Opposites Attract: Historic Homes, Modern Furniture.

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A historic apartment with a wonderful and modern interior, located in Paris, France. Photo via Airbnb.

Recently, I toured a house as a potential listing and I was blown away by the interior design. This was a historic home, and a lot of its original wood work, windows, and other architectural details survived. The furniture, however, was strikingly modern. Not only did it “work,” but it really looked great. The clean lines and the simplicity of the furniture allowed those one-of-a-kind historic details — which I thought were the main selling points of the home — to stand out. It seemed like a real win-win. The unique woodwork, high ceilings, and original elements were certainly on display, but so was the homeowner’s great modern taste.

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Over-stuffed Charles Eastlake Interior Design Style, c. 1890. Photo via Hubpages.

This really successful juxtaposition of modern furniture and historic details got me to thinking about historic preservation and the Standards for Rehabilitation, which are a guide for preservationists and planners who make alterations to historic buildings. But you knew that! One key part of the ninth standard is, “The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.” Basically, if you’re going to add something to a historic building, conventional wisdom says it’s best to honor, but not mimic, what’s already there. While the Standards are usually used in a more architectural application, I think this line of thinking applies pretty readily to furniture, décor, and staging of historic homes.

Think about it — originally, these Victorian-era homes would have been overstuffed with tons of furniture, rugs, drapes, plants, crazy patterned wallpaper, you name it. Charles Eastlake, a 19th-century British architect, wrote a book called Hints on Household Taste in 1862 which basically advised stylish homeowners that when it came to decorating, MORE WAS MORE.

For a while, this knick-knacky, jumbled aesthetic became synonymous with the “restoration” movement of the 20th century, when people thought “restoration” meant “put up some cabbage rose wallpaper and fill the home with a bunch of old crap.” While it’s generally good to consider and honor the era of your home’s construction when you’re renovating or redecorating, it doesn’t have to be so literal. Or expensive — all those antiquey knick-knacks add up! Better to buy one gorgeous Scandinavian dining table that fills a space with style on its own than thirteen Jenny Lind end tables with hand-tatted doilies.

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Le Corbusier style Grand Confort Chairs in an ornate room at Place St. George

Adding sleek, modern furniture to a space that already comes with built-in texture in the way of historic millwork, plaster moldings, and ornate fireplaces brings those background elements out to play. These elements are now focal points in your home, not nice features that your guest will never notice because they’re hidden under seven layers of chintz.

Modern furniture, besides being objectively beautiful, lends itself to this application through its inherent simplicity. If Eastlake was all about “more is more,” the modernist aesthetic is absolutely “less is more.” Materials and characteristics of modern furniture, like laminated bent wood, steel, chrome, and the minimalist aesthetic lend themselves well to setting off the complex molding profiles, plaster, and floors of a historic character home. Modernist pieces in a historic room kind of do their own thing, in my opinion. They’re not competing with the historic space, but complementing its grandeur.

And minimalism isn’t the only brand of modernism. Bold colors and cool textures also do a lot of the same work in historic spaces. Take a tour of this historic apartment, featured in Design Milk, with modern style throughout. Apartment Therapy is another great resource for this kind of thing — they’re always posting inspirational house tours” of homes with old bones but hip aesthetic.

While it’s no secret that a lot of today’s buyers might be repelled by a stately Victorian house decorated to the nines in the style of Charles Eastlake, a house with simple furniture, of the right scale, with clean lines, will show off the original features of the home and attract buyers to the character they originally wanted. It’s chic, sure, but it also makes historic buildings more accessible.

 

By the way, this trend isn’t just confined to residential spaces. In fact, commercial interiors get redecorated all the time.  All the time. Think about all the historic office buildings in your city that have floor after floor of cubicles and commercial carpeting as far as the eye can see. But let’s not get too snarky – there are good examples, too.

Here in Chicago, we’ve got a bunch. One of the most recent is the Virgin Hotel, which opened last year inside the Old Dearborn Bank Building. I love that from the outside, it could very well still be a classic Chicago School office building, but the inside is a fun modernist surprise. And the juxtaposition of the sleek, spaceship-looking bar  against that textural historic coffered ceiling is to die for.

Who’s buying?

Let's discuss how successful this combo of old and new is over drinks? Photo via US Green Building Council.

Let’s discuss how successful this combo of old and new is over drinks? Photo via US Green Building Council.

