The Re-Interpretation of The Mid-Century Modern

The Re-Interpretation of The Mid-Century Modern

What exactly is Mid-Century Modern?

It generally describes a period of style immediately following World War Two that influenced American product design and architecture for a generation. This period had its origins in the 1930s and spanned well into the 1960s. Think of the work of Charles and Ray Eames for furniture design as a good example of the style. Their pieces are utilitarian, functional and were created from readily available materials. Here in the Bay Area, we think of Eichler Homes, Joseph Eichler’s modern 1950’s tract housing developments which made the modern style more affordable.

We present here a recently completed project

for a couple and their dog who live in a house built in the 1950s and whose “Mid-Century Modern” aesthetic comes across instantly. The house and the aesthetic suits this couple- they appreciated the details and the design of the original. They also have a collection of furniture from the era.  It was immediately apparent that they loved their house and wanted to preserve some of the more successful features of the original design. We agreed the main goal of this project would be to keep the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic but update and freshen it. The resulting project comes from this really great collaboration.

The original kitchen needed to be updated but also the floor plan generally didn’t work well, as shown in the existing plan- flow was broken up and there were too many rooms yet still not enough space. Our aim was to remove walls that impeded the flow and the great views of San Francisco Bay.

Kitchen Before and After

Kitchen Before and After

The question we asked ourselves was, how do we re-tool the plan while retaining the style? The simple answer: to collect the good components of the original and treat them as features that are supported by the surrounding new work. For example, in collaboration with the clients, we decided to retain the original Dining Room cabinet that cut off access to the Kitchen and overwhelmed the small dining room. To do this we slid the cabinet over 2 feet to create a second access way to the Kitchen. We removed the walls between this room, the Entry, and Lanai increasing the flow and transparency to the Kitchen. This gave the Dining Room the space it needed, created visual flow through the center of the house, but allowed the Kitchen and Dining Room to act independently of each other. So often, there is too much of the urge to remove all the walls, but to us, often the family and dining spaces feel like they are part of the kitchen instead of being their own space. With this in mind, we designed a wider opening into the kitchen and a secondary door that could be closed off if need be, allowing the spaces to feel open and flow with each other but still be separate.

Dining Room Before and After

Dining Room Before and After

The creation of the second access way to the Kitchen provided a space in the thickened wall to add a small cabinet to house the audio equipment for the new built-in speakers in the Kitchen, Dining and Living Rooms. This small niche is painted bright yellow and casts a bright glow in the adjacent spaces.

This original built in dining room cabinet is made from a wood species that is no longer readily available. Instead of trying to match it, we designed the cabinetry in the kitchen to have a finish combination of both wood and paint, thereby complimenting, but not copying the existing. The wood frames are white oak, and the blue painted cabinet doors match the Heath Ceramic Tile used for the backsplash. By the way, we think no other tile in a Bay Area kitchen is more appropriate for Mid-Century Modern than Heath.


The orange painted cabinet doors were inspired by the clients’ own Eames chairs, and we found the stove, from Blue Star, could come in that color as well.

In various places, the original house had a quirky wall finish that consisted of redwood tiles with alternating grain in a checkerboard pattern. This became another feature to preserve. We had the contractor carefully remove and store these tiles from the removed walls and then had them re-applied to portions of the remodeled area. This created a seamless transition with rest of the house. Even though the project was to design the kitchen/dining/family area only, there is no feeling of walking from old to new because this wall treatment worked so well.

Throughout the space light valences with linear LEDs

flow from room to room, tying all the spaces together. Its a modern feature winding around the room adding light and thoughtful detail. Since the house faces west, we also designed these light valences to have pockets for translucent roller shades to disappear into.

light valence, shade pocket, lighting detail, solar veil shades, aluminum windows

Shade Pocket and Light Valence Detail

Custom Dining Table and Cabinet Detail

Custom Dining Table and Cabinet Detail

The last piece of design for this project was the dining table which sits right in the middle of the action. We wanted this piece to integrate with the overall Mid-Century Modern design aesthetic which we equated with refined yet casual elegance. The result was a table made from a combination of solid walnut and maple veneered plywood legs. The walnut is in the form of a laid-up board top 1.5″ thick machined smooth and the plywood is in the form of two layers of 13 ply, 3/4″ thick plywood laminated together to form the legs and frame. The plies are left exposed in contrast with the dark walnut of the top.

01 Layout _ Layout

In terms of the design and building process

this project went smoothly. There was a lot of collaboration with the owners and the contractor. The idea that all are on a team- owner, architect, contractor, working together, helped make it so. See some of our other posts on how we define good process and note that our contractor was involved in the process early– see An Argument for Negotiated Bidding and The Ballpark Estimate. As with every project, there were times when decisions needed to be made in a timely fashion. Having a non-adversarial relationship among the design team, along with a contract that allowed for flexibility in the scope of work, allowed these decisions to be made without too much hand-wringing. The schedule, always tough to stick to, went at a decent pace thanks to good project management on everyone’s part and this team approach continued on through to the final days of construction– also see Why C.A. Matters.

Until next time, we conclude with a thank you to our contractor, Kevin Slagle Design Build and most of all, thank you to our clients!

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Hart Wright Architects
340 Potrero Ave
San Francisco, CA 94103
tel: (415) 503-7071