RENOVATING A MID-CENTURY MODERN HOUSE WITH STONE

Photo by Modern Architects

A long-loved house is like an old friend, welcoming and always ready to meet your needs. Like friends, though, houses age. Surprisingly, the design principles known collectively as Mid-Century Modern are now very close to retirement age. Like other prospective retirees, many Mid-Century Modern houses are showing their age. Fortunately, these more-than-middle-aged homes are prime candidates for renovation. Advances in decorative materials let you keep the valuable principles of Mid-Century décor while producing a higher-quality version than the original. To restore a beloved home and further enhance its most appealing qualities, the growing wealth of decorative stone counters and slabs are a wonderful resource for Mid-Century Modern homeowners.

WHAT’S MID-CENTURY MODERN?

Although greatly empowered by immigrant architects and designers, Mid-Century Modern architecture has always seemed uniquely American. Many of the reasons for that can be found in the design principles gathered from the Bauhaus and International styles brought to this country from war-torn Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Added to the melting pot of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School, Mid-Century became powerful and popular. Combined with building methods  and new materials developed to meet the challenges of a large continent’s highly varied climates, Mid-Century Modern residential design said—and continues to say—“home” all over the country.

Although individual architects put their own stamps on it, all paid their respects to some general and unifying principles of design. The strongest of this was the assertion that “form follows function.” Taking its cues from both nature and industrial development, Mid-Century focused on solving problems in the simplest, most straightforward fashion. A heavy reliance on natural materials and exposed construction elements like ceiling beams recalled a past when humans lived more simply in harmony with nature. Laboratory-style simplicity, often called “minimalism,” addressed a comfort-focused present in which houses needed to be seen as efficient containers for human activity rather than free-standing ornaments to be curated with care. A mixture of natural and new synthetic materials emphasized a science-based future in which human health, comfort and convenience took the lead in shaping home and workplace.

THE CHALLENGE OF RENOVATION

Perhaps more than any other design issue, renovation of Mid-Century Modern houses centers on the visible aging of these once-innovative materials. Time has tested and finally clarified the useful lives of plastic, vinyl, aluminum and other once-new synthetics. Prolonged exposure to light, moisture and other environmental factors like deteriorating air-quality have damaged manufactured and natural substances alike. Wood surfaces show wear from foot traffic and fluctuating moisture levels in the air. Aluminum has pitted, and vinyl surfaces have lost color and sheen. Visual pathways between interior spaces and the surrounding environment have been interrupted or destroyed. Successful renovation and restoration of the home depends on replacing vulnerable materials with new, more durable ones that can meet Mid-Century’s broad range of goals.

Photo by Studio Build

RENOVATION WITH STONE

One of the most effective materials in this process is the wealth of natural and engineered stone counters and slabs available to revive and upgrade aging décor. Perhaps this seems like a statement of the obvious: in many parts of the country, Mid-Century homes use local stone for patios and other surfaces that provide visual continuity between indoors and outdoors. What today’s natural and engineered stone products offer to the home designer is so much more. Today consumers have access to beautiful granite, quartzite, marble and other kinds of stone imported from all over the world.  Durability, innate beauty and easy maintenance make them primary players in renovation. Beyond “form follows function,” see how these wonderful resources fit with other guiding tenets of Mid-Century design.

ENVIRONMENTAL INTEGRATION

What settled Mid-Century Modern in its new homeland was the practice of joining the house to its environment, through thoughtful siting in its natural landscape and reliance on natural and local materials for construction and décor. Designers developed revolutionary links between life indoors and out, placing heavy reliance on natural light, passive heating and cooling and engaging landscape as a major element in décor. Large windows and glass doors facilitated easy entry to room-like patios and outdoor entertaining areas.  What keeps the style going is a remarkable tension between privacy and openness, founded on the belief that homeowners inhabit and interact with the whole environment around them, not just isolated rooms in a house.

Both natural and engineered stone products strengthen links between a home and its surroundings. Local stone may bring more problems to interior design than it solves; a bumpy, porous counter that collects stains merely adds to the housework.  By contrast, professionally-produced natural and engineered products can create wonderful visual echoes of colors and textures from the landscape. The nearly endless spectrum of colors—solid, striated, veined—offer many opportunities beyond just copying local stone. Choose a cool blue-gray and pebbly texture to bring the nearby lake beach indoors, or a warmer gray to prolong the stillness of early-morning fog.  Bring the bark tones of nearby evergreens or the fresh greens of bamboo and other grasses inside with stone. It is hard to imagine an element in the environment around your home that cannot be included in your décor using the colors and textures of decorative stone.

