How Midcentury Modern Became the Pumpkin Spice Latte of Design

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As I sit here at Peet’s in Palo Alto at 6 AM, sifting through emails and planning for the week ahead, I cannot help but notice the success of various marketing campaigns – particularly for the ever-famous pumpkin spice latte. The PSL, as the latte is affectionately called, is coffee chain’s most popular seasonal beverage. Starbucks reported that more than 200 million have been sold since its inception, and Forbes reported that the company earned around $100 million in revenue from the drink alone last fall. And as my mind works, I find connections to the world of design.

Palo Alto is known for its revival of Eichler homes and midcentury modern design. Why the revitalization and enduring popularity of midcentury modern from Eichler and Eames into Ikea and West Elm? Midcentury design encompasses a remarkably wide and ill-defined period, encompassing many distinct movements and plays into our collective fixation on tidy, clean, compartmentalized spaces.

It is inclusive and an inoffensive design camouflage that is picked up online or in countless chain stores around the country. It is reigned in pop culture from the fashionably flawless office of Mad Men’s Roger Sterling to the home of infamous Don Draper.

It is the pumpkin spice latte in design-speak: a prefabricated style so innocuous and ubiquitous that even cynics eventually yield to its nostalgic, neutral warmth – flashbacks to a time we vaguely remember. There are many deeper, near-anthropological explanations for the rise of midcentury design, though. It was popularized during the Cold War, when the U.S. sought to portray American consumer goods as an ideological weapon against the USSR. See ‘Modern Art was CIA weapon’.

Midcentury modern design, with its averaging cream, gray and wood-paneled amalgam, applies to all user tastes. Like the technological algorithms that track preferences and match us with what we already love to Siri killing off regional accents to companies like WeWork popularizing the replication of global generic spaces. Midcentury design is less a style or era of design as it is a byword for design itself. It goes hand in hand with a long steady shift in how we think about, shop for and own our spaces. Prior to the 20th century, the furniture you owned might be the product of circumstance, where you lived or inherited. The end. A decade ago, it was determined by the locality of your stores. The end. Today, we can buy any piece of furniture, from the era of our choosing, instantly. In this way, we are shifting toward consuming furniture as a kind of product platform, something we can swap in and out of our lives to best suit our needs and represent our identities.

In that way, midcentury design is literally the “camouflage” Parrish spoke of – a tabula rasa that is easy to produce, easy to ship, and has little objections. Like the PSL, the nostalgia surrounding the return of the past is hard to beat. Combine that with the ultimate marketing tool – the limited-time offer (LTO) – and you have just created a must-have product.

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