recurring references to midcentury modernism in Life, and in that context, it’s about control and a certain kind of access. There’s also a lot of rhetoric about modernism being affordable. In Ebony, modernism is discussed as being more elite or upper-class—it’s a tool to enable this very comfortable, confident lifestyle; it gives sort of an ability to welcome people into a social gathering, and some bodily comfort. While in Life, nobody ever seems to be enjoying their modern furniture!
I’m curious about this word control, if you could say a little more about what you mean. Are you talking about day-to-day regulation of how the house works, or how people move inside the house?
In the first chapter of the book, I talk about decorative advice manuals. There’s one written by Mary and Russel Wright [Guide to Easier Living, 1950]. The final edition advises on the modernist order of the house. One example is that a good entry foyer means that you should be able to dispense with all the dirt and dust of the outside before you enter into the house—that sense of boundary, order, regulation that the foyer creates. And the space where you get kind of encased in clothes to get protected to go out into the outside world. That’s a kind of control.
Another example: I talk about how designers Charles and Ray Eames invented a leg splint during World War II that was used for medical evacuations. The splint dictates the idea of what is a healthy leg. Their chairs, with that molded plywood, came out of the technology that they developed for the leg splint. The chairs propose an ideal posture and comportment—and size!—of the body.
Another of the images I’m always coming back to is one of a woman sitting on what’s called the “Marshmallow Sofa” [the classic Herman Miller piece designed by George Nelson that’s made up of round cushions on a metal frame]. The image is of this woman sort of in a cage. The marshmallow sofa is not comfortable! You can move around on it, but you’re always sort of on display. All of the media images of it are from behind, showing it in this particular light. That’s another kind of bodily control.
I want to talk about decorative elements—vases, cigarette boxes, ashtrays, sculptures, objets d’art—because that’s where you locate the stuff that’s coded “not white” in the midcentury modern house. What kinds of cultural references were midcentury modern tastemakers suggesting that people make in their houses?
A lot of the white tastemakers seem to talk about these non-Western accessories as a sign of your global traveler status. It reads as a way of appropriating and owning the artwork and craft skills of non-Western artisans that doesn’t reflect or respect the complexity of a culture that is different from your own. Herman Miller, in publicity materials, staged rooms with their furniture and a variety of objects they were sourcing from Latin America. These objects are clearly presented as not industrially made—and not white.
The end result feels to me like they’re being set up as a binary opposite to the industrial modernism of Herman Miller products—so the effect is a very smooth, clean-looking room with a pop of supposed authenticity in the form of these objects.
Yes, exactly. It’s how a white Westerner can borrow non-Western qualities or characteristics without having to be defined by them. It’s a dynamics of possession and power.
You end the book talking about the persistence of midcentury modern style in our own decor. The comparison you make between our fixation on midcentury modern and the Colonial Revival trend of the late 19th and early 20th century explained a lot.
Yes! The Colonial Revival was the most popular home furnishing style between the 1880s and 1950s. It was about simplicity, in contrast to the excessive ornateness of the Victorian interior—but also about a sort of a pride in America, the American past. And of course in this kind of story, “the past” meant white America: Paul Revere, Puritans, and so on.
I think the appeal of midcentury modernism comes because this is our America, it’s our past, but it still feels new and a little transgressive because it’s not “old” old! In the same way that people who liked Colonial Revival style liked it because it felt authentic, we like midcentury modernism because it somehow feels that way. I just think we should be mindful of the fact that the story that has come down to us about the period that produced midcentury modern style has been a white history.