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Introducing: “Mid-Century Modest” and the Mid-Century Modest Manifesto

love the house you're in collageToday is RetroRenovation.com’s second birthday. And on this occasion I would like to introduce something I’ve been noodling for the better part of the year — an all-new term that I have invented: “Mid-Century Modest.” I first used the term at my home show talks in Eugene in March…and then again when I met with the wonderful Portland MCM League group for dinner right after.  I believe that author Cara Greenberg is credited with coining “mid-century modern,” in 1985, with her book of the same name. A mere 24 years later, let me introduce “Mid-Century Modest” and along with it, the Mid-Century Modest Manifesto.

I think that we all pretty much know what “mid-century modern” design is all about, at least in its popular incarnation. There is an entire philosophy behind it, but in short, it’s typified today by sleek and futuristic designs like Saarinen tulip chairs, $,6000 Eames lounges, and experimental-shaped, high-ceiling, loft-like contemporary homes. The irony is that while mid-century modern design came out a kind of communist “internationalist” ethic aiming to make housing more accessible to the masses, it can actually be out of reach. As you know, I like to call it “high falutin’ mid-century modern design” in recognition that authentic licensed designs are very expensive.

My new term, Mid-Century Modest, recognizes the fact that while there may have been 1 million mid-century modern homes built in postwar America, there were about 29 million Mid-Century Modest homes. And, while Americans may have had a progressive social and economic outlook, they tended toward the conservative in their homes. In all these years, nothing quite says “stable and affluent” in the U.S. of A. like a center entrance Colonial. That’s why we see so many Early American elements both inside and outside our postwar homes. Finally, while some pundits today consider the vernacular mass-market postwar design all too “kitsch” and pretty much spit on the idea of “tract” houses and all they stood/stand for, I say: Let’s celebrate Mid-Century Modest, too – because this era of American housing and all it encompassed were really quite fascinating and special.

So, that said, here is my first draft of my “Mid-Century Modest Manifesto”:

The Mid-Century Modest Manifesto

NO QUESTION, we love Mid-Century Modern homes,
the high falutin’ designer kind.
BUT IN POSTWAR AMERICA, while we built
maybe 1 million mid-century moderns –
we built some 29 million Mid-Century Modest homes.

MID-CENTURY MODEST:
Mainstream. Main Street. Mass produced. Middle Class homes.
ROYAL BARRY WILLS Cape Cods at one end of the architectural spectrum.
CLIFF MAY Ranches on the other.
AND OVER THE NEXT 30 YEARS –
a gazillion prosaic, vernacular melting-pot variations in between.

MID-CENTURY MODEST HOMES ARE: Small –
1,000 square feet — or less! — for many years running.
“SMALL” TODAY– but to their owners starting in 1946,
they were the culmination of the American Dream.
Following years of economic Depression and WWII,
these little homes were an amazing gift.

HOW DO WE LOVE THEE, Mid-Century Modest homes?
Let us count the ways…

    • Built with love and immense gratitude…
    • Wonderful features – pastel bathrooms, fitted kitchens, livable layouts.
    • Knotty pine paneling – installed by Gramps.
    • Lots of ingenious Americana like Nutone exhaust fans, Hall-Mack Tow’lscopes, and Dishmasters.
    • Wallpaper and pinch pleats and pull-down kitchen lights.
    • Boomerang cabinet pulls and wagon wheel lights and braided rugs.
    • Indoor plumbing.
    • Unpretentious. Exuberant. The first taste of true material comfort for many millions of people.
    • Our houses have stories…
    • Stories about the beginning of a new American era still playing out today.
    • Did I mention small? Yes. But small is — green…
    • Small is quite often: “enough.”

THERE IS MUCH TO APPRECIATE in our Mid-Century Modest homes.
And certainly nothing to apologize for.
GRANITE countertops? Who needs ‘em, especially when they come with
a home equity loan that stresses our family finances beyond our limits.
What silliness. What Insanity.
SHHHH! Don’t tell anyone, but our Mid-Century Modest homes,
because they are so unpretentious by today’s standards,
can be much more affordable to buy and to renovate.

RETRO RENOVATION is very much about the “Re”:
Reduce. Re-Use. Recycle. Restore. Re-Store.
Returning to the source of “The American Dream”…
And in the process, re-thinking what we want it to mean for us today.

OH YEAH, and Retro style has a happiness-quotient that is off the charts.
WE LOVE our Mid-Century Modest homes
in all their glorious simplicity and optimism,
and cherish the opportunity to safeguard their history and heritage.
That’s the: Mid-Century Modest Manifesto.

