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Required Reading: The Mid-Century Modern Garden by Ethne Clarke

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Required Reading: The Mid-Century Modern Garden by Ethne Clarke

September 28, 2017

It’s hard to avoid mid-century aesthetics in contemporary design—from architecture to furniture, the fervor for the style of the ’50s shows no signs of slowing down. But much less is said about the gardens and landscaping of the sleek, fit-for-purpose homes that evolved in the post-war years.

The Mid-Century Modern Garden (£35 at Amazon UK) is filling the void and few people could be better placed than its author Ethne Clarke to write about these influential spaces (the writer grew up in one of the first mid-century planned communities in Illinois, where war veterans and their families built new lives in the optimistic ’50s). After relocating to England and writing books on gardening and landscape history, the author moved back to America to a mid-century ranch built in Colorado in 1958.

Photography courtesy of Frances Lincoln.

The Mid-Century Modern Garden is £35 at Amazon UK; a US version with the title The Mid-Century Modern Landscape will be published next week ($22.02 at Amazon).
Above: The Mid-Century Modern Garden is £35 at Amazon UK; a US version with the title The Mid-Century Modern Landscape will be published next week ($22.02 at Amazon).
What becomes immediately clear when dipping into The Mid-Century Modern Garden is how today’s gardens—with their decking and screens and sleek and functional furniture, with their concept of the inside-outside space and the smooth transition between them—are so influenced by ideas that emerged more than 60 years ago, born from the practical, forward-thinking modernists of the early 20th century. Clarke’s book is roughly divided in two, with the first half providing a thorough context-setting evolution of the mid-century style and the latter half showing how to apply the same principles to outside spaces now.

An updated Eichler house illustrates the seamless transition from interior to exterior and the importance of lounging pool-side areas. Extending the roof over patios was popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, an early and influential forerunner of the mid-century movement. Photograph by Steven Brooke for Raymond Jungles.
Above: An updated Eichler house illustrates the seamless transition from interior to exterior and the importance of lounging pool-side areas. Extending the roof over patios was popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, an early and influential forerunner of the mid-century movement. Photograph by Steven Brooke for Raymond Jungles.

Design in the 1950s was all about building new lives in the aftermath of war. The decade brought a new affluence and a rising middle class keen to invest in all the trappings of this bright new era. As a result design was forward looking and modern, reflecting new materials and a new way of living. Midcentury houses were built around those new lifestyles with spaces that segued smoothly from inside to out; expanses of glass allowed light in and views out, and the patio and pool became key elements of many gardens of this era.

In mid-century gardens, a scattering of shrubs was low maintenance yet stylish. Photograph by Steve Martino.
Above: In mid-century gardens, a scattering of shrubs was low maintenance yet stylish. Photograph by Steve Martino.

While there may be a defined style to mid-century gardens, this was not an era of plantaholics and gardening enthusiasts. To the many, argues Clarke, gardening was definitely a chore and not an art: “Gardens were to be lived in, not looked at. Outdoor spaces would be woven together in free-flowing plans and spot lit by planting groupings or sculptural specimens that were the attention getters not collectors’ pieces.”

A sleekly minimal deck surrounds the swimming pool at the Alexander Steel Frame House in Palm Springs (circa 1960-2). Photograph via Alamy.
Above: A sleekly minimal deck surrounds the swimming pool at the Alexander Steel Frame House in Palm Springs (circa 1960-2). Photograph via Alamy.

There’s a reason why so many iconic chair designs are from the mid-century era. The mix of new materials and technologies combined with sleek space-age aesthetics gave rise to some beautiful and ergonomic lounge chairs that were more often than not, portable and light too. Above, Knoll’s simple canvas butterfly chairs sit next to a Donald Wexler pool.

Steve Martino, a landscape designer based in Arizona, creates a modern day homage to Mexican artist Luis Barragán in a Palm Springs Garden where jewel colors and sculptural planting are reflected in a turquoise pool. Photograph by Steve Martino.
Above: Steve Martino, a landscape designer based in Arizona, creates a modern day homage to Mexican artist Luis Barragán in a Palm Springs Garden where jewel colors and sculptural planting are reflected in a turquoise pool. Photograph by Steve Martino.

In contrast to the white cubes of earlier modernists like Le Corbusier, color was important for the mid-century designer. Frank Lloyd Wright’s palette for his Taliesin homes inspired commercial ranges from paint manufacturers and bold color was used both inside and outside. Mexican artist Luis Barragán used some of the boldest hues, taking the white cube austerity of modernism and applying the richest color that contrasted with the extraordinary light of his native Mexico. It’s a look that’s hugely influential half a century on.

The desert surrounds a Palm Springs house and the planting reflects the arid surrounding landscape. Typically for many homes of the era the entrance is downplayed, flowing seamlessly by using the same materials in the landscaping as for the building. To add to the effect, porches were often recessed.Photograph by Ethne Clarke.
Above: The desert surrounds a Palm Springs house and the planting reflects the arid surrounding landscape. Typically for many homes of the era the entrance is downplayed, flowing seamlessly by using the same materials in the landscaping as for the building. To add to the effect, porches were often recessed.Photograph by Ethne Clarke.

Mid-century design’s spiritual home was the Midwest but also especially California, where the climate leant itself to the easy-living philosophy and abundant tropical planting (not to mention breezy light atriums which were central to so many of these homes).   Native stone and natural materials, as well as site-appropriate planting, help connect these sleek dwellings to the land.

Even for arch Modernists, natural materials were all-important. Here huge slabs of natural limestone are set into a grassy slope to create a rustic stairway at a hillside house near Carmel, California. Photograph by Ethne Clarke.
Above: Even for arch Modernists, natural materials were all-important. Here huge slabs of natural limestone are set into a grassy slope to create a rustic stairway at a hillside house near Carmel, California. Photograph by Ethne Clarke.

N.B.: See more of our favorite mid-century landscapes:

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