It was always in her soul. It just hadn’t quite surfaced yet.
Perhaps it started with her grandmother, who spun stories of teenage years in the 1950s that young Aletha VanderMaas loved to hear.
It burned brighter as she pored over her mother’s high school yearbooks, looking for the dated clothes and hairstyles that spoke to her in a way that new styles didn’t. “I think I was born in the wrong era,” Aletha says.
Her passion found a name while she and husband Greg were house hunting in Grand Haven, Michigan. “We kind of knew what we were looking for,” she explains. “We wanted something old that was modern.”
Then she saw it: the sprawling, low-slung roof; gargantuan windows; cascades of brick and stone. And the kicker: built-in planters. “Holy crap!” she blurted. “This is it!”
Aletha and Greg VanderMaas' home has them in a midcentury modern state of mind.
What they’d found was a 1,600-square-foot ranch house built in 1959. It was a classic example of midcentury modern design, an upbeat architectural style characterized by low-pitched roofs with winglike eaves, floor-to-ceiling windows blurring the distinction between indoors and out, and an open floor plan under high beamed ceilings.
Aletha isn’t alone in her visceral attraction. A stylized offshoot of the ranch house building boom of the ‘50s and ‘60s, midcentury modern is enjoying renewed appreciation. You only have to cue up reruns of the popular TV series Mad Men to see spot-on re-creations of the style’s motifs, and reproduction furniture and textiles are big sellers with online companies.
During 10 months of weekend renovation projects to exorcise the ‘90s-style interiors of her new home, Aletha also took to Craigslist, Amazon and eBay. “I didn’t want to create a museum,” she says, “but I wanted to stay true to the house.”
The term midcentury modern loosely describes an exuberant, quirky period of architecture, furniture and graphic design from 1940 through 1970. Although the West Coast claims to be the epicenter of the style, Michigan hardly takes a backseat.
Wallpaper by contemporary designer Orla Kiely creates a cheery background for a vintage dining table and chairs bought at an estate sale.
The Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills has been described as the “cradle of American modernism,” and the list of Cranbrook’s past artists-in-residence is a who’s who of influential designers. To name a few: Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and son Eero, Daniel Libeskind, Florence Knoll, and husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames.
In 1946, furniture-maker Herman Miller of Zeeland hired Charles Eames to inspire new lines. The partnership produced spectacular results, including the famed Eames lounge chairs and the LCW molded plywood chairs that Time magazine lauded as “the chair of the century.”
A wall in this Michigan home from the late 1950s reflects the stone and brick flourishes that often mark midcentury design. Geometric yet comfy, the sofa is a spot-on reproduction from midcentury furniture specialist Thrive.
And centrally located Midland is a mecca for enthusiasts. Architect Alden B. Dow, son of chemical magnate Herbert Dow, drew plans for more than 100 midcentury modern houses, churches and other structures that still line the streets where he had his home and studio.
Back in Grand Haven, Aletha has channeled her passion into a blog and design consultation service.
But that’s not the only influence midcentury modern has had on the couple. Their 5-year-old son’s name? Eames.
In the VanderMaas’ renovated kitchen, windows and views trump upper cabinets.
Designer Aletha VanderMaas, True Home Restorations, Grand Haven, Michigan. (616) 452-8561; truehomerestorations.com
Living room Womb chair in Aegean, Knoll. (800) 343-5665; knoll.com Sectional Taylor in Klein Azure, Thrive Furniture. (888) 765-0558; thrivefurniture.com Sputnik light 57-inch chrome, Practical Props. (818) 980-3198; practicalprops.com
Tour of Homes
Some of the country’s most spectacular examples of midcentury architecture are right here and open to the public.
