Mid-Century … Now! Architecture and Accoutrements.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes

On a new day, Nicola Payne stands at her shopfront and looks out on the leafy suburban street beyond. The morning sun streams in as she affectionately clothes the svelte mannequin at the door, perhaps wrapping her in a ‘50s Harvey Nichols outfit which billows in the breeze. The doll’s inertia belies her ever-changing companions, and she’ll beckon you to stop and gaze at the objets d'art at her side. It’s likely there’ll be an elegant Ercol side table or two, poised to serve a few Manhattan cocktails that evening, or a couple of funky Danske Møbler Lip Chairs inviting you to sink and slouch.

[caption id="attachment_3900" align="alignleft" width="406"] Nicola Payne, Mid Century Found, with a 1953 G-Plan (E. Gomme) British sideboard[/caption]

Then if you peek through the windowpane for just a moment (which will quickly become an hour), you might reel at the layers of ochre, orange, mustard yellows; 3D-geometric textiles, and shelves chock-a-block with mid-century accoutrements. Valiantly trying to provide a foil for the clean-lined sideboards, minimalist cabinets, and bentwood-armed dining chairs, Mid Century Found is a breathing, heaving treasure trove of European, New Zealand, and American ‘50s and ‘60s furniture, lighting, ceramics, and glassware.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes

On a new day, Nicola Payne stands at her shopfront and looks out on the leafy suburban street beyond. The morning sun streams in as she affectionately clothes the svelte mannequin at the door, perhaps wrapping her in a ‘50s Harvey Nichols outfit which billows in the breeze. The doll’s inertia belies her ever-changing companions, and she’ll beckon you to stop and gaze at the objets d’art at her side. It’s likely there’ll be an elegant Ercol side table or two, poised to serve a few Manhattan cocktails that evening, or a couple of funky Danske Møbler Lip Chairs inviting you to sink and slouch.

Nicola Payne, Mid Century Found, with a 1953 G-Plan (E. Gomme) British sideboard

Then if you peek through the windowpane for just a moment (which will quickly become an hour), you might reel at the layers of ochre, orange, mustard yellows; 3D-geometric textiles, and shelves chock-a-block with mid-century accoutrements. Valiantly trying to provide a foil for the clean-lined sideboards, minimalist cabinets, and bentwood-armed dining chairs, Mid Century Found is a breathing, heaving treasure trove of European, New Zealand, and American ‘50s and ‘60s furniture, lighting, ceramics, and glassware.

It’s all marvellously ‘mid-century modern’ – a term popularised when author Cara Greenberg coined it in her book of the same name in 1983 – and a personal and professional passion that Nicola stumbled upon when she needed affordable, classic household items to fill her wee 1950s home.

“Mid-century modern spans the years 1945-69. It evolved from the earlier Modernism and Bauhaus styles and interlapped with the 1920-80s industrial International and 1950-80s ‘béton brut’ (raw concrete) Brutalism movements until emerging in the US, post-war,” says Nic.

The hard-edged, clear-cut, unadorned shapes of those architectural influences were a response to late 19th-century dissatisfaction with the eclectic mishmash of lush arts and crafts and art nouveau building design to date, which played little heed to functionality.

After World War Two, much of Europe need rebuilding, and as materials were expensive, concrete and steel sufficed as a practical choice for social housing requirements as well as a solution for an increasingly industrialised society. For all their rational austerity, the prevalent styles were an optimistic look towards a hopeful future and reflected a desire for a better life after the war and a new way forward.

“Form (ever) follows function!” was the architectural catch cry of the time (first uttered by US architect Louis Sullivan in the late 1800s) and none exclaimed louder than founder of the Bauhaus School and leader in the development of glass-steel modernist architecture, Walter Gropius.

He, along with German-born Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Hungarian Marcel Breuer, and Swiss-French Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (known as Le Corbusier) fled the war in Europe and emigrated to England and then to the US. They were part of a generation of architects instrumental in formulating and teaching the defining style of mid-century modern, in cahoots philosophically – to a degree at least – with American Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater.
Photo: Kirk Thornton, Unsplash

Although individualist Wright refused to be connected or limited to any one architectural genre and did indeed experiment with many, by the 1930s, he had begun to explore the concept of open-plan interiors and ‘space’ rather than rooms. He believed strongly in designing in harmony with humanity and the environment, an idealism he called organic architecture and of which his 1939 Fallingwater – a private residence in Pennsylvania – was an iconic example.

In Wright’s opinion, “Form and function are one!” and thus a new dimension to the hitherto ascetic style of architecture was born. Wright’s all-embracing sense of architectural unity was achieved by adopting empathetic and site-specific design strategies, incorporating people, shelter, and nature. As Scandinavian designs began to infiltrate the west coast of the US, his work was soon complemented by Nordic modernist architect Alvar Aalto – one of Nicola Payne’s all-time favourites.

Mid-century modern dream home.
Photo: Jens Behrmann, Unsplash

“Scandinavian craftsmanship was inspired by nature,” she says. “Alvar Aalto brought natural materials, teak wood, organic curves, and bentwood design to mid-century modern. He was an architect and artist but also designed furniture, textiles, glassware, sculptures. I saw him at the Resene Architecture & Design Film Festival [on again in May/June 2022] – loved it.”

