“Mid-century modern” and “mid-century modest” blur in a house full of vintage Lightolier

vintage lightolier lightsI talk a lot about both “mid-century modern” and “mid-century modest” — but a point I want to underscore with this story — with these photos — is that in mid-century homes, the two styles were often combined. Perhaps better said: These seven vintage lights — all from the same house — show how “pure” mid-century modern design began to take on more decorative flourishes consistent with the mainstream market’s preference for … pretty. How… the styles began to blur.

Okay: I’m still working out how to say this exactly… complicated by the fact that I don’t quite know how to draw a circle around “what is a pure mid-century modern” light. But I’ll continue in any case — I welcome your comments — especially from readers properly schooled in the finer points of mid-century modern design.

The lighting above is one big set that came out of a mid-century house in Colorado Springs. The set is currently for sale on craigslist — and also just listed on ebay — thanks to reader Amy, who spotted it — and thanks to the seller, who gave me permission to show all these photos. Ogle the pieces and you can see: It runs along a continuum from “almost” lacking in unnecessary ornamentation… to atomic looking — but with flowers!… to flat-out mid-century modest, clearly seen in the Early American style scallop-edge coppertone light fixture. The fashionable owner put all of these fixtures in his fashionable house — presumably with no aesthetic cognitive dissonance whatever.

I prompted the seller to check and she reports that yes, all but the kitchen light are Lightolier. I found two of them — Pacemaker collection — in this vintage catalog from reader Gretchen of Eichlerific. vintage lightolier chandeliervintage lightolier chandelierAbove: The vintage Lightolier chandelier is fantastic — a real show stopper.

vintage lightolier ceiling fixturesAbove: These ceiling spot lights are lovely, notable for the slip-over glass decorative shade thingies that aren’t really there for any purpose but decoration.

lightolier pacemaker lightvintage lightolier pacemakerAbove: The two pieces I identified as being part of the Lightolier Pacemaker line.

lightolier sconceAbove: I loved these wave-shape, ribbed sconces by Lightolier. LOVE THEM.

early american style light fixtureAnd above: The coppertone Granny Ranch style fixture for the kitchen. People loved their flashy, sophisticated modern — but they loved their comfy cozy Early American, too. YES: The two can live in happy harmony!

Another example of the modern-modest mashup:

Photo by Efrain Diaz-Homa

Above: Frank Lloyd’s houses are known to have had pink bathrooms. Here is what reader Kevin said in our story about the Gordon House:

Both the kitchen’s Chinese Red Micarta plastic laminate, and the pink ceramic tiles were fairly standard specifications for Usonian houses. I have seen both in quite a few Usonian homes, and have some original Wright specification booklets, and those two items are common. The third Mrs. Wright sort of fancied herself a color expert, so there is some thoughts that she could have been responsible for favoring the tile color. The Wright house I used to live in did indeed have the pink bathrooms, but not the Chinese red Micarta. The Wright apprentice designed home we now live in also has the original Chinese red plastic laminate, which I have posted on here a while ago.

  1. Steve says:

    Kind of reminds me of how one often finds craftsman bungalows with original colonial revival light fixtures rather than the expected mission style. I think homeowners have always liked what they liked and were not bothered with “architectural dogma”.

  2. Carol says:

    My Mom has a mid sixties ranch and has the exact coppertone fixture in the kitchen. The adjoining den has the huge wagonwheel chandelier in the coppertone. Some of her fixtures are very MCM. The bath plumbing fixtures are the coolest I’ve ever seen. Soooo Jetsons. My Grandmothers mid 50’s house has an awesome traditional knotty pine kitchen with grey cracked ice laminate and a huge peninsula, “multi-level bar”, with curved shelves on the end. Her overhead light fixtures hug the ceilings and are atomic. She even has the built in “colonial-ish” telephone nook in the hallway. These homes are definitely a mish-mash of both styles. Both houses have the maple trim. Granny has the traditional and Mom has the sleek. Both houses have trim that has turned “orangey-ish”. Both houses are 95% original and very charming. I’m now glad they never remodeled except for paint and paper. My Mom has a home that still looks “fresh” in design, and Granny has the, well, Granny house. Both houses are brick, one edgy terracotta color in long thin bricks and one red traditional. One has a cut limestone “wall” of a fireplace with a 10 foot long hearth and the other, traditional red brick flanked by built-in bookshelves. I grew up with these houses, and at 50 appreciate them even more due to my addiction to this website. Thanks Pam and Kate!

