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A designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, the 1948 house was designed by architects A. Quincy Jones and Whitney R. Smith and toured by AD in 2020. Escher GuneWardena was the architecture firm of record for the restoration. Landscape by Native Sanctuary and Tivoli Landscape Design. Sculpture by Ruby Neri.Photo: Douglas Friedman

Midcentury-Modern Architecture: Everything You Should Know About the Funky and Functional Style

Learn more about the style that designers and homeowners across America have found compelling for over half a century

Midcentury modern is a term that’s thrown around a lot these days, but what is it really? Midcentury-modern architecture is not simply anything that was designed and built in the middle of the 20th century, but in fact an architectural style with a defined set of principles and influences. The style continues to influence contemporary architecture in ways big and small, so below, with the help of four industry experts, we’ve broken it all down from you—from the history to the most famous examples that still stand today. 

What is midcentury-modern architecture?

Midcentury-modern architecture is a style created by architects in the middle decades of the 20th century. Influenced by the optimism of the post-World War II boom and by the exploration of a range of materials, including steel, concrete, and newly available insulated glass, the mainstays of midcentury-modern architecture remain appealing to this day. Though the architects we associate with the style varied in their preferences and creative decisions, there is undeniably a spirit of creativity that unites their creations. 

“Midcentury modern was about stripping away unnecessary ornament and really getting to the essence of a design gesture,” designer Jonathan Adler says. “That clarity of vision is innately communicative and people love design that speaks to them. By stripping away the frills, the designer can communicate directly with the viewer, and communication is ultimately what good design is about.”

For John Ike, a partner of San Francisco–based architecture and design firm Ike Baker Velten, the continued draw to midcentury-modern architecture seems to be a product of specific design elements. “I think it’s really the materials, the open flowing spaces, and the real sunny feel to them that draws people to the architectural style to this day,” explains Ike, who lives in a midcentury-modern home himself in San Diego. 

Elvis and Priscilla Presley honeymooned at this Palm Springs home by architect William Krisel.

Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The history of midcentury-modern architecture

The stage was set for midcentury-modern design by visionary architects and designers that preceded the period. Frank Lloyd Wright is undeniably the most influential figure on the period. Hallmarks of his buildings—site-specific designs, the consideration for flow between the spaces, and his dedication to the use of wood paneling—are all prominent features of midcentury-modern homes. 

The Bauhaus movement was an important stepping stone leading to the midcentury-modern period, as was MoMA’s 1932 International Style exhibition. Architect Philip Johnson was the director of the show, which was the museum’s first architectural exhibition and featured the work of Richard Neutra, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and other figures whose work would influence and define MCM. The works of Alvar Aalto and Marcel Breuer were also formative for MCM, particularly their furniture designs which continue to resonate today. 

The postwar Case Study Houses program—created and sponsored by Arts and Architecture—also resulted in many key examples of midcentury-modern houses. Pierre Koenig, Eero Saarinen, A. Quincy Jones, and the Eameses were among the modern architects who designed homes in response to it, though not all of the homes were constructed. Some have been remodeled into oblivion and some of them have been demolished, but 20 remain standing today according to Forbes.

The Frank Sinatra Twin Palms Estate by E. Stewart Williams

Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

“The style became extremely fashionable in its time,” says Leo Marmol, managing partner of AD100 design-build practice Marmol Radziner, which has worked on the restoration of midcentury-modern homes for over 25 years. “It was something that the media could really kind of sink their teeth into and show these alluring and sexy photographs, and seduce the viewer into this fantasy of modern living.”

Adler, whose work is inspired by midcentury-modern style, would concur. “More than anything I’m drawn to the vibe of optimism and the spirit of postwar possibility. Optimism never goes out of style.”

Defining characteristics and elements of midcentury-modern architecture

  • Clean lines
  • Floor-to-ceiling windows
  • Open floor plans
  • Wood
  • Indoor-outdoor living
  • Built-ins
  • Functionality

Famous examples

Sean Connery on the set of Diamonds Are Forever in the Elrod House

Photo: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

Elrod House by John Lautner

Palm Springs, California

One of the most unique of the midcentury-modern homes, Lautner’s Elrod House was immortalized in the 1971 James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever. Cavelike but not dark thanks to some well-placed large skylights, the Elrod Home is almost verging on UFO territory. As KAA Design’s Grant Kirkpatrick told us, “Palm Springs is a bastion of classic midcentury architecture,” and this is probably among the desert town’s most imaginative structures. 

The TWA Flight Center now operates as a hotel. 

Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Eero Saarinen & Associates’ Trans World Air Flight Center

Queens, New York 

Opened in 1962 and designated as a New York City landmark in 1994, the TWA Flight Center was designed to “express the excitement of travel,” per an ad for the Flight Center that quotes architect Eero Saarinen himself. Nowadays it still expresses that same excitement, though as a hotel that represents a flight through time. According to Antonio Román’s Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity, though many considered the structure to be built to look like a bird in flight, Saarinen himself insisted that was merely coincidental. In any case, the building is one of the most prominent examples of midcentury architecture’s futurist impulse, and a lap around its bright red-carpeted hallways is sure to make a believer out of any midcentury-modern design skeptic. 

Blocks of color add visual interest to the glass-and-steel Eames House structures.

Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Charles and Ray Eames’s Eames House

Pacific Palisades, California

From their furniture with Herman Miller to designing for IBM, the influence of Charles and Ray Eames over our contemporary understanding of midcentury-modern style cannot be overstated. At the center of it all is the Pacific Palisades home they designed and built in 1949. The house in fact consists of two raised steel-and-glass structures, both flaunting flat roofs, bright color blocks, and an intentional connection to its natural surroundings.

The iconic “Poolside Gossip” photo by Slim Aarons

Photo: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House

Palm Springs, California

Also on the West Coast, this Neutra home is most remembered for its appearance in the Slim Aarons photo “Poolside Gossip.” The split-level Kaufmann House is one of Richard Neutra’s many notable structures, and undoubtedly one of the most celebrated Palm Springs homes. “The Kaufmann Home is without a doubt one of the seminal examples of midcentury modern. It is the classic open plan where the interior and the exterior are knit together very seamlessly,” Marmol says. His firm, Marmol Radziner, restored the Kaufmann House in the late 1990s. “It’s incredibly modern in its detailing: simple and elegant.”

The Farnsworth House features a covered patio off the living area. 

Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

Plano, Illinois

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Plano, Illinois, structure is a steel-and-glass house that invites the natural surroundings inside. The house also proves just how wonderful a feature can be even without sunny Southern California weather. Probably the most minimalist among the midcentury-modern homes included here, the Farnsworth House was first built as a country house for Edith Farnsworth, a doctor, violinist, and architecture patron. The home’s core contains the kitchen and two bathrooms, and the bedroom, office, dining area, and living room flow naturally into each other and offer unfettered views of the property’s exterior, with floor to ceiling glass doors opening to a covered patio for additional living space.