What makes midcentury modern design so intriguing? Beyond the clean graceful lines and simple geometric form characteristic of this period, there is a critical aspect of design from this era that is a direct consequence of the social pressures at the time. World events necessitated a change in manufacturing and design. It was in part, these historical forces that helped shape the form of midcentury architecture and design. By the latter part of the century however, it was these same innovations that may have ultimately contributed to the loss of manufacturing of these products on American soil. On a brighter note, over the last decade, we have seen a resurgence of American made products in the design world. Understanding how and why this trend is occurring may help us moving forward in the 21st century keeping US a leader in the design and manufacturing world.
The Second World War was a time of limited resources for the US and much of Europe. The scarcity of steel in particular, prompted a search for new building materials. This sparked the use of more innovative materials including aluminum, plastics and fiberglass. As soldiers returned home and the post-war population boom occurred, there was now a surge in the demand for new homes and home products. These items needed to be produced quickly and efficiently to supply an ever-increasing need. Architects and designers alike needed to focus not only on form and function but also on the new concept of cost effective mass production and manufacturability. This new focus favored more simple geometric forms over more ornate complicated details.
The innovations that worked to supply the needs of the growing population of the midcentury era may have paved the way for a less beneficial trend in latter part of the century. Simple design and cost effective mass manufacturing, in conjunction with advances in modern transportation allowed for products to be made in very high volume and low cost abroad. The cultural shift toward mass accumulation of cheaper products with less focus on quality only further supported this outsourcing of production. The consequence, a cultural explosion of “more, more, more” with accepted tolerance of decreased quality. The surge of supersized superstores supports this concept In essence, we gave up quality for quantity.
mass produced copies
Moreover, the mass production of goods in places with fewer regulations also paved the way for irresponsible use of materials during manufacturing. Disregard for environmental issues as evidenced by the cutting down of forests and use of potentially carcinogenic adhesives and toxic finishes have only recently become a focus.
So have we seen the death of high quality design and responsible use of resources? Possibly, the future is not so bleak. In the past decade, Americans have been starting to realize that less may be more. Tiny homes and container homes are all the rave. Modern magazines like Dwell focus on the benefits od smaller spaces. Eco-friendly building solutions, while still being thoroughly modern are becoming the new norm. Quality custom-made products and craftsmanship are becoming more important to us.
The internet and social media have made it easier for consumers to better understand the companies that make these products. Transparency is the way of the future. Companies are listing what materials they use and where they get them, allowing customers to make informed decisions.
Etsy, Custom-made, and countless other sites are helping to bring craftsmanship back to the US. Today is the time for American entrepreneurs, small local businesses, and independent craftsmen. “Maker Towns” like Brooklyn, St Louis, Oakland, and Austen are sprouting up across the nation. A "maker mentality" is rampant across the states with incubators and shared workspaces to help startups. Modern innovations like additive technology, 3D printers now make it feasible for new companies with limited means to prototype quickly and efficiently, opening the door for new innovative products.
Where to from here? Possibly the answer is to take lessons from mid-century modern designers and continue our search for innovative processes and new materials. But we should also focus on using buying products that rely on local resources and sustainable manufacturing practices. As consumers, we should look for products with high quality, and craftsmanship. And with the use of social media, we should aim to create true connections between maker and consumer for a truly trusting relationship, something that can't be outsourced.
custom desk made with eco-friendly materials and finishes by Modify Furniture.
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