At Design Within Reach (aka Design Out Of Reach) you can buy a George Nelson reproduction ball clock for $300.
You can tune in to Mad Men and revel in the mid-century modernism of Manhattan.
That glorious era, the apex of American design and styling, has been hip for many years – it certainly was when I was in architecture school, years ago, but somewhere between the overpriced clocks and countless coffee tables books, the idealism, the utopianism, the passion and the hope of the original movement has been lost.
I know, I know: unalloyed utopianism in these post-post-modern times? You’d have better luck finding a flock of dodo birds nesting in your front yard.
In January of 1945, John Entenza, the editor of Arts and Architecture magazine, published a not-so-humble five page announcement in which he stated the magazine would sponsor the construction of eight post-war houses in Southern California.
With that the Case Study House Program was born, and it had as its mission nothing less than the complete revamping of the single family American house.
“Whether that answer is to be the ‘miracle’ house remains to be see,” wrote Entenza, “but it is our guess that after all of the witches have stirred up the broth, the house that will come out of the vapors will be conceived within the spirit of the vapors of our time….best suited to the expression of man’s life in the modern world.”
That, and put in enough closets.
This new architecture was to celebrate the prefab materials developed for the war effort, become affordable to the American Everyman in the process, blur the stodgy old lines between inside and outside, and be equipped with all manner of modern appliance to give the housewife ample time to hang out the laundry on a sunny California afternoon while waiting for her husband to helicopter in from a long day of work for that first martini.
“Because most opinion, both profound and light-headed, in terms of post war housing is nothing but speculation…it occurs to us that it might be a good idea to get down to cases,” continued Entenza, “on a ‘put-up or shut-up basis.’”
“Put up or shut up?” This respectable, professional man was cursing the equivalent of a Chris Rock routine in 1945 to exhort architects to stop talking and start building.
“Perhaps we will cling longest to the symbol of ‘house’ as we have known it,” mused Entenza, “or perhaps we will realize that in accommodating ourselves to a new world the most important step in avoiding retrogression into the old, is a willingness to understand and to accept contemporary ideas in the creation of environment that is responsible for shaping the largest part of our living and thinking.”
That’s right. Entenza and many others believed, as do I, that the containers we live in have the power to shape our living and thinking.
Call it what you will: good mojo, feng shui, nice bones, that calming koi pond out back.
That (naïve?) belief in progress and perfectibility, as much as the gorgeous, sexy snapshots of mid-century homes we were shown in school, turned me on since I first saw that jaw dropping black and white photo of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22 way back when.
Here it is again, in color.
And here are two more of daddy’s daydreams:
So successful was the program that it continued until 1962 and eventually over twenty sublime houses were built. As to their practicality, price and replicability, I don’t know much. I do know that I’ve looked at the Eames house in person, and driven past a few others, and they look as modern, fresh, and hopeful as they did 60 odd years ago.
When Winston Churchill was prime minister and was told that there were going to have to be major cuts in arts and culture because of the mounting costs of world war II, he responded simply: “Then what are we fighting for?”