What Is Mid-Century Modern? Way More Than 'Mad Men' May Lead You to Believe

While shopping for homes (or furniture to put in it), you will quickly see that one particular style is all over the place these days: Mid-Century Modern. So what exactly is Mid-Century Modern?

Fans of the show “Mad Men” may already be conjuring up images of Don Draper’s snazzy Manhattan apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows and that sunken living room, but the classic style is about so much more than chain-smoking guys in skinny ties and women with beehive hairdos.

Mid-Century Modern is actually an architecture and design movement that changed the way many of us live—and its influences are hotter than ever today.

Mid-Century Modern homes began springing up in the mid-1940s, right after World War II, and continued to spread through the 1980s. Soldiers were coming home, starting families, and setting off the baby boom. They needed new homes quickly, and the experimental technologies and materials—steel, aluminum, tempered glass, stucco, and plywood—developed during the war and beyond were quickly applied to residential structures to meet the needs of the growing U.S. population.

The Mid-Century Modern era, which lasted until the 1980s, produced a number of prominent architects, including Philip Johnson, John Lautner, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra. (Schindler and Neutra were mentored by Frank Lloyd Wright, a seminal American architect.)

When it comes to superstar Mid-Century Modern homes themselves, perhaps the most famous are the Case Study Houses, found mostly in Los Angeles but also in San Francisco and Phoenix. When they were built, the Case Study Houses were designed for affordability, but their value has skyrocketed over the years—and many have been preserved, restored, and maintained by historic organizations.

Homes and buildings constructed in the Mid-Century Modern architectural style all have certain elements in common, including the following: Flat planes and geometric lines: The exterior walls are usually unembellished with round columns, elaborate porches, or bay windows. They are smooth and flat, often accented by geometrically shaped windows. In warmer climates, where snow buildup is not an issue, it’s common for roofs to be flat.

Large windows and walls of glass: The popularity of the sliding glass door and the floor-to-ceiling window originated in the Mid-Century Modern era. They were built in an effort to integrate outdoor nature with indoor living. Houses were designed with the goal being to make sure as many rooms as possible had expansive outdoor views. At the time, this was considered not only aesthetically pleasing but advantageous to one’s health as well.
Open floor plans: In earlier eras, rooms tended to be small in order to promote privacy. But the postwar era of peace and love went hand in hand with more common space. By integrating fewer walls and more open spaces into the floor plan, Mid-Century Modern style encouraged families to share space and feel more engaged with one another.
Varied elevations: Large, open, geometric spaces were broken up with a few small steps, rather than entire stories and staircases. The split-level design and the sunken living room were ways to create rooms without walls. Smooth, unadorned built-in cabinets of varying heights gave the same effect and provided storage.

If you’re on the market for a Mid-Century Modern home, it won’t come cheap. Due to the popularity of this style, these homes can command as much as 149% more than similarly sized homes of different styles. (Believe it or not, that’s a higher premium than a home designed by Wright!) Still, if you love the look, the appeal does not seem to be waning any time soon, so odds are it’s a great investment that won’t seem outdated.