  3. tammyCA says:

    I know the styles were combined in our home (’54 modest ranch) growing up in the ’60s..we had the copper light and maple dining set in the knotty pine kitchen and the skinny Danish modern furniture and lamps in the front room..and a bunch of other inherited older pieces throughout. It’s how my home is now..eclectic for sure.

  4. Rick S says:

    There may be a line where one style starts but the end dates are usually indistinct. Look at how many people are interested in 40s, 50s, and beyond now. They haven’t truly ended yet.

    It seems to be common in many eras to have the more public “front rooms” be more decorated than the lesser rooms of the house.

    Our homes tend to reflect what we fill them with so it may be that the MCM house had a “colonial” kitchen because that was what they were most comfortable with.
    Nostalgia leads many of us to our home choices.

  5. Carole says:

    At one time my in-laws had that early American copper fixture over their dining room table, only theirs was quite a bit more ornate. They eventually removed it, but are still very EA in their decorating style of their small ranch (1200 or so sq ft).

  6. KayRay says:

    I so enjoy when you write about this subject.

    Having childhood memories of the 60s/70s I can attest to the lack of style purity in most homes. The average home then (and now) is not designed all at once, it evolves. People are sentimental, too, so they keep stuff and have things from parents and grandparents. Even those living in older homes during the mid century time period people blended styles. I grew up in, a 1920’s farmhouse but my mother favored the modern style of the day with her big green sectional and Danish modern dining room set. Yet when she redid our kitchen in 1966 she chose a more traditional style cabinet (QuakerMaid) because it went with the era of the house and it’s lovely chestnut woodwork. Oh, but she got her mod fix, she had matching avocado green sink & appliances plus burnt orange paneling in the dinette 😉

    In our 1954 home now my DH and I are not purists. I have a few nods to mid mod, some “cool-onial” (LOVE THAT TERM) knotty pine mixed in with basic IKEA…bits and pieces from the 20’s, 40’s, 50’s and beyond…all blended together happily based on appeal, function and family history.

    I always think homes should be filled with what is loved, with what is practical and meets the occupants’ needs. Absolutely we should look to the past to be true to the bones of a structure, but how we flesh things out can be solely personal. I enjoy being true to my home’s past as I live in the present 🙂

    Again, I love it when you write about the sensibilities of the era, it infuses the subject with a much deeper meaning.

      1. Carol says:

        I learned after about 10 years that my rule of thumb in buying something should be; If it makes me go “Ooooooooh” and I catch my breath when I first see it, I buy it! Even though things may come from different decades, a person always gravitates to a certain “look”. This “look
        ” is generally cohesive when you bring something new home. Sometimes I may shuffle something around, but it always works. Buy what you love first and foremost. I can’t imagine going to a furniture store and buying rooms full of furniture. I’ve tried since my 20’s, and I just can’t do it!

    1. Robin, NV says:

      I agree with KayRay. Most homeowners can’t afford to do a complete remodel or hire a decorator to design an interior that is all of one style. Things are done piece-meal as you can afford them. I also think people wanted a few public rooms to be stylish but private rooms tended to be modest. This was true of my mom’s house through the 70s and 80s. I can see the same thing in my own house with the few design cues left from the original owners. Hollywood Regency/high style in the living room and dining room but modest/cozy everywhere else.