Copyright © RetroRenovation.com 2009

  1. grapeshot says:

    I bought my 1959 vintage tract home in 1990, and loved it from the minute I saw it. It’s in a nice neighborhood with blocks and blocks of similar homes and mature trees lining the streets. People take walks with their families or their pets all the time, and kids ride their bicycles to the nearby school and playground. The house was pretty well preserved, with some 1980’s redecorating — but fortunately not too terribly out of place.

    At the time, everyone was starting to build those “mcmansions’ everywhere, and I felt a bit out of step, since I loved my modest little house. I always thought that this house was plenty big for myself, and why would I need more space to furnish and to keep clean. Not to mention that my property taxes are affordable.

    I love the mint green tile in the bathroom, the built in cupboard and buffet in the dining room, the fireplace that a previous owner added, and the “rumpus room” that another previous owner created in the basement (with lovely knotty pine walls). The original floor plan included larger closets than was typical at the time. My only difficulty has been trying to get appropriate furniture and decor — not only for budget reasons but also for aesthetic reasons. I didn’t want to over-decorate this home, and for many years the “retro” look didn’t exist (except seemingly only in my mind!)

    Thanks for this website, and for declaring the “mid century modest” manifesto, which I think I’ve always believed in, but didn’t know it until now.

  2. emily says:

    I keep coming back to the mid-century modest manifesto…I love that the mid-century modern movement has given the world a new appreciation for mid-century design, but our house is not modern in the same way. It’s modest! And we love it! The average size home in 1950 was 950 square feet. Our home, built in 1950, is a little smaller at 922 square feet. We’ve got the original blue tile bathroom and yellow tile kitchen. And we’re looking forward to staying in our little 2 bedroom, 1 bath house, raising our son there, and not “upgrading” or “up-sizing”. (And having the house paid off within the foreseeable future!) If other families did the same for generations before–and they did–then why do we suddenly need so much more?

    Pam, have you thought of starting a Flickr group for mid-century modest home photos?

    Thanks for coining this perfect term!

  3. atomicbowler-dave says:

    Personally, I just dig on anything that is true, relatively simple, and honest in it’s intent, construction and design. In other words, real.
    I feel like…in the main…this reflected the mainstream values and intentions of a populace, to some degree at least. Contrast this with “mine’s bigger so hence I’m better” and the inherent dishonesty involved with cultured stone, hardee siding with genuine woodgrain look, and laminate hardwood floors. Fake. False. Sad. Dishonest by design, since they are sold on 30 year notes while mainly being built to a national code that requires the structure to be viable for a minimum of 23 years!
    3 cheers for real, for honest, for the tangibly enduring!

  4. Karen Shoop says:

    I am so stoked to find this website! I feel like I have found a community of like minded folks with whom to joyfully obsess over all things midcentury.

    I LOVE the manifesto and am thrilled that somebody else sees that many of these homes are already “green” in many respects, both environmentally and financially. I recently purchased my first home, a two bedroom coop built in 1965 with original cabinets, countertop, cooktop and wall-in oven and original tile and cabinets in the bathrooms and I feel like my love of original fixtures is saving me some major bucks, a win win.

    While I would have loved to have bought a Cliff May in my city of Long Beach, California, I am single for now, so buying into a less financially taxing home was the best choice for me, and I still have most of the features I was looking for.

    I have always found it ironic that Eames furniture has become to many a symbol of not only great design, but also of inaccessibility except to the very wealthy. The Eames’s motto was “the best, for the most, for the least.” Young marrieds who wanted to purchase hip but affordable furnishings ordered it in a box and assembled it at home once it arrived, sort of like IKEA, except with better quality.

  5. danielle says:

    Wow. Who are you??? I have found my people, oh my god! I thought I was out here all alone In the world trying to save the kitchen linoleum from a 1978 reno in a 1963 tract home my parents own and rent. I was too late and couldn’t save the wallpaper (found on one of your recommended vintage sites for $180) before they let the last tenants rip it off and paint the kitchen teal… also couldn’t save the wood paneling from white paint. But, given my first chance to help them “renovate” between tenants, I’m fighting for the floors, vinyl countertops, and bronze fixtures now 🙂 Wish me luck!

    Thank you So much for appreciating millions of tract homes for what they are. I’m always telling friends to embrace their homes. Im not into retro everything, and I’m not particularly nostalgic (born in the 80s) so nobody I have ever talked to gets why I try to save this stuff, particularly modest 70s decor. If it ain’t broke don’t throw it out! With love the old stuff lasts forever. Such wonderful mid-century modest homes are being torn apart all around me here in Southern California and it kills me! People are brainwashed by HGTV. Your website is awesome! I now know how to get materials to repair my glitter kitchen counters. Thanks! And make a poster of your manifesto so I can hang it on the wall for out next tenants.

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