In search of mid-century modern design in the eastern United States – Lonely Planet


Clean lines, industrial materials and mass production: these characteristics define mid-century modern design, which brought sophisticated yet affordable styles to as many homes as possible. Although the height of its popularity was in the mid-20th century, millennials are newly drawn to this design aesthetic (and the beauty of molded plastic chairs).

But where can you find these trendy relics from a not so distant past? The eastern United States is full of travel-worthy sites; below is a selection of seven.

The Glass House, designed by Philip Johnson, is a marvel of engineering and architecture © Michael Biondo

The glass house

People who design glass houses should be prepared to live in them, and Philip Johnson – a titan of American Modernist architecture – was up to the task. His transparent residential project began in the 1940s, when a friend and mentor Mies van der Rohe challenged him to a design duel: planning an all-glass mansion.

Johnson responded by designing The Glass House, an 1,815 square foot home in New Canaan, Connecticut, offering unprecedented panoramic views of a nearby pond and woods. Out of necessity (since unsightly wall joints would be visible through a glass facade), the home has an open floor plan where rooms are defined by the placement of distinctive mid-century furniture. Johnson retained all of the original decor while residing there from 1949 until his death in 2005; a leather sofa, chairs and an ottoman designed by van der Rohe are still visible in the living room.

“I thought it would be nice to have a place where you could turn around and see the whole place, which you can do here,” Johnson said on a site visit in 1991. “I claim that it is the only house in the world where you can see the sunset and moonrise at the same time, standing in one place. You can visit Glass House five days a week from May to November; book tickets at the ‘advance.

George Nakashima Studio and Park

In an era when his contemporaries were designing mass-produced furniture that brought sleek design to as many people as possible, Japanese-American furniture maker George Nakashima made high-end, handmade wood furniture that combined the minimalist lines of Modernism with a Japanese aesthetic. His still-operating studio in New Hope, Pa. – built by Nakashima himself in 1946 and now run by his daughter, Mira – is as much a design destination as the furniture itself.

At Nakashima Studio and Field (which can only be seen at set times or by appointment, as this is also a private residence), visitors can visit the chair store, finishing room, showroom and the conoid studio. The latter – a concrete domed roof supporting a south-facing wall of glass – is an engineering feat not to be missed. Inside these buildings are completely handcrafted furniture; during his lifetime, Nakashima personally selected each piece of wood. Instead of streamlining their selections to make them look alike, the wood slabs were chosen for what other designers might consider imperfections: knots, burrs, and holes.

Exterior of a modernist one-story wooden house in a leafy courtyard shaded by trees on a summer day © dw_ross / CC-by-2.0
The refined and minimalist Pope-Leighey house fits perfectly into its natural environment © dw_ross / CC-by-2.0

Pope-Leighey House

Iconic mid-century architect Frank Lloyd Wright is generally known for his main landmarks (such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York) and stately homes (such as Fallingwater outside Pittsburgh). But in the last 20 years of his career, Wright also designed over 100 “Usonian” homes – affordable, middle-class residences that encouraged a minimalist lifestyle. One of the best-preserved of these, surprisingly, shares a historic 126-acre lot with Woodlawn, a federal-style mansion built in 1805 that was part of George Washington’s original estate at Mount Vernon.

This was not Wright’s intention. The Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria was built in Falls Church, Virginia, after being commissioned in 1939 by journalist Loren Pope. The Pope then sold the house to Marjorie and Robert Leighey, who faced the threat of their house being razed to make way for the expansion of National Route 66. Marjorie fought back, donating the architectural gem to the National Trust in order that they move the building to a safe place. They did, Route 66 extended as planned, and Marjorie continued to live in the house until her death in 1983.

During a 40-minute guided tour of the Pope-Leighey House, you can glimpse signature styles of Wright: an open floor plan, built-in furniture, and a fireplace as the focal point of the home. In order to make the house more affordable, Wright limited the building materials to concrete, brick, wood and glass; there is absolutely no plaster, paint or drywall in the house to reduce maintenance costs. Each Usonian house also received a unique set of geometric patterns carved into the windows, which cast unique shadows on the interior walls and floors.

