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Dining room and kitchen in the 1958 San Mateo, California home of Javier Szwarcberg and Erica Smulever. The home is one of thousands designed by Modernist tract home developer Joseph Eicher. (Jim Brown/Jim Brown)
Dining room and kitchen in the 1958 San Mateo, California home of Javier Szwarcberg and Erica Smulever. The home is one of thousands designed by Modernist tract home developer Joseph Eicher. (Jim Brown/Jim Brown)

Interior designers find the value in being true to form Add to ...

Granite countertops have no place in a mid-century modern home.

Neither do painted brick, vinyl windows, a spa bathroom, or “poufy Roman shades,” for that matter.

So say Michelle Gringeri-Brown and Jim Brown – creators of the hit quarterly magazine Atomic Ranch – in their newly released book, Atomic Ranch: Midcentury Interiors (Gibbs Smith).

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Ditching the cheerleading of their first hardcover effort (2006), the husband-and-wife team has adopted a tougher stance when it comes to current fads that will date your postwar ranch-style. Throughout its 192 deliciously illustrated pages, they question, in various ways, the validity of doing something out of character with the architecture; if you didn't like the 1980s black-and-brass Dynasty-era bathroom your 1950s home came with, they ask, then why on Earth would you commit a similar crime?

“That is Michelle's voice,” laughs Mr. Brown, the book's photographer, “but my voice is right behind her on that.

“That stuff is not going to serve the longevity of your house,” he continues. “You could look back historically: the older homes that are really valued – 100- or 200-year-old homes – are the ones that are relatively untouched, so it doesn't take much intelligence to realize, well, follow those same precepts; try not to completely obliterate the wonderful qualities that first drew you to this ranch house when you first saw it with your realtor.”

But that can be difficult. Bedrooms and kitchens were much smaller back then, and who wants faded old Formica? It's tougher still for the homeowner who looks down the street and sees the same house repeated over and over – what's so special about one carbon copy? Think of it this way: On a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle, would the better investment be to graft a Cadillac grill onto the front and install extra-wide rims, or to swap the engine out for a more energy-efficient one and replace the old, hard seats with something more ergonomic? In that light, what initially seems like author finger-wagging becomes a beacon for how to spend renovation dollars properly.

And what's proper varies from home to home. On a few of the eight homes featured, significant structural changes were made to accommodate owner lifestyles; on others, only minor changes and cosmetic touch-ups were necessary. Some owners chose to decorate using mid-century pieces; others were happy with contemporary furniture. All, however, kept the spirit of the era in mind.

For instance, the 1955 home of Jennie and Johnney Hall, a “traditional ranch” built as a model home for their Tulsa, Okla., neighbourhood, is a colourful kitsch collector's dream: spiky sputnik fixtures, curvy blonde Heywood-Wakefield furniture, a turquoise wall phone and boomerang-patterned barkcloth curtains all compete for attention. Purists, these homeowners consulted a vintage brochure (passed down from former owners) to recreate original details, from the pattern on vinyl flooring to a “planetary room divider” in one of the bathrooms, which involved ordering two-inch cork balls from Canada.

“You could only have one of those in a book,” laughs Mr. Brown.

While it sports orange paint on one wall, the 1964 Calistoga, California home owned by architect Pam Kinzie couldn't be more different. Although its furniture is certainly more conservative, the real story is how this “snout house” (think of Mississauga's many 1970s ‘garage-with-house-attached' models) was transformed from a “house that you'd drive by and not think anything of” to an architectural showpiece by removing some interior walls and adding clerestories by popping up the roof “without making it into a monstrosity.”

“In some ways that is our sleeper chapter,” enthuses Mr. Brown. “I think most people would see that house and identify ‘Hey I have a house just like that!' ”

For Mies disciples, a 1954 flat-roofed Dallas home that “appears almost institutional” on the outside reveals a playful, light-filled interior decorated with a wooden dinosaur skeleton and a furniture collection that eschews the “expected” 1950s pieces. And despite the acres of glass, it was a great place for homeowners Donna and Cliff Welch to raise their son: “[T]e windows and wildlife made Dylan more connected to the world … if kids bump into the glass, they do it once, not twice.”

In each chapter, the homeowner's story is ‘paused' for a page-long discussion on items such as interior or exterior colours, flooring, contemporary vs. retro-themed kitchens, bathrooms, and even architectural windows. It's here the authors dish out the tough love. Renovating an original kitchen? If cabinets are in good shape but not to one's taste, why not repaint them and install modern pulls, since “often the vintage construction is of superior quality to what you can buy today,” writes Ms. Gringeri-Brown. This, she adds, gives the next homeowner the opportunity to restore them. When picking out drapes, avoid “tab-tops” or the “opulent floor-puddling style.”

It's all about fostering a sense of pride, and it seems to be working, as more and more mid-century neighbourhoods in the U.S. are pursuing National Register of Historic Places protection (closer to home, a section of Don Mills is looking into similar protection). “I would like to think we have spread the word,” offers Mr. Brown.

 
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