Stone products can make independent contributions to your home environment as well. Using the same stone inside and out, for workspace counters in the family room and buffet counters around your outdoor entertaining area, for example, builds a visual ribbon joining interior and exterior spaces. Look to stone counters, benches and tabletops to soak up sunlight’s warmth, restoring some of the passive heating that was part of the home’s original design. Whether your stone surfaces are pebbly, leathery, low- or high-gloss, they will serve as a major tool for reflecting natural light, also a major original design element.

Photo by Flavin Architects

CLEAN LINES AND FLEXIBLE SPACE

This attitude accounts for much of Mid-Century’s ongoing popularity. Its clean lines, clear views and low-maintenance construction emphasize relaxation over regimentation. Mid-Century design welcomes a busy, active casual family with open arms, and in even the most elegantly designed homes, it does not seem out of the question to go barefoot now and then.

Clean lines and flexible space combine into the principle known as “minimalism.” The focus on design on its support for human activity dictates furnishings and accessories that are just-enough and not too-much. Whenever possible, furnishings are intended to serve multiple purposes. Within minimalist design, therefore, a handful of molded vinyl chairs, a wood trestle table and a long stone counter are all the equipment needed to hold a neighborhood committee meeting, serve a family dinner, make a Hallowe’en costume, do your taxes, and throw a New Year’s Eve buffet.

Flexibility is not a word frequently associated with stone, but within minimalist design, stone’s flexibility has very specific applications. With precise measurement and cutting, stone surfaces can create and expand space for work and hospitality as few other materials can. Counters can be sculpted to make previously empty corners and odd bits of space productive. A curved edge, unconventional depth or unique placement are easily managed by professional stone providers, and their talents make space even more responsive to human needs than before.

HIGH UTILITY AND LOW MAINTENANCE

One major reason for the enduring popularity of Mid-Century Modern home architecture stems from its beginnings in the 1940s. Homes were built with social upheavals firmly in mind; and pride in full-time, lifelong home maintenance became one more WWII casualty. Mid-Century Modern houses offered, and have mostly kept, a promise of low maintenance, letting families spend more time leading their lives than cleaning up after them. Stone products fit perfectly into this scheme. Whether natural or engineered, they require only gentle cleaning and occasional sealing to provide years of literally care-free beauty.  Spills do need prompt attention, especially if, like fruit juices, alcoholic drinks or corrosive cleaners, they contain acids that can etch or stain sealed stone surfaces. Most accidents are, however, quickly managed with a damp sponge or cloth. Stone surfaces tend to have higher tolerances for heat and cold than synthetic laminates or wood, although common sense dictates using a pad under any container directly off the stove or out of the freezer.

TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENT AND ADAPTATION

Concurrent with architectural efforts to redefine the relationship between humans and their environment, Mid-Century builders and interior designers also set a new future path for furnishings and décor. Some of this involved developing peacetime uses for materials originally useful in wartime. Results varied widely. Consumers encountered colors not found in nature, lightweight portable furniture in shapes imitating natural objects, and multipurpose objects like built-in counters, shelves and storage drawers. New products featured materials like plastic and aluminum, whose full ranges of use and durability were yet to be determined. Natural colors, recalling a simpler past, were joined by un-natural colors of a chemically-fueled future—“hot” or “neon” pinks, oranges and greens predominated.  Bathrooms and kitchens became more colorful and easier to care for with the development of inexpensive surfacing materials like formica. Wood products progressed from solid timbers to laminates, spreading luxury in ever-thinning layers over a greater variety of surfaces. Metals exposed to the elements like aluminum and steel functioned both architecturally and aesthetically. The tensions created by combining seemingly contradictory styles generally fueled more enthusiasm than confusion as consumers explored new concepts in home décor. Give your Mid-Century Modern renovation similar energy with some of the newest stone décor. Onyx and travertine panels are only two choices of stone products that add intense color and dramatic patterns to both wall and counter surfaces. Colors remain naturally rather than chemically inspired but definitely bring décor from Mid-Century to This Century with powerful appeal.