Mad for Mid-Century

All the cool kids are talking about Mid-Century Modern (MCM). It has become the coolest, the hippest and the most talked about. It’s totally a thing. Well, at this point, it has been a thing for the past few years. So be it. It comes up all the time when I am working with home buyers, so I thought a brief snapshot of MCM and why it finally gets the recognition it deserves as classic, quintessential American style was worth a few lines.

What’s the skinny? For years no one wanted anything to do with the low, linear roof lines, avocado green sofas, and the powder blue toilets had to go. The pink and tangerine sparkly Formica counter tops were the first thing to hit the dumpster. All that super cool Danish Modern design was kitsch. Yeah, well things have changed a bit. Starting in 2007, Mad Men’s Don and Betty Draper made MCM the hottest and hippest. Let’s roll with it.

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Copyright 1950 – National Plan Service, Inc., courtesy Indiana Coal & Lumber Co. & RetroRenovation – Idealistic Ranch style Mid-Century Modern Home

Not only is the furniture and home decor of MCM now recognized as classic, but home buyers now appreciate the function and style of a Mid-Century home. These homes were designed with the needs of the average American family in mind. Not high style –  simple form and  function. Built at a time when the economy was flush, these homes were built with exceptional quality, character, and all the amenities that we still consider “modern.”

So, What is Mid-Century Modern?

This is not a scholarly or academic research piece. Just a quick down and dirty of what the MCM fuss is all about. Now recognized by scholars and museums worldwide as a significant design movement, MCM describes the design aesthetic, style, and components generally associated with the period between 1933-1965. These years were characterized by huge shifts in the American psyche. World War II, mass production, and the suburbanization of America among them.  New building materials were available and city residents were running for the newly laid out suburbs. Thanks to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, that move was increasingly more convenient. Americans also had cash to throw down.

New architectural styles emphasized large windows – bringing the outside in,  open floor plans, and the elimination of bulky support systems. This was but one vehicle in bringing modernism into America’s post-war culture.  Function was key; the residential design movement focused on creating livable, functional homes for the average American.

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Mid-Century Modern Interior, bringing the outdoors in. Photo Credit: Wanken

Layout:

MCM homes were designed to allow family life to unfold. The layout is generally open, with the bedrooms grouped at one end. A patio or outdoor area accessible from the main living space, with large windows or sliding glass doors to separate outdoor and indoor living while celebrating their union – a key component of the Mid-Century lifestyle. Overall, these homes were not large. The space was compact and manageable, but still open and seemingly spacious. Because the homes are generally on the smaller side, they are more cost efficient. They cost less to heat, cool, repair, and renovate. They also take less time and effort to keep CLEAN. Just saying.

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Floor plan for a 1,625 square foot 1950’s Ranch style home. RetroRenovation calls this a near perfect floor plan with nearly every modern amenity, including two  bathrooms and a mudroom, making it comfortable for today’s living.

 

Time Capsule Homes:

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Murray Steel Kitchen Cabinets. Steel kitchen cabinets are extremely durable and can still fit the contemporary aesthetic. Check out this couple’s Kitchen Re-Model using their St. Charles steel cabinets!

Because many MCM homes have had the same owner since they were built, you will find the occasional, completely original, time capsule home – offering a peek into a MCM lifestyle. Ten years ago, many of these homes would have been considered a gut job. Today, buyers appreciate the retro character and are restoring these homes. Thanks Don and Betty! These classic gems are just now hitting the 50 year mark, making them eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, allowing preservation efforts to take place. Not only are these homes starting to achieve some historic significance, they are just plain cool. I’ll say that again. JUST PLAIN COOL.  The organic lines, bright colors, and open living spaces are huge selling points for the informed  Mid-Century Modern buyer.

Here are some Time Capsule Homes for your viewing pleasure

Color & Decor:

“The colors in the mid-century were a reaction that went against what was there before,” says Brooke Schneider, owner of Source, Inc., a Long Beach-based design firm. “What was there before were very somber, subtler, quieter colors. Colors in the ’50s and ’60s became brighter and stronger — anti-establishment, but optimistic.”

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New color fervor optimism showed up on the walls in striking shades, such as turquoise and flamingo, and abstract shapes in furnishings and accessories. The 1960s pushed color trends further, as acid green, blueberry, citron, and hot pink were the must haves for modern homeowners.

The post-and-beam architecture of MCM structures emphasizes windows and walls and the newly introduced open floor plans forced homeowners and designers to think in terms of complete home palettes that complement both the exterior and interior. Natural boundaries of color such as hallways, and millwork were far less important. As rooms flowed into one another, so too did color.

