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Mid-Century Modern in the Movies: A Look at 5 Set Interiors

There’s a reason that Mid-Century Modern design has continued to hold its ground for the past several decades. Its aesthetic is clean, functional, streamlined and mod. It’s pleasing to the eye and the body. Mid-Century Modern is pure in form and transcendent in grace. Mid-Century Modern isn’t just a movement, it’s a way of life.

The Mid-Century Modern Aesthetic

You may not realize it, but you’ve seen film and television works from, and inspired by, this 20th century design movement. The films I am about to discuss feature an actor that is both beautiful and organic in nature. The actor is, drum roll please…set design.

Set design is as instrumental to a film as the actors’ performances are. Think about it: how many times have you heard “that didn’t look real” or “The CGI was awful?” You might have been like me and thought the graphics in James Cameron’s Avatar were (at best) of video game quality.

If the set design isn’t believable, if it’s not authentic, an audience will have trouble with the story. Set design helps us to better understand the emotional, spiritual and intellectual state of the character on screen. We learn about their habits, likes and dislikes just by the way an arm chair is angled in the room. Okay, enough of me droning on. Let’s get to the movies!

The Fountainhead, 1949

Based on Ayn Rand’s novel of the same name, The Fountainhead focuses on Howard Roark, an egocentric architect who puts his design integrity above business and personal relationships.Loosely based on American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (who some Architectural Historians believe to be the father of American modern design), the film delves into the psyche of a man who refuses to sacrifice his creative freedom and chooses to instead wander the streets in search of someone or something who will recognize modern architecture as a superior design movement. Using hexagonal grids, straight lines and square, geometric shapes in its set design, The Fountainhead captures the austerity and the beauty of true Mid-Century Modern.

The Fountainhead (1949) Midcentury Modern

The Graduate, 1967

Like The Fountainhead, The Graduate was based on a book written by American novelist Charles Webb. The film follows a young 20-something college grad named Benjamin Braddock who doesn’t have an answer to the big question: what to next? Enter Mrs. Robinson. Seduced by an older woman and family friend, Benjamin soon finds himself in love not with Mrs. Robinson, but with her daughter. What follows can only be described as a comedy of errors.

We can see the Mid-Century Modern design aesthetic in Mrs. Robinson’s earth-toned home, providing a stark contrast is the white innocence of her daughter’s bedroom. The rounded, oval leather chairs, wooden legs and leafy greenery all suggest a calf lost in the cougar’s den.

The Graduate Midcentury Modern

The Big Lebowski, 1998

Perhaps one of the Coen Brothers most well-received films, a scene from The Big Lebowski featuring an interior/exterior shot of the Sheats Goldstein Residence shows the asymmetrical, geometric architectural masterpiece designed by John Lautner. The blurring of interior and exterior space emits a feeling of centeredness. With the elongated lines, sunset-colored seating area and sandstone materials,we’re shown just how far removed the protagonist,‘The Dude,’ is from what he thinks is normal. Horizontal planes, earthen tones and pops of color (such is in the pool and the surrounding greenery) marks this set as Mid-Century Modern.

The Big Lebowski featured Image Midcentury Modern

The Incredibles, 2004

In 2004, Disney’s Pixar released The Incredibles, an animated film about a retired superhero family that is called back for one last job, or so the patriarch of the family thought. In a scene typical of the nuclear family, we find the five members of the Parr family sitting around the dining room table.

The Incredibles Midcentury Modern

Unlike other interiors we often see in film, live action or animated, the Parrs’ sit at a Danish Modern table. Their dishware, cutlery, and even the lighting is angular in shape and perfect in its geometry. This children’s film exemplifies the fluidity of the Mid-Century aesthetic.

The Incredibles Midcentury Modern

A Single Man, 2009

According to set design expert,Amy Wells, the film’s director, Tom Ford, studied every object before it was placed as a prop item or set piece in the making of A Single Man. Filmed on location in the Schaffer Residence in Los Angeles, the interiors of the house showcases the traits of George, a homosexual man who has lost his partner in a car accident. Set in the early 1960s when love was still not open to all, George is forced to keep going through his daily routine as though he has not lost the love of his life.

Single Man featured Midcentury Modern

The house is immaculate. The steel, wood and leather finishes combined with the straight linearity of the Furniture and objects tells us George is a man of refined taste. He likes things to have a place, to belong. George does not belong to anyone now that his partner is gone, and this is where the conflict begins in the film. Mid-Century Modern in this film is used to show us that beauty needs life to thrive.

Mid-Century Modern design encapsulates reflection, conviction and willpower. Wouldn’t anyone want to have a home mirrored to their own aspirations?

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