A Retrospect on American Design: Modernist Architecture

View of a house using modern architecture.
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From simple cubes and rectangles to sprawling, multi-level complexes, Modernist designs embrace wood, glass, concrete, steel, or composites.

Finding beauty in function, Modernist architecture stripped away the unnecessary decorative elements from past styles—creating a more elegant, straight-forward approach to daily life.

And many of us crave more simplicity in our lives. Keep reading for the historical backstory on Modernism, the movement that revolutionized architecture and design in its heyday.

The Roots Of Modernism

Embracing simplicity with bright, open floor plans, early Modernist homes re-imagine how indoor space should be used.

At the turn of the last century, Victorian mansions and neo-classical blueprints were the style du jour—but forward-thinking designers and architects craved a different approach. On a mission to shake things up, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright founded the Prairie Style, with its strong, Japanese overtones—including an emphasis on simplicity and organic “flow.”

Design & Architectural Elements

From simple cubes and rectangles to sprawling, multi-level complexes, Modernist designs embrace wood, glass, concrete, steel, or composites.   

One of the telltale signs of a Modernist home is its shape: chances are its rectangular, or cube-like, with a flat or low-pitched roof. A great example of this early style can be seen in Wright’s Robie House, a residential design that features ample windows; large, overhanging eaves; a horizontal roof; and a spacious, open living area. 

The multi-level designs of later Modernist homes made for a radically different floor plan. Overall, main living areas tend to give an ample impression of light and space, with an emphasis on floor-to-ceiling windows and plenty of breathing room. This arrangement is meant to evoke a peaceful, relaxed state of mind—in line with the Modernist movement’s main principles of simplicity. Within these areas, an exposed or floating staircase is often used, so the feeling of continuous space—from air flow to light—isn’t disrupted.

Keeping with an open floor plan, kitchens are often placed close to the main living space, and are usually generous, simple, and to the point. Loft-style sleeping areas are commonly seen, offering an alternative to cluttered, space-consuming bedrooms.  

The Evolution Of Modernism

At your next dinner party, mentioning Le Corbusier—the Swiss-French trailblazer that founded Modernist architecture—may earn you a few extra “cool points.” Since the early days, many sub styles and genres of Modernism were founded and continue to emerge, both in commercial and residential spaces. The Bauhaus style—which embraced pure, Classical architecture without ornamentation of any kind—catalyzed from Modernist ideals. Neo Modernism, centered on creating monolithic and functional buildings, was also an offshoot of earlier Modernist styles.

Modernism Today

Later Modernist designs, still around today, embrace many of the same principles that Wright held dear, but with more emphasis on minimalism and prefabrication. Many homes—from luxury mansions to the smallest micro homes—still make use of basic Modernist principles. Today, one hundred years after the Prairie Style of architecture caught on, Modernism—and its various offshoots—are still on the cutting edge of home design.


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