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.

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.
a gazillion prosaic, vernacular melting-pot variations in between.

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. Hugh says:

    I am going to try to send you some pictures that were taken of my place for the insurance people. Let me know if you don’t get them, then I’ll try mailing them. Hugh

  2. Maggie says:

    I can’t believe it’s only been two years for RetroReno — it seems like it’s been a part of my daily reading life forever!

    Pam, I’m very grateful for all the hard work you put into making this blog an invaluable resource for all us vintage nesters. Hip hip hooRAY for all things Modestist!

  3. frankieswife says:

    Happy 2nd Birthday…and many more to come. You have been such an ispiration during the last two years of my 11 years of ownership of my modest mid century ranch/cottage.

    When I found ya, it was so nice to see my lifestyle being appreciated by others who have this same love. I’m so glad this time period of history existed, without it my life wouldn’t be nearly as much fun!

  4. MidCMitzi says:

    Happy anniversary! I’m so grateful that you posted this, and I love the term Mid-Century Modest. While I can admire the Eames/Nelson/etc. designs, it’s modest style that really draws me. I’ve been watching some DVDs of the 1970s Bob Newhart show, and loving their apartment. While it does have some aspects of “high-falutin” style, most of their decor is more modest. Thanks again for the great post, and wonderful blog!

  5. nina462 says:

    It is somehow comforting to know that there are others who share my enthusiasm for these homes, and not just for purely economic reasons.
    I’m glad you mentioned the knotty pine 🙂
    Also, I’m amazed at those ‘home’ shows where they demolish a perfectly good MCM home to put granite et al. just to resale. Or the new shows where people build “green” houses. What’s more green then buying a MCM home. And it’s a home-not just a house.

  6. I love that term “mid-century modest”! Great concept Pam. That is exactly what we have in our 1040sf 1954 ranch. While there are a few things I would like to “upgrade” I certainly want to keep it’s down-to-earth comfort and simplicity. I’d love to see more about making the most of our smaller footprint houses, maybe some ideas about furniture placement, such as entertaining in smaller rooms, etc. DIY period friendly storage in kid’s rooms, etc.

  7. joyce's jane says:

    Funny, I have been talking with my mom about the modest lifestyles pre 1980s. As a dish collector i am interested in the fact that most women recieved a set of dishes as a wedding gift and used it for a lifetime. Your “pattern” was a precious thing and special serving pieces were saved for and added to your set. Fabric and patterns were carefully chosen and lovingly made, then worn and passed down or cut apart to make other things. One of my favourite skirt and vest sets was made from my mothers old skirt in the 60s. There werent a million stores selling truckloads of imported plastic. Kids selected a toy or two from the sears catalogue and “wished” for that toy. Some people had more money than others, of course, but i dont ever remember seeing anyones home piled high with plastic bags, boxes of clothes and toys everywhere. No one owned that much stuff and we never missed it…….oh and the best part…..what you had was probably made in a factory in THIS country by people who lived down the street.
    enough nostalgia…..happy birthday Pam

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