Design History

The Modernism Family

The history of modernism is a family affair.

Erica Schaumberg

When thinking about the history of modernism, I imagine the different styles as a family. Mid-century modern design is the over-achieving, older child who can do anything seamlessly and efficiently. Atomic age design binged watched The Jetsons while emulating its older sibling’s sleekness. Similarly, biomorphism captures the effortlessness of its older siblings, but is always carrying around little stones in their pockets. Postmodernism is the youngest child who likes to color outside the lines and demand attention. The  styles within modernism all coexist, expanding and contracting from one another’s influences resulting in its dynamic history. 

MoMA’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings in 1941 considered the harmonious relationship between humans and design while publicly introducing work by Eero Saarinen and Charles & Ray Eames. The designers’ success was ultimately overshadowed by the United States entering WWII. Charles and Ray Eames redesigned their molded plywood furniture for leg splints and stretchers for the US. Military. This process would define their iconic furniture and mid-century design.  

With the growth of suburbia following the war, Americans embraced mass consumption. The market was saturated with uninspired design that did not value clean lines and functionality. In response, design firms Herman Miller and Knoll embraced pre-war Scandinavian and Bauhaus designs while applying mass production, honest materials, and new technology to produce a distinct American style that would naturally integrate in the modern American home. The simplicity of mid-century modernism continues to characterize the easiness and approachability of American style. 

Growing out of mid-century culture, the emergence of Pop Art in the late 1950’s revolutionized visual culture. Artists like Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring directly responded to television, hip hop, HIV Crisis, and current fashions. I value pop artists for their unapologetic approach to design as their work directly responded to contemporary society while making design attainable to average viewers.

Postmodernism designers combined similar principles of mid-century modern designers and pop artists. Forcing viewers to consider the evolutionary culture they became active participants in the theatrical visual culture of the late 20th century. I believe it does a disservice to postmodernism to classify it solely as kitsch when it flirts with elements of commercialism and technology. Postmodernism is inherently fun for its experimental use of color, shapes, and texture. Avant-garde designers like the Italian group Memphis bridged art deco, consumer culture, Hollywood, and ancient Egyptian references. The success of Memphis and other postmodernism designers was their ability to reimagine the contradiction of high and low materials that could be manufactured for mass consumption in the hopes of reimagining a utopian future.

Appreciating mid-century modern and postmodern design can create a fluid visual conversation within your home, enriching it by putting history on display.

Further Reading:

Lucy Richardson, 100 Midcentury Chairs: And Their Stories (2016)


Lauren Whybrow, From A to Eames: A Visual Guide to Mid-century Modern Design (2019)


Amy Auscherman, Leon Ransmeier, and Sam Grawe, Herman Miller: A Way of Living (2019)


Keith Haring, Keith Haring Journals (2010)


Judith Gura and Charles Jencks, Postmodern Design Complete: Design, Furniture, Graphics, Architecture, Interiors (2017) 


Claire Bingham, More is More: Memphis, Maximalism, and New Wave Design (2019)

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