House Design

Mid century modern homes – the ultimate design guide

Everything you need to know about mid century modern homes, inside and out

Mid century modern homes
(Image credit: Sterling Davis/Unsplash)

Mid century modern homes have appeared everywhere from Slim Aarons famous photographs of backyard parties to noir films from the 1960s. But mid century modern homes are the most recent style of architecture and house design to be given an iconic status among design historians. 

The angular forms and signature elements of any mid century modern house goes behind the stone masonry of a Georgian home or the joinery used in Craftsman cottages; this most distinctive of house styles remains memorable for a different reason – the modernist lens that broke traditional barriers in the mid-20th century.

What are mid century modern homes?

Mid century modern homes are residential, single-family homes built using modernist principles and design tactics like cantilevered walls, flat-facing surfaces, and simple lines. 

While the style is still used today in new structures, the name comes from the period in which the style emerged, between 1945 and 1970, though primarily between 1947 and 1957.

Mid century modern architecture

(Image credit: Bob Osias/Unsplash)

Where did the mid century modern style originate?

Because this style is pegged more to time than geography, there are a few answers that could be plausible. Depending on your preferred versions of modernism from this era, some might say that the Bauhaus school led to mid century modern design in America. 

Within the US though, the style largely stems from California, where architects and designers like Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, Arne Jacobsen, and so many other pioneered the style by bucking the traditions of more formal, ornate styles.

In cities like Chicago and in Europe, designers like Le Corbusier, or Mies van der Rohe were working on modernist structures, building large, monolithic structures that made the most of flat surfaces and curtain-glass windows for a sleek, minimalist approach.

Mid century modern architecture

(Image credit: Alamy)

What are the characteristics of mid century modern homes?

Mid century modern homes are characterized by the geometric lines of the architecture, flat, angled roofs that extend beyond the walls, and flat surfaces without ornamentation. Large windows that often slide open on to similarly geometric inner courtyards, patios or decks – integrating indoors with outdoors is an important design feature – are the main feature of rooms that often have changes in level. These rooms are often wood-panelled, boxy and flooded with light.

Where other homes might have a sloping mansard roof or jutting bay windows, mid century modern buildings catch the eye for their lack of grandeur. Aesthetically, mid century modern homes are so simple that they read as sophisticated. They are, almost literally, a box. 

Rather than deal with the ornate exteriors and ornamented molding that inhibited designs previously in architectural trends, mid century design throws all that away and lets fewer lines, broader spaces, and the openness do the talking for the rest of the architectural plan, which people find refreshingly open.

People gravitate toward the style for several reasons. Unlike other home styles like Victorian or Colonial homes, which are old too, but feel more antiquated than retro, mid century modern homes aren’t so old that there are people today who still remember when they came to prominence. Like when your grandfather tells you about how he remembers seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

Mid century modern home

(Image credit: Alamy)

Where are most mid century modern homes?

You can find mid century modern homes just about anywhere in America, with slightly different variations. The originals are mostly tucked into the hillsides of Southern California – notably Palm Springs – and you'll find everything from bungalow style homes and stilted silhouettes are dotted all along the streets of Los Angeles and Long Beach. 

Across the country, other formats of mid century modern house design came to prominence, but using more winter-worthy materials like brick to construct their signature looks. A few hours north of New York City, for example, pupils of the legendary modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright built an entire town of case study homes using mid century modern design, dubbed 'Usonia'.

Original mid century modern homes sell for millions of dollars in California – even for just a one-bedroom home. New builds have become expansive, sprawling properties with thousands of square feet to show off and angular, clean shapes that stand out on any street in America.

Mid century modern home

(Image credit: Sterling Davis/Unsplash)

How to decorate a mid century modern home

Luckily, there’s a whole interior design style under mid century modern interiors. 

Most interiors are open floor plans in these homes, so less is more. Use rugs or plants or bookshelves to create your own dividers that suit you and your family’s needs in these architectural floor plans. 

As for what furniture to bring into the space, there are plenty of examples of classic, mid century designs to use, such as tulip chairs from Eero Saarinen, Eames lounge chairs, Barcelona seating from van der Rohe, and plenty more alternatives that use chrome plating and minimalist lines to make the same simplicity outdoors work inside.