Remoderning Part 1: General Concepts

The Modern Minute Exclusive: Remoderning Part 1: General Concepts

Interior of the Schell House by Dennis Blair

I hope you read this month’s other article about modern home values in the area, and if you have any questions about it, please contact me, and I’ll be happy to help.

I wanted to start giving you some more specific information about remodeling, in case you’re thinking of doing any updates to your modern home, or one you plan to purchase. But before I get into specifics, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss remodeling in general terms, as relates to modern homes.

What is Modernism? What is Mid-Century Modern?

Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe

The first thing that I think is important to talk about is what “modernism” and “mid-century modernism” actually are, because they’re very different things. Of course, when I talk about these things here, I’m talking specifically as relates to architecture and design, and, to a certain extent, art. 

Modernism, in its most general use, is a philosophical idea that the old and traditional ways of doing things (everything from how things are designed and made to how things are done in daily life) were no longer in fitting with the advancement of society after the rise of large cities and after World War I. With regard to architecture, modernism took those ideas, along with new materials that were available to use in construction, such as steel, glass and reinforced concrete, along with ideas about minimalism and that form should follow function. Additionally, a rejection of traditional ideas about ornament were also a major part of modernism where architecture were concerned.

Mid-Century Modernism, however, is more of a catch-all phrase that’s used to describe a whole slew of architecture, art and design-related things. It’s not a particular style, instead incorporating many styles and elements of styles. A lot of people are in the camp of not being able to define it, but knowing it when they see it. Still many others THINK they’re in that camp, but confuse modernism and art deco, Hollywood Regency and other tangentially related styles and ideas.

Our Landscape of Modernism

Erickson Residence by Don Erickson

With all of that said, when we look at the breadth of modern architecture in the Chicago area, what do we see? Within the sphere of modern homes in the area, we see lots of different styles. There are what some would call “designer houses”. These are homes that were designed by notable area architects such as Keck & Keck, Ed Dart, Don Erickson, Dennis Blair, Ralph Anderson, Milton Schwartz, Tony Grunsfeld and others. Many such homes exist, as well, that were designed by architects you may not have heard of, but who were very talented and designed some beautiful homes, either for themselves or for family and friends.

A modern home in Arlington Heights, architect unknown

And then of course there are more “generic” modern homes: Homes that incorporate many of the features and visual elements that we expect in a modern home, but that were either built en masse as part of a subdivision, or maybe were built based on plans from a plan book that was widely available at the time. Often, these homes “looK’ modern from the outside, but don’t have many features on the inside that would be considered to be consistent with what we think of when we visualize a home that’s “mid-century modern”.

Elements of Modern Homes

A modern home in the Chicago suburbs

So what are some of these features? One of the first things we notice is the geometry of a house that makes it more modern. This would include things like a flat roof, low-pitched roof, shed roof or other not traditional type of roof that’s either at a lower angle than a traditional home, or has a completely different shape altogether.

Extensive use of brick on a home by Ralph Anderson

The next thing is the materials. What materials were used in the construction of the home? Modern homes often feature exteriors made of some sort of masonry (brick, stone, concrete block or poured concrete), wood (such as cedar, douglas fir, redwood or teak) and, of course glass. Many modern homes feature much more glass than a typical house because one of the core ideas in modern architecture is to blur the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces. As such, not only will we often see a lot of glass, but the continuation of materials on the same plane both inside and outside the house. So maybe a brick wall continues from outside the house to the inside, visible through a large window. Or a slate walkway and front porch continues to be a slate floor inside the house.

Modern hardware on hand-made cabinetry in a home designed by Don Schiller for his own family

In many modern homes, it wasn’t just the geometry and the materials that made it feel new and modern when it was built, but all of the details that went along with it. Often, light fixtures, door and cabinet hardware, and even wood species used for cabinetry, doors, floors and trim was limited to certain types of wood that were preferred over others.

