1 of 2
Currently on the market, this Lexington home on Honeyhill Lane was built in 2004 but emanates the growing trend toward the mid-century design aesthetic. Photo by John Davis
2 of 2
Clean lines, wood accents and lots of natural light are among the elements that mid-century enthusiasts gravitate toward. Photo by John Davis
Local mid-century modern buff Sara Morken became acquainted with the interiors of Lexington’s modern homes by knocking on strangers’ doors.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people let me in,” she laughed. “At first, they probably think I’m crazy, but then most of the time, they get this sense of pride and happily show me around.”
Morken’s impromptu house tours are more than just fangirl curiosity – she’s a Realtor with a specialized focus on connecting clients with mid-century homes in Lexington. But her obsession is also a reflection of a growing trend in Lexington and around the world.
The “mid-century” movement primarily refers to a specific style of design that emerged roughly between 1933 and 1965. With an emphasis on structures with abundant windows and open floor plans, one intention of mid-century modern architecture was to open interior spaces and bring the outdoors inside. Many homes of the period utilized post-and-beam construction, a then-revolutionary technique that replaced bulky support walls with glass and wood or steel beams. Scandinavian design was particularly influential at the time — a style characterized by simplicity, democratic design (the concept that good design should be plentiful and affordable) and natural shapes.
There has been much speculation about what has sparked renewed interest in mid-century aesthetics. For local mid-century enthusiast Lucy Jones, who recently founded the Mid-Century Society of Lexington, good design is good design.
“The clean lines and functionality of mid-century design give it a quality of timelessness that prevents it from being dismissed as a come-and-go trend,” she said. “And the emphasis on organic forms make it resonate at a primal level. Eero Saarinen’s tulip table will never not be sexy — it’s just impossible.”
Jones’ inspiration for starting Mid-Century Society was inspired by art deco societies such as the Miami Design Preservation League, founded by Barbara Capitman in 1976. Capitman wanted to foster appreciation for Miami’s art deco districts, which were falling into disrepair. According to Jones, despite the fact that mid-century design is incredibly popular across the country, many of Lexington’s architectural treasures are disappearing. The demolition of the University of Kentucky’s Wenner-Gren building, the New Circle Inn, and the uncertain futures of both the Peoples Bank building and the Collins Eastland Bowling Center mean that raising awareness is timelier than ever.
“By focusing on the unique design of these buildings and the culture in which they were created, we hope to shine a light on their value and turn the tide on their neglect and destruction,” she said. The group hosts monthly events like film screenings and cocktail meet-ups, and includes a lively appreciation and discussion forum on Facebook.
With her local real estate business, Morken has seen the trend growing, especially among younger buyers. She believes the increased awareness is partially due to the AMC television series “Mad Men,” which aired from 2007-2015, but also credited the 2014 book “The Houses of Richard B. Isenhour: Mid-Century Modern in Kentucky,” with generating local interest. (The book was written by local architect R.L. “Larry” Isenhour, the son of late Lexington architect Richard B. Isenhour, responsible for designing and building nearly 100 unique mid-century modern homes in Lexington.)
The rising popularity of the Scandinavian home decor store IKEA has undoubtedly contributed to national interest in the style as well. Morken, who hails from a small Norwegian town in Minnesota, acknowledges that her Scandinavian background has played a large part in her gravitation toward modern design.
The scarcity of mid-century modern homes in Lexington means the market tends to move incredibly quickly.
“The demand for them is high, but finding one for sale is difficult,” Morken said. “These types of homes are typically sold among friends or under the radar, so many don’t make it to the market. When they do, they are often in disrepair, so buyers are hesitant to take on the challenge of restoring them. We also see homes where someone has made updates that are not true to the era or have ruined what should have been untouched.”
Jones agrees. “I’ve heard a couple of stories of vigilant house hunters who, having missed a listing by days or even hours, contacted the winning bidders and offered them considerable sums to privately sell their new homes — without luck. The demand far outweighs the supply.”
Still, Lexington is fortunate enough to have a handful of exquisitely designed mid-century modern homes. They are not located in a single district, but many can be found in Lansdowne, The Colony, Glendover and Lakeside. Morken and Jones recently joined forces to organize Lexington’s first public mid-century modern architecture tour. Still in the planning stage, the tour is tentatively scheduled for summer 2017. Those interested in the tour (and homeowners wishing to participate) are welcome to get in touch via the Mid-Century Society’s Facebook page.
“That way I won’t have to knock on doors anymore,” Morken said.