International Style, 1923–1970

Rare residential examples of International Style are an expression of early Modernism.
Illustration by Rob Leanna

It is the purest, certainly the most austere, statement of the modernist building concepts that started with such architects as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright. Modern architecture gelled as a movement at Germany’s Bauhaus School (1919–1933), and would spread through Europe and beyond. After Bauhaus luminaries—including Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe—emigrated to America, International Style became the pinnacle of urban building, especially for skyscrapers and functional public buildings such as hospitals and schools.

International Style got its name from the 1932 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit was curated by architecture critic Henry–Russell Hitchcock and the young architect Philip Johnson. The catalog identified Bauhaus principles: expressing volume of space rather than mass; balance rather than symmetry; and the end of applied ornament. International Style is radically simplified architecture.

 In 1943, Town and Country magazine headlined a story about this Massachusetts house “Mutiny in the Berkshires.”  Photo: Ruce Martin

Design restlessness had started even before the 1920s. In Europe and the U.S., architects were experimenting with a new, modern architecture, one not based on historical forms, which would foster egalitarianism through its use of simpli-city and modern materials. Wars, urbanization, and changing social theories were the backdrop to a new era.  “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,” wrote Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the German Bauhaus school, before its wartime closure. 

In the U.S., Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Irving Gill spoke of form following function, simplification, and honesty in the use of materials. Wright had moved to Germany in 1909; his “Wasmuth Portfolio” was published there and exhibited in Europe, influencing the work of modernists. In France, the leader was the Swiss–French architect Charles–Edouard Jeanneret, who in 1920 took the name Le Corbusier. Co-founder of the journal L’Esprit Nouveau, he advocated for a new urbanism based on well-planned cities.

Yet the International Style may have been born at the Bauhaus. Director Walter Gropius’s 1925 design for the school broke all rules. After the rise of the Nazis, school leaders emigrated, many to the U.S., between 1937 and 1941. They influenced the teaching of architecture, the development of American modernism through the 1950s and ’60s, and the very face of cities.

Although the aesthetic, if that’s the word, was adopted for public housing, International Style rarely was used for residences. “The austere modernism of the Bauhaus school . . . proved to be more beloved for skyscrapers than for homes,” wrote Virginia Savage McAlester, in her Field Guide to American Houses. Architects in the U.S. who did produce ground-breaking residences include Wright, Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra (both émigrés from Austria), Charles and Ray Eames, and Philip Johnson.

Stepped-back skyscrapers provided a design motif for vacuum cleaners and cocktail shakers; in fact, modernism had more impact on interiors and furnishings. New materials took hold: Masonite, Plexiglas and Lucite, plywood, vinyl, plate glass, aluminum. Window walls and open plans were common in Contemporary houses, like those of Joseph Eichler in California. Modernism had been incorporated into less severe, sometimes eclectic, postwar suburban housing.

At Johnson’s Glass House, furniture designed by Mies van der Rohe. Photo: Paul Rocheleau

The Hallmarks of International Style

• RECTANGULAR FORMS
The overall massing may be simple—a box—or consist of intersecting boxes. Occasionally a rounded end or tower is present. Roofs are flat.

• LACK OF ADORNMENT
Framed glass and grid-like repetition take the place of ornament and even texture. This is the most austere of 20th-century Modern styles.

• MODERN MATERIALS
Such machine-age construction materials as steel, concrete, and glass lend themselves to sameness of form and lack of ornament.

• LARGE EXPLANSES OF GLASS
In such extreme examples as Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the building is virtually transparent. Window walls, ribbon windows, and repetitive grids of glazing are found.

• MINIMALISM
Not only the architecture but also interior spaces are uncluttered, simple, and sleek. Indoors and outdoors merge with patios, bare windows, indoor plants.

• OPEN INTERIORS
Walls came down, especially in public areas of a house, with spaces for various functions flowing one into the next.

Important International Style Residences

Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Maison de Verre, Paris, 1927–32: Pierre Chareau 

Villa Savoye, Paris, 1928–31: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret

Villa Tugendhat, Brno, Czech Republic, 1930: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich 

Gropius House, Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1938: Walter Gropius

Rauh House, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1938: John Becker

Farnsworth House, Plano, lllinois, 1945–51: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949: Philip Johnson


Iconic Furniture

 In the July 1961 issue, Playboy magazine profiled designers George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, and Jens Risom. Photo: Marvin Koner & Daniel Rubin for Playboy

Although few residences were built in International Style, interiors were affected by the turn toward industrial materials and furnishings. Traced to 1946 (in an experiment with a machine that molded plywood with heat and a bicycle pump), Charles and Ray Eames’ LCW Lounge Chair of molded plywood became a staple for the modern home.

The Eames molded Plywood Lounge Chair

Other classics include Knoll’s Barcelona Chair, its “less is more” construction making it one of the period’s most recognizable furnishings, as popular today as when it was introduced by architect Mies van der Rohe in 1929 for the Barcelona Exhibition.

Barcelona daybed couch by Mies

Homeowners curled up in Arne Jacobsen’s biomorphic Egg Chair, while a Isamu Noguchi glass and wood coffee table provided a sculptural accent.

Nelson’s Marshmallow Sofa for Herman Miller.

The Marshmallow Sofa, by George Nelson for Herman Miller, has an “atomistic” design “exploding” the piece into separate foam discs covered in leather or vinyl. It’s still being made, as are many period classics, making it easy to furnish a home in Modernist style.

Le Corbusier LC4 chaise.

Look to Herman Miller (hermanmiller.com) and Knoll (knoll.com) for reissues.  Design Within Reach (dwr.com) brings modern shopping online with reproductions of furniture by Eames, Noguchi, and Saarinen. —Brian D. Coleman

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