The Miller House | Columbus, Indiana Eero Saarinen’s modernist architecture showcases an open floor plan, flat roof, and glass and marble walls. Dan Kiley’s impressive geometric gardens continue the vision. imamuseum.org
Alden B. Dow House | Midland, Michigan Architect Alden B. Dow’s design philosophy: “Gardens never end and buildings never begin.” In fact, the house descends into an artificial lake at this National Historic Landmark. Reservations needed. abdow.org
The Farnsworth House | Plano, Illinois Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1945, this important streamlined glass-box-style residence exemplifies modern design’s connection with nature. farnsworthhouse.org
Taliesin | Spring Green, Wisconsin A variety of tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, studio and 800-acre campus suit your interest level. Reservations recommended. taliesinpreservation.org
Find midcentury modern pieces at these shops across the Midwest.
Forage Modern Workshop | Minneapolis Keenly curated designs from small studios and brands distinguish this shop. The owners share the stories behind archetypal items. foragemodernworkshop.com
District | Chicago Vintage, new and custom furnishings and accessories change weekly in this airy shop with room-style displays. It’s a great source for bar carts, credenzas, sectionals, refinished pieces and local art. districtchicago.com
Furniture Lounge | Champaign, Illinois Shop from a broad selection of furniture and home goods, such as original Eames rocking chairs and Danish modern teak pieces. furniturelounge.net
Habitation Furnishing and Design | Minneapolis Check out a store-supplied tablet to scan floor model tags that upload a full line of products from each supplier. They encourage online comparison pricing as you shop an eclectic mix of midcentury, contemporary and postindustrial. Interior design services offered. habitationdesign.com
Hutch | Omaha The focus is mostly on new lines from 40 vendors. hutchmodern.com
Mainly Art | Cincinnati Co-owners Mark and Missy Fisk travel around the nation seeking the best 20th-century finds. mainlyart.com
Mid Mod Men and Friends | Saint Paul Expect an ever-changing inventory of vintage, restored and rejuvenated decor, as well as art, found objects and furniture. midmodmen.com
Retro Inferno | Kansas City, Missouri Stuffed with small finds and impressive pieces by the likes of Eero Saarinen, Kardiel Edward and Isamu Noguchi, this 10,000- plus-square-foot store off Interstate-70 and I-670 is a favorite with locals and visitors. retroinferno.com
Forage Modern Workshop in Minneapolis.
Midwest Designers: Cool finds from the region
1. The Detroit Wallpaper Co. | Detroit Customize this eco-friendly Library pattern with your choice of colors. Available in three lengths with 24-inch horizontal repeats. From $93 per roll. detroitwallpaper.com
2. Eastvold Furniture Northfield | Minnesota Mix and match three wood tops with six steel bases to create your own version of an Elko coffee table (shown in bamboo). 45x17x18 inches; $960. eastvoldfurniture.com
3. Blu Dot | Minneapolis The stackable Hot Mesh chair ($129) works indoors or out. Available in six colors. bludot.com
4. Goebel and Company Furniture | St. Louis Made of solid wood from salvaged trees, the 84-inch-long Quinton cabinet (shown in black walnut) comes with white or colored lacquer doors, $3,800. goebelfurniture.com
5. Dutton Brown Design | Minneapolis A design-engineering duo custom-make this 15x12-inch three-bulb copper Urchin pendant with matching canopy set, $349. duttonbrown.com
6. Hedge House | Chicago The brother-sister owners sell hardwood pieces like this Berkeley bed in three sizes and five types of wood. From $1,549. hedgehousefurniture.com
7. Blu Dot | Minneapolis Walnut and powder-coated steel merge in the 65-inch-tall Splash coatrack ($329). Available in six colors. bludot.com
8. Rapson Inc. | Minneapolis Cranbrook-trained modernist architect Ralph Rapson designed the iconic 25x29-inch Rapson Greenbelt Rocker; available in maple or walnut and three fabrics or leather. From $1,695. rapson-inc.com
9. Convivial Production | Kansas City, Missouri Ceramic artist Chentell Shannon’s slender ivory vase stands 7½ to 8 inches tall, $42. convivialproduction.com
10. Strauss Furniture | Canton, Ohio Specializing in midcentury and Art Deco designs, owner John Strauss sells this 84-inch Lake Shore sofa in the fabric of your choice and with steel legs. From $3,955. straussfurniture.com