We often see walnut, birch, mahogany and teak used for doors, trim or wall panels in modern homes. Species like oak, with its more open, coarse grain, weren’t as popular in modern homes (although sometimes quarter-sawn or rift-cut oak was used). As mentioned earlier, redwood, cedar or douglas fir were preferred for things like ceilings (and sometimes walls) over species like pine, with its typically knotty appearance feeling more log cabin than modern house.

Terrazzo and mosaic parquet flooring in a modern home in Barrington

Flooring was often carpet – considered to be very luxurious in the mid-20th century – or cork, and tile or linoleum in kitchens and bathrooms. Wealthier clients might have opted for terrazzo, and polished concrete was another option, especially if the house was built on a slab with no basement or only a partial basement. Wood floors weren’t nearly as common in the ’50s and ’60s as they are today, and were often handled with stained, furniture-grade plywood rather than the planks most of us are used to (although those were sometimes used, typically in very narrow widths). Sometimes, parquet floors were used in either linear block, herringbone or mosaic designs.

Cabinetry in kitchens and bathrooms was often built on-site by the finish carpenters building the house, and wood species used for cabinetry often matched the species used for doors and trim. Pre-manufactured cabinets were available from companies such as St. Charles and Mutschler.

Mutschler cabinets in the former home of Jens J Jenson, Jr, as seen during a Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond event in 2015

Appliances were often stainless steel, although ovens back then seem to have typically been either wider or more narrow than the sizes we’ve standardized on since the ’70s.

And then there’s color: A subject I won’t talk too much about at this point, but suffice to say that people were much more comfortable with color back then than we seem to be, as a society, today. 

Where Should You Start?

If you’re planning on doing some remodeling to your modern home, my advice is, if it’s a new (to you) house, wait a while. See what things you love about the house and what annoys you. Don’t make any major changes right away, as you might regret them later.

If you’ve been in the house a while and you have a good idea of what you want to do, plan it all out. Recognize what you’re personally good at and what you need help with, then hire the right people to do the work. Hiring a designer and/or architect might seem daunting, but it’ll be much LESS daunting than if you try to take on a big project yourself, if you don’t already have experience doing that sort of thing.

And of course you have to decide if you’re doing a restoration or a rehab. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend restoration – trying to get the home back to its original aesthetic state when first built – for most people, as that’s typically an extremely costly proposition. Most people will be doing a rehab: Bringing their modern home into a more modern age, but with an eye for keeping the updates aesthetically consistent with the home’s original architectural vision.

And then there’s my most important rule: Be consistent! Something we often see in modern homes in the area, when they come up for sale, is inconsistency. Maybe one bathroom was done 10 years after another, and the kitchen 10 years after that, and an addition 5 years after that and none of if goes together. There’s ’50s modern mixed with ’70s modern mixed with Colonial and it ends up being, quite honestly, a disaster that will be very difficult to sell.

Consistency is key!

That doesn’t mean every bathroom has to look exactly the same as every other one,  but maybe use the same tile in every bathroom, but in different colors. Use the same toilets and sinks. And maybe the same bath hardware. Or maybe use something more special in the Master Bath (if you have one) but make sure it’s aesthetically consistent with the hardware you chose for the other baths.

If you’re replacing carpeting in different rooms, it should all be the same type of carpet, even if the color is different (although using the same color throughout is probably even better). If you’re re-doing floors and putting in wood, don’t use different types, sizes or tones of wood in different spaces. If you’re trying to match existing wood flooring that looks good in the house and that type of flooring is no longer available, consider having some custom milled to match, if you can swing it, or resign yourself to removing it, too, and doing something consistent throughout.

There are exceptions to every rule that vary by situation, of course, but again, being consistent with your remodeling choices will go a LONG way toward making your house look more modern, more beautiful and, if you’re thinking of selling, more salable. 

Next month I’ll get into more specifics about one aspect of remodeling a modern home, and will continue for the next few months after that.