Wide interior shot of a mid-century modern turquoise, pink and orange kitchen, with colored linoleum flooring and pale pink cabinetry © Lazy Meadow LLC
B-52 singer Kate Pierson salvaged mid-century furnishings for her cozy motel over years of touring © Lazy Meadow LLC

Kate’s lazy meadow

“The Love Shack is a little old place where we can get together,” celebrates Kate Pierson sung as a singer with The B-52’s, a popular new wave group from the 1980s. But Pierson planned to create another cozy gathering spot while touring the retro-loving ensemble, looking for colorful, modern mid-century treasures from auction sales. auctions across the United States. She finally gathered enough items to decorate Kate’s lazy meadow in Mount Tremper, New York, a motel surrounded by nine acres in the Catskills (and conveniently perched midway between Woodstock and Phenicia).

Some of Pierson’s favorite pieces include the Eames Sofa in Suite # 1 and a collection of Heisnner Gnomes in Duplex Suite # 8. Other notable features to look out for are a working record player in one of the bedrooms. and 1950s-style kitchenettes in modern colors. (The lack of cell phone reception is an unintentional throwback to another era, but corrected by free Wi-Fi throughout the motel.)

Trenton Bathhouse

These changing rooms outside the swimming pool of a community center in Ewing Township, New Jersey, were certainly not the most famous project of modernist architect Louis Kahn, who went on to design the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas. , the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California and India. Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. But they were a first foray into the distinctive design language articulation that distinguished his later work. “If the world discovered me after I designed the Richards [Medical Research building in Philadelphia]”Said Kahn,” I discovered myself after designing this little concrete block public bathhouse in Trenton. “

Planned with his colleague Anne Tyng, the 1955 Trenton Bathhouse brings a clean mid-century elegance to classic square and circular shapes. Though modest, these recently restored changing rooms have impressive features: 15-foot-high concrete block walls and an open-air cloister-like atrium. A geometric fresco designed by Kahn and Tyng and colored in black, white and orange, welcomes bathers at the entrance.

The bathhouse is open to visitors during the summer months, but winter tours can be arranged by contacting the Ewing Township Department of Community Affairs.

Three people walk outside Cliveden, a three-story stone house built in 1767, on a sunny day © Visit Philadelphia
Cliveden’s exterior dates from 1767, but the kitchen is a mid-century modern dream © Visit Philadelphia


It is admittedly a bit of a puzzle to visit the Cliveden house in colonial Philadelphia (the site of a battle of the War of Independence) and to find yourself in a mint green kitchen, circa 1959. But this The coexistence of 18th century tableware and chrome appliances is part of Cliveden’s charm. Seven generations of the Benjamin Chew family have lived in Cliveden, from its original construction in 1767 until its donation to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1970, and its two kitchens reflect changing times and needs.

The original outbuilding of the slave operated and inhabited outdoor kitchen was eventually replaced by a 20th-century kitchen, complete with linoleum veneers, pastel-hued cabinetry and a wall clock frozen in time. The stylistic difference between 1950s cuisine and the rest of the classic estate is somewhat jarring, but exemplifies the enduring attachment of one family to the same place and their willingness to live with modern amenities while respecting history. Cliveden operates a historical interpretive project called Living Kitchens, an educational program that examines the social and cultural values ​​reflected in the home’s two kitchens.

Exterior shot of Manitoga with glass front, sitting on rock face surrounded by trees and greenery © Manitoga
The home of modernist designer Russel Wright is an example of his design philosophy © Manitoga


“Good design is for everyone,” proclaimed modernist industrial designer Russel Wright. And indeed, American Modern, Wright’s hugely popular line of ceramic tableware, proved its point by selling over 250 million pieces in the mid-20th century. Pop artist Andy Warhol collected American Modern’s curved pitchers and gravy bowls, they are now part of the permanent collections of major museums and they have made quality design available in mass.

But how did lifestyle design itself live? In the mid-1960s he lived in Manitoga – an abandoned 75-acre quarry in Garrison, New York, which he transformed into a home, studio and garden. A feat of harmonizing the man-made elements with nature, Wright’s house is nestled in a rocky ledge and blends the organic exterior with the domestic interior: pine needles encapsulated in the plaster walls, high boulders serve from the walls and outside there are views of a 30ft Cascade.

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