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1948 Kohler Cerulean Blue Bathroom with Maroon accents – note the dental sink!  More Blue Bathrooms.

Kitchens & Bathrooms:

In MCM homes, the kitchens and baths  can be downright frightening when it to comes to restoring or updating. How can you update, yet keep the original Mid-Century appeal? RetroRenovation has many of the answers, illustrating how to keep your bathroom retro, but still make a selling point of your home. Not everyone loves a pink and red bathroom, but the nice  folks at RetroRenovation sure make it less nerve-racking.

Neighborhood & Location:

The single floor ranch style homes that are typical of the Mid-Century Modern style are also appropriate for aging in place. This allows the aging population of a neighborhood to stay in their homes longer. My parents dumped their Victorian era home and purchased a ranch when I was in high school. I know. Many of these homes have been owned by the same person or family since they were built, creating mature neighborhoods, stability, and longevity in the community. MCM homes were generally built in new developments just outside the cities. Ring suburbs, we now call them. Location, location, location! As populations shift back to urban centers, these neighborhoods are again appreciated because of their proximity to the cities, but with suburban culture and values. Take that any way you like.

This post could go on and on…and on and on. Especially if you are a MCM enthusiast. From mass production informing building materials and storage to new textiles, furniture and modern home accessories – but enough is enough for now.  Just appreciate these designs, typologies and aesthetics for what they are. Fabulous!

Click HERE for resources the help with choosing bathroom colors, vintage appliances, and more.

Mid-Century Modern Homes for sale in Chicago.

Mid-Century Modern Homes for sale in the US.

Do you own a Mid-Century Modern home? Click HERE for some resources to update, preserve, replace, or renovate your home.

Check out Zillow‘s blog about Mid-Century Modern and Bringing the Outdoors In.

Chicago Common Brick

Have you ever noticed that in Chicago, no matter how interesting and high-quality the brick on a historic facade is, the brick that’s on the secondary elevations is kind of, well, not so interesting and high-quality?   What you’re seeing is a, Chicago-specific brick type. DYSV could go on and on about proper mortar, pointing, reasons for color variation, etc., but we’re not.  We’re gong to keep this one short and sweet – just a brief dispatch on what Chicago common brick is and how it came to be.

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Painted Historic Woodwork: Naughty or Nice?

Its light, its bright, but is it all right?

It’s light, it’s bright, but is it all right?

A hot trend in home design and decor these days is clean, light interiors.  And while a bright, airy interior is certainly achievable in a historic house, our un-remodeled old homes, especially those dating from the 1870s to 1910s, can sometimes be murky and oppressive. Continue reading

Be a Pal to Your Porch.

Porches on porches in this post.

Porches on porches in this post.

One of the most characteristic features a house can boast is an architecturally interesting front porch.  Much as the eyes are the window to the soul, the porch is the window to the house.  Well, that’s a bad metaphor, since the porch is the porch to the house and the windows are the windows to the house, but you get it.  The historic quality of your porch deeply affects the perceived historic quality of the rest of the property.  Removing or enclosing a historic porch can irretrievably alter a house’s visual character.

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Million Dollar District: How Landmark Designation Pays

Property rights enthusiasts often argue their opposition to preservation ordinances through the lens of “highest and best use.”  The concept of highest and best use provides that any given parcel of land should be used in a reasonable, legal, and financially feasible way to yield the highest value for that land.  Think of it this way: this principle is essentially why skyscrapers are a thing.  You can use the land over and over and over again, collecting rent each time.  And tell me, readers, what’s a better use than making cold, hard cash? For  economy of column space, we’ll keep zoning out of the discussion because that’s a big discussion.  Just know that you can only build skyscrapers where you are allowed to build skyscrapers. Enough on that for  now.

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A Diamond in the Roof: Common Roof Types.

As we’ve noted before, houses come in infinite styles, plans, and configurations.  It can be hard to keep track of the different types of housing stock out there.  The American domestic architectural gods have given us one reprieve, though: generally speaking, there are just a few major roof types found on a wide range of house styles across the country.  Lucky us.

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Hey, nice glass!

Earlier this week we looked at a commonly misused term in architectural parlance: “Victorian.”   I’d posit that “stained glass” is one that gets tossed around incorrectly just as often.  It is extremely unlikely that you have true stained glass in your home (unfortunately!).  Truth is, in the U.S., actual, honest-to-goodness stained glass is a rare bird, especially in an area like Chicago, which was largely developed in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

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