According to collector Nic, it is Aalto’s woodwork that defines him. In the 1930s and onward, he became identified with wood – the essential, profuse, natural material that served as the backbone of the Finnish economy – and he is celebrated as the inventor and shaper of steam-bent plywood furniture. Nic cites his famous stackable stools (still in production), nesting tables, lounge chair, Paimio Sanatorium Chair (one specially designed in 1931 for the TB hospital in Paimio, Finland, and also known as the scroll chair) whose seat is made of a single piece of undulating bent plywood that seems to float in the frame. All timeless pieces Nic would love to sell in her store! Aalto’s gift for creating undulating walls and ceilings out of red pine, binding beech wood with withes (tough, pliable branches) into columns ironically parallels his surname, which translated from Finnish means “wave”.

Charles and Ray Eames Chairs
Photo: Jean-Philippe Delberghe, Unsplash

Aalto was concerned with design as a Gesamtkunstwerk, “a total work of art” and would rely less on a building’s technical and functional consideration, instead giving priority to the psychological and sensual aspects of design through colour, light and sound, and materials, especially, as mentioned, wood. He would not only create the structure of a building but also include sympathetic interior surfaces, Scandinavian Modern furniture, and accoutrements.

Inclusion in Sigfried Giedion’s influential book on Modernist architecture, Space, Time, and Architecture: The growth of a new tradition II (1949) meant Aalto’s international reputation was sealed. The book proffered Aalto more attention than any other modernist architect, including Le Corbusier – a true coup d’état. In partnership with his wife, Aino, the idea was developed that natural forms and human emotion could be used to inspire organic architecture and design while remaining rationally and structurally modern.

Aalto’s design of the curvaceous Finnish Pavilion was described by Frank Llyod Wright in 1939 as the “work of a genius” and though the two designers lived in opposite parts of the world, their incessant exchanges across the Atlantic Ocean on the place of organic building styles made them mutually complicit. In 1945, Aalto met the much older Wright at a luncheon at the Manhattan Club in New York City – perhaps marking enduring mutual respect and empathy.

Unlike their Bauhausian predecessors, both Wright and Aalto enjoyed fluid designs – styles that have led the way to an interest in bringing the outside in, visually via glass walls and physically via internal gardens. Mid-century modern began to spurn the nominal blueprint of its origins, and though simplicity and clarity remained key, a certain softness and connection with nature became just as integral.

Buildings were nestled into hillsides, some structures seemed to float above the ground. Floor to ceiling windows invited viewing from every vantage point and mirrored and reflected the nature around. Lighting flooded in and exterior cladding blended with the seasons. Water features were common. Rooflines were long and lean, sometimes disappearing into the bordering trees. Mid-century modern had evolved to embrace organic architecture; the idea that all elements belong together, from floor and doors to furniture and natural surroundings, all components relating to one another and thereby creating a ‘unified organism’.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Taliesin West, Phoenix.
Photo: Don McClintock, Pixabay

As declared by Frank Lloyd Wright in The Harmony of Form and Function: “Organic Architecture is an architecture from within outward, in which entity is an ideal. Organic means, in the philosophic sense, entity. Where the whole is [to] the part as the part is to the whole and where the nature of the materials, the nature of the purpose, the nature of the entire performance becomes a necessity.”

The mid-century modern attributes of simplicity, minimalism, and functionalism coupled with its nature-oriented style found an easy and accepting following when it crossed the Pacific Ocean and travelled to New Zealand. Austrian designer Ernst Plischke immigrated to Aotearoa in 1939 after buildings of the modernist style were banned in his home country by the German occupation.

“Plischke came to New Zealand from Vienna and settled in Wellington where he became a town planner,” says Nic. “Before emigrating, he was the modernist architect responsible for Gamerith House at Lake Attersee in Austria – a home that seemed to float on the water and meld into the surrounding hillside.” That design foreshadowed his later work in New Zealand where he conceived the privately-owned Frankl House in Christchurch as well as working for the Ministry of Housing and the Department of Town Planning. He was also a furniture designer and in 1947, a desk made to his specifications was the Government of New Zealand’s official wedding gift to Princess Elizabeth.

Plischke’s Danish neighbours Kaj and Bente Winther immigrated to New Zealand in the mid-1950s. They set up their company, Danske Møbler, in 1962, which still stands as one of the oldest surviving beacons of Scandinavian designer furniture in New Zealand. Nic cites other international influences like Dutch designer Rob Parry whose Plexiglas dining chair (1947) molded in the form of the human body; armchair with an adjustable back (1950); and a multi-functional, shifting piece of furniture that functioned as an armchair, sofa, and bed all-in-one (1959) can be found in museum collections worldwide.

Nic stocks the stuff when she can get her hands on it, but it sells almost immediately – sometimes to customers who have designed and built their own mid-century style homes. “I know a few people who love the era and have built their home to suit, with the in-built cabinetry and shelving, big windows, and furniture that folds away which are all typical of the style. They then come to me to help them fill it with things,” says Nic.

“When they [mid-century modern designers] made these beautiful objects and houses, it was a trend at the time. But they actually sought to create timeless designs that would last for decades – and they do. On my bucket list: a trip to Palm Springs – the US home of mid-century modern,” she says.

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in