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How Midcentury Modern Became The Pumpkin Spice Latte Of Interior Design

It's neutral design camouflage that's easy to find, wherever you may be.

How Midcentury Modern Became The Pumpkin Spice Latte Of Interior Design

[Photos: via Herman Miller]

"It’s like camouflage." That’s how one design gallerist, Patrick Parrish, explained the enduring popularity of midcentury modern design to the New York Times this week, in a piece entitled "Why Won’t Midcentury Design Die?"

It’s a question critics have been asking, in various ways, for decades. It helps that midcentury design encompasses a remarkably wide and ill-defined period, encompassing many decades and many distinct schools and movements. Meanwhile, midcentury design also plays into our collective fixation on tidy, clean spaces. A lot of it was designed to be mass-produced—and indeed, plenty of knock-offs have sprung up online. It is humane and inclusive, an inoffensive design camouflage that can easily be picked up online or in countless chain stores around the country. It's reigned in pop culture, from Mad Men to Keeping Up with the Kardashians. "I'm reading a book about Le Courvoisier, which is an architect," Kris Jenner recently said in one clip. "It's so weird and boring, but I'm obsessed."

It’s the pumpkin spice latte of the design world: a prefabricated style so inoffensive and ubiquitous that even cynics eventually yield to its nostalgic, neutral warmth. There are many deeper, near-anthropological explanations for the rise of midcentury design, though. It was popularized during the Cold War, when the U.S. sought to portray well-designed American consumer goods as an ideological weapon against the USSR. Then there is theory proposed by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, the Golden Forty Year Rule, which states that nostalgia moves in 40-year cycles, where cultural nostalgia follows a pattern of popularizing styles and aesthetics from roughly four decades prior. Fascinatingly, the term "midcentury design" itself didn’t even exist until it was coined in the mid-1980s, as Laura Fenton reported last year. Google’s Ngram Viewer definitely seems to support the 40-year rule, with mentions of "midcentury modern" exploding around 2000.

A Google Ngram shows the frequency of midcentury design from 1900-2008. For reference, here's the PSL version.

It may also be the product of a great averaging: as algorithms track our preferences and shape our online lives accordingly, we’re all becoming more and more similar. Siri and Alexa, for example, are killing off regional accents. Facebook crafts our news feeds so they match up to what it knows we already love and hate. Companies like Airbnb and WeWork are popularizing the same generic spaces across the globe; it even has a name, recently christened by Kyle Chayka: airspace. Midcentury modern design, it seems, is another form of technological averaging—the cream, gray, and wood-paneled amalgam of all user tastes.

Another fascinating data point about its popularity comes from the home design startup Modsy. The company was founded by Google Ventures and Autodesk alumna Shanna Tellerman, who specialized in game development at CMU and went on to work in the game industry before launching Modsy in August. Tellerman is applying her expertise in game development and rendering to an unlikely space: interior design. To her, it’s an industry that’s badly in need of better UX, a belief reinforced by her own experience trying, and failing, to decorate her new home in San Francisco.

[Rendering: Modsy]

Modsy makes architectural visualization accessible to owners of homes and apartments: For $99, the company will model your space and render it with a new interior plan and furniture, based on your response to a quiz that identifies your ideal style based on a proprietary style "genome" designed by the company. A team of employees then arrange a selection of pieces within your space using an in-house rendering engine and a database of digital furniture models, kicking back a photo-real rendering of what your apartment could look like. If you decide to buy any of those pieces, you can buy them directly through Modsy. It’s a clever piece of UX for people who aren’t interested in hiring an interior designer or spending their weekends scouring stores—which is to say, the majority of us.

While this style quiz is one small part of a much larger business, it’s also a tiny glimpse into what consumers like, and what they don’t, when it comes to design. Of some 10,000-odd people who have taken the quiz so far—it’s free on Modsy’s site—the vast majority end up with the same result, called "mod visionary," even when broken down by geographic region. Modsy reports that the most popular style, by far, is midcentury modern (the least popular: "classic formal").

Of course, these results are defined by the way Modsy has designed the quiz and the "styles" it chose as results. But users are also asked to up- or down-vote individual furniture pieces, and the data shows they tend to fall in line, too. The top-ranked pieces include a Blu Dot credenza ("clean details, warm wood") and a Crate and Barrel chair ("midcentury lines capture the best of 1950s design").

[Image: via Crate and Barrel]

All of this suggests that midcentury design is less a "style" or era of design as it is a byword for "design" itself, as opposed to spaces and products that were not "designed" at all. It goes hand-in-hand with a centuries-long shift in how we think about, and shop for, our own spaces. Before the 20th century, the furniture you owned might be the product of circumstance, where you lived, or simply what you inherited. Even a decade ago, it was often determined by what stores you had access to nearby. Today, we can buy any piece of furniture, from any era, almost instantly. In this way, we’re shifting toward consuming furniture as a kind of gadget or product platform, something we can swap in and out of our lives to best suit our needs and represent our identities.

In that way, midcentury design is literally the "camouflage" Parrish spoke of—a tabula rasa that is easy to produce, easy to ship, and difficult to object to.

related video: Did "Playboy" Magazine Influence Midcentury Architectural Design?

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