When Josh Lipnik answers the phone for our interview, he’s pulled over on a drive to Cleveland, on his way to take photos for his popular Midwest Modern Twitter account (62,500 followers and counting). Think of Midwest Modern like a photographic road trip through the region. Lipnik hunts out the hidden gems beyond the city skyscrapers or big-name architects; his posts instead capture design moments like the symmetry of a suburban bank or the unexpected grace of an office park. Scrolling his feed feels like sitting next to him in the passenger seat and watching the endless, underappreciated sites of the midwest slide by. Through his eyes and his camera, the beauty shines through.
Lipnik talked to the Reader about art and architecture, his favorite midwest spots, and the process of documenting it all for Twitter.
Megan Kirby: How did Midwest Modern start?
Josh Lipnik: I didn’t start until maybe the beginning of 2019 or the end of 2018. Originally [the account] was just under my name. I didn’t really think of branding it in any way. I was living in Columbus [Ohio] at the time, and I was home in Detroit for the winter holidays. I just did a little tour of Detroit and posted some stuff. It caught the eye of some other architecture people on Twitter and grew from there.
At some point—I can’t remember exactly when—I changed the name to Midwest Modern and I started standardizing the text, and how the photos are presented. That’s when it started to take off.
Did growing up in Detroit affect how you think of architecture?
I’m sure it did on some subconscious level. Whenever I go somewhere, I’m always comparing it to Detroit. You have to go out of your way to search to find the good stuff. The interesting building, or buildings by more well-known architects. You’re just exploring and figuring it out on your own.
That sounds like the vibe of your whole account.
When you’re growing up in the suburbs, in high school or whatever, all there is to do is kind of drive around places. From the time I could drive, I was always driving to other suburbs and looking for interesting houses or interesting places. This was years and years ago, before I ever thought of doing [Midwest Modern]. I have always had that instinct, I guess, to search out interesting places, interesting buildings. Traveling with me, I’m sure, is really annoying, because I’ll just sort of pull over for anything that catches my eye.
What’s the process behind your posts?
When I’m going to a place, what I’ll usually do is I’ll have a little notebook. I’ll do some research beforehand. I have a few sources, and I’ll put together a little list and pin them on the map. Those are the landmarks. Then, I figure out if I’m driving or walking between these places. That’s where I can pick up on more of the texture. The signs. Miscellaneous, utilitarian buildings.
Since the pandemic, I didn’t want to travel too far, so I was going to a lot of smaller cities where I could drive in a day or whatever. Now that I’m doing a place like Cleveland, which is a much bigger city, I’m taking that same approach but doing it neighborhood by neighborhood. I’m looking at a neighborhood the same way I would have looked at a smaller city.
Are there any spots that you think sum up the account?
The first one is Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, designed by Eero Saarinen. That’s one of those places that really interests me. It’s a famous architect, a huge scale of a project. It’s in Fort Wayne, which is already not the biggest city. It’s sort of off in a suburban area, tucked away. I’m really interested in places like that: an architectural pilgrimage.
That’s one aspect of the account: looking at these buildings by famous architects that are in places that people aren’t necessarily going to visit.
You feature smaller architects, too.
There’s a bank that I posted from Youngstown, Ohio. It’s by an architect named Arthur D’Orazio, who was the main local architect there during the 50s and 60s. It’s this beautiful, round, midcentury modern bank with one of those zigzag folded roofs. It’s just a little branch of a bank. That’s where you see a lot of the experimentation from that era, the midcentury modern with smaller, more utilitarian buildings.
Also, the architect, Arthur D’Orazio, he’s someone that I’d never heard of. No one learns about him in architecture history classes. The only reason I knew who he was is that his granddaughter actually messaged me about him and sent me some photos of his projects. I’m very interested in architects who were based out of a smaller city. They never got famous in any way. They were never really in big magazines. But they really had a big effect in shaping whatever place they’re from. Their whole career is tied to one place. To me, that’s the other side of the coin from finding buildings from those big-name architects like Eero Saarinen.
What about posts that aren’t specifically about buildings?
So, there’s another one from Youngstown. It was just a vintage 7 Up sign from, I believe the late 60s, by a designer named John Alcorn. It’s this really interesting psychedelic, Yellow Submarine animation style. I’m interested in these leftover pieces of culture from the past. I think that’s a different side of what I do than the actual architecture stuff. If I go to the city, I think of stuff like that—signs, or little ice cream stands, or old fast food chains—as like the texture of the place. And then the more serious architecture is like the substance.
How do people interact with your posts?
If someone had some experience of this place as a kid, I’m always interested. I’ll get stuff like, “My grandpa worked in this building in the 60s.” Little personal anecdotes or family anecdotes . . . I always appreciate those. I always think those are interesting and kind of nice, that people want to share that.
You have a Midwest Modern Patreon. What goes into that?
Basically, what I’ve been posting on there is kind of a combination of some behind-the-scenes, or more travel stuff. A little bit more in-depth look at some of the places or buildings or architects that I’ve posted on the account. I’ve posted a bunch of buildings by that architect Arthur D’Orazio from Youngstown on just the regular account, but on the Patreon I wrote a little bit more about him, his background, and the actual house he lived in.
What makes Midwest architecture stand out for you?
Every city has its own vernacular, its own style. I don’t know if there is necessarily a uniform midwest architecture. But that’s interesting to me because there are these different subregions in the midwest. So in northern Michigan, where you have lumber towns, it’s going to look a lot different than somewhere in rural Ohio that was a farming town. Or somewhere like Youngstown that’s more like an industrial, Rust Belt type of midwest. I’m actually more interested in the different regional variations inside of that.
Midwest Modern is @JoshLipnik on Twitter and midwestmodern at Patreon.