      1. KayRay says:

        Ah yes, you are so right…people put the “good” stuff in public rooms and comfy things in the more personal spaces. And sometimes the private spaces are left to last to decorate, if ever…and often only decorated once, not updated as often as other rooms. I know my folks had the same mid-mod bedroom set from their wedding in 1960 all the way until the late 90’s. (Gosh I wish I had that set now, if only I’d known, lol!)

    2. Jay says:

      Great thoughts! I can relate having grown up in a 20s house that my parents bought in 51. I now have a house full of what could politely be referred to as eclectic – a real mish mash – all stuff from parents, relatives and friends of family; but it works.

    3. vegebrarian says:

      I really appreciate this comment and this discussion. Loving mid-century modern but being in an 80s house, it is already a bit of a challenge to bring the look I love to life sans a wrecking ball, but I actually feel a bit guilty sometimes when I’m drawn to something that isn’t strictly mcm. I’d been looking for a hutch for a long time & found a beautiful Stanley number last weekend. It definitely looks mid-century and I love it, but seeing it next to my birch coffee table with the tapered legs, I started to lament that it was not particularly modern and I thought of other mcm fans – do people stress about matching their wood tones (the hutch is a deep brown) or worry about matching their metals (the hutch has brass drawer pulls but is near my chrome-legged table)? – was I not being enough of a purist? It gave me a moment’s pause. But I also know I’d never ditch my great grandmother’s 1930s arm chair even if I had my dream Danish Modern living room set. Then I relaxed and started loading the new hutch with all of my accumulated vintage goodies. 🙂

      1. Kate says:

        Vegebrarian — I mix wood tones and different metals throughout my house. I think it is ok. Typically, I’ll repeat the metal or wood tone at least one other time in the room so it makes more “sense” — like I’d have a brass starburst mirror and a clock with brass or some brass figurines…or a chrome arc lamp and a chrome accent on a chair. I look at wood and metals as neutrals. No need to be all match-matchy all the time…

      2. Robin, NV says:

        Vegebrarian – I fuss over this issue too but I think I’ve finally accepted that my style is a mix of mid century modest and modern (21st century). I admire the folks who put vintage appliances in their kitchens and who are able to decorate with MCM furniture and decor but I just can’t make the same aesthetic work for me. I like my modern appliances for their ease of use and convenience. Plus I can’t bring myself to buy a vintage couch (or costly reproduction) when I know the dogs and cats are going to sleep on it. I like that I can prop my feet up on my coffee table and snuggle with my pets on my modern couch. It’s probably silly of me but I wouldn’t feel the same with a piece of vintage furniture.

        I do what I can with color, decor, and a little vintage furniture to create a mid century/modern space that works for me.

      3. pam kueber says:

        I adore “eclectic”! I pretty much find it impossible not to BE eclectic. Good design of all eras — is wonderful — if it makes its way to you, go for it.

  7. Jay says:

    Pam, I think you are being too hard on yourself about this topic. The one thing all the fixtures have in common is the fact that they were all produced mid century. I have no doubt that because of the applied decoration/ornamentation some of the fixtures shown would send modernist purists screaming into the night. I could easily picture the granny fixture over the table in my birch cabinet kitchen with the braided rug in front of the sink. The white saucer with the downlight and brass epaulets would go nicely in my dining room.
    I see past Deco/Moderne influence in the brass cones w/glass shades (pitty the shades are pure ornament). Then there is the post war atomic/space influence with all those saucer designs. Nice assortment ; thanks for sharing. Wonder what others think.

    1. pam kueber says:

      Thanks, Jay. I need to get out my Cara Greenburg book and bone up on my mid-century modern design philosophy knowledge, though! That is: After I get through with my tiki Ph.D!

  8. Jeanne says:

    I love this line: “…presumably with no aesthetic cognitive dissonance whatever.”

    This post makes me feel better about craving modern fixtures for my house, even though I have a very nice copper scallop fixture in the kitchen. I’d love to go with something more modern in the dining room, but wondered if it would send mixed messages about my design decision making capabilities. 🙂 Oh the things one ruminates about.

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