What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a mid-century modern home? A room full of Knoll and Herman Miller furniture? A concrete slab cantilevering dramatically off a Hollywood hilltop? An architectural centerfold in the latest issue of Architectural Digest?
Is there more?
Going back to the roots of the modern movement, Walter Gropius wrote in his Bauhaus Manifesto: “Architects, painters, sculptors, we must all return to crafts! For there is no such thing as ‘professional art.’ There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman.”
On a recent trip to Cuba, I made a point to visit some mid century modern homes that were not designed by architects, but by the people who live in them. One of these houses, located about a three hour drive southeast of Havana in the remote town of Ceinega, is a 800 square feet, three-bedroom home for a family of four (plus dogs, pigs and chickens). It was built about 25 years ago by a local security guard named Osmany. His salary is equivalent to about ten dollars a month. The mid-century style that he used has proved popular all over Cuba, partially because the entire structure could be built by hand—walls, floors and roof—with one durable and inexpensive material: poured-in-place concrete.
Over the years Osmany’s wife, Cecilia, has decorated their home with a palette of practical and modest artifacts. Unlike its more prescribed mid-century American counterparts, these spaces embody an air of colloquial fantasy, wonder and delight of the kind that graces billions of homes—modern and otherwise—around the world. The house’s doorways are covered with lace curtains that provide a balance between privacy and the need for cross ventilation. Framed photos fill the walls with visual pipedreams of far away places. Vases in every room overflow with homemade flowers, while the real ones are forever budding, blossoming and blooming just outside the glassless louvered windows. There is no designer furniture, only locally crafted pieces wrought from wire rods, and no fashionable objects d’ art. Instead, there is the combination of simple and soulful artifacts that bring a humble and authentic style to the place.
Could this be what Gropius had in mind? In his manifesto he declared that: “Architects, painters, and sculptors must once again come to know and comprehend the composite character of a building, both as an entity and in terms of its various parts. Then their work will be filled with that true architectonic spirit which, as ‘salon art’, it has lost,” Gropius went on to say: “Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form, and will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers (emphasis added) as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.”
Over the past decades, many designers have included social issues, such as universal design and access, carbon reduction and other forms of environmental sustainability as driving elements in their work. At the same time, among many architects, painters and sculptors, the issue of design aesthetics has become an exclusive dialogue between self-enlightened aficionados. Missing from these conversations are the voices of millions of end users like Osmany and Cecelia who have been left to develop an “outsider” form of design of their own. Understanding and engaging with their perspective could lead to a more inclusive model of good design that connects the ideals of Gropius with the public we are all meant to serve.