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Reviving a Bygone Era: A new generation of mid-century enthusiasts embraces fundamental modernist ideals

29 Mar 2013 | Author: | No Comments »

48-1Given the recent popularity and commercial success of fashionable publications like Atomic Ranch, a monthly magazine based out of Portland, Oregon, which exclusively celebrates mid-century design from the 1940s through the 1960s, young professionals and seasoned architectural buffs alike are actively seeking out and reviving these once overlooked masterworks of functional simplicity. Luckily for Baton Rouge natives John Kaufman and Lesley Kernan, the capital city offers up a healthy selection of modernist designs and ranch-style homes from which to choose.

Tucked into the most unassuming neighborhoods scattered throughout the metro area (Broadmoor, Westminster, Glenmore, Sherwood Forest, Westdale Heights, and Southdowns are just a few noteworthy hot spots), mid-century design is alive and well.

Growing up in one of the aforementioned neighborhoods, I distinctly recall my naive curiosity as I slowly pedaled my bike past these oddly angular and sprawling one-story structures. I imagined hidden worlds just beyond the exaggerated cross-gable rooflines and the towering walls of windows, obstructed partially by an enclosure of concrete screen blocks. The wandering, asymmetrical nature of these homes was nothing short of an alien encounter for a child whose house, albeit happy, was easily digestible and visually predictable from every angle. Surely there was something special to behold, though my parents’ generation typically regarded these homes as outdated eyesores in an otherwise normal neighborhood.

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Decades have since passed, and many children with similar urban upbringings, Kaufman and Kernan included, have found themselves gravitating towards mid-century architecture. Does this phenomenon stem from the rebellious tendencies identifiable in each emerging generation or is there, in fact, some common thread that inexplicably and fundamentally connects us to minimal design? Do we subconsciously find solace in a unified, simplified, and well-organized environment to counter the swirling frenzy of day-to-day life in the modern world? Though they did not specifically set out to inhabit a period-piece dwelling, Kaufman, Manship Theatre’s marketing director and drummer for the Myrtles, and Kernan, a licensed aesthetician, discovered a natural fit in one of Baton Rouge’s many mid-century gems. “We even surprised ourselves at how well we fit in with this home. It didn’t hit us at first, how perfect this environment was for us, but once we moved our things in, it all made sense,” says Kernan. “Both of our personalities are totally represented by the pieces we’ve incorporated throughout the house.”

The master bedroom is a good example of this seamless blending of styles. The honey-wheat bedroom suite which includes a double dresser, matching nightstands, and a bed frame with headboard are all original Heywood-Wakefield designs passed down to Kaufman by his grandfather, James F. Taylor. “I remember being a little boy, maybe around eight years old, and running through my grandfather’s house pointing at his bedroom set and Eames-inspired shell chairs saying ‘I want this’ and ‘this is mine,’” laughs Kaufman. Kernan juxtaposes the authentic mid-century bedroom suite with a contemporary oil painting by Lou DeAngelo and a pair of modern bedside table lamps.

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In addition to the Heywood-Wakefield bedroom suite, Kaufman procured Taylor’s vintage 1967 hardwood GE turntable and stereo system—a prized musical artifact that fills the home with a distinctly sumptuous texture of warm sound. The framed reproduction situated above the GE unit is neither collectible nor contemporary; yet, it holds special meaning for the couple as Kernan explains. “My parents had a similar print by the same artist, D. Armstrong, in their house in the 1970s. And for some reason, I was fascinated by it as a child. Then, a few years back when John and I met, I was shocked to discover that he had an almost identical print hanging in his downtown loft. I mean, who else would hold on to something like this, not to mention actually display it in the 21st century? So it became a kind of marker for me that reassured me I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right person.”

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The dining and living areas are furnished with vintage pieces, local artwork, and re-editioned classics like the 1956 pedestal table by Eero Saarinen (who also designed the TWA terminal at the JFK International Airport in New York in 1962). The elegant marble topped table is flanked by a set of 1958 Cherner chairs designed by Norman Cherner. The graceful lines of the dining furniture are anchored by an oversized painting on panel by noted artist Ashley Longshore. “We believe in supporting local artists any time we can. For us, it has to do with leading a more eco-conscious lifestyle among other things. We also furnished our living room with reupholstered vintage pieces from Ruby Rouge Designs. We like to recycle and reuse furniture as much as possible,” Kernan explains.

The paneled wood ceilings that hover overhead are in keeping with the modernist tendency to utilize building materials as both structural and textural or decorative elements. The smooth surface of the paneled wood provides contrast with the rough texture of the asymmetrical painted stone fireplace wall. “When we moved in, everyone kept asking if we were going to install a mantel, but John and I both agreed to keep it clean and simple. We didn’t want to distract from the integrity of the original design,” Kernan recalls. In fact, minus a few minor cosmetic upgrades, including the addition of ceramic tile flooring and the removal of a breakfast bar separating the kitchen from the dining area (another typical modernist feature), the authenticity of the structure circa the early 1950s remains utterly unchanged.

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“We aren’t exactly sure when the house was built, but we do have a sort of unofficial record that the previous owner left. They recorded the date directly on the wall each time they changed a light bulb in the outdoor shed. The first entry is dated 1956,” notes Kaufman. Local mid-century modern buffs have attempted to link the home to Hamilton Crawford, a nationally renowned architect of the mid-century era who built many iconic modernist homes nearby, but no real proof exists to support this claim. It is likely, however, that the architect in question was directly influenced by the work of Crawford and may have even worked at the same firm at one point.

Though the couple lacks access to official home records, they have managed to uncover a bevy of clues, some hidden and some in plain view, that help form the narrative of this 1,800 square-foot, three bedroom, two bath, ranch-style home. “The architect focused on streamlining and simplifying the living experience by putting a lot of thought beforehand into how the space was going to be used and how it could best serve the people that lived there without becoming too excessive, overbearing, or complicated. There are a lot of built-in, functional components of the home that stay behind the scenes,” explains Kernan as she slides open an oversized closet door to reveal an orderly arrangement of built-in shelves and drawers. “It is like this throughout the entire house.”

As we continued to explore each room of the home, chuckling at the wall-mounted retro pull-down scales in the bathrooms, kneeling down by the back door to inspect the original trash receptacles buried underground and capped with a polished steel lid, I felt a vivid sensation of traveling back in time to a hopeful and optimistic post-war America—a place where democratic ideals and the quest for rational and accessible functionality dictated the nature of design. “I love how uncluttered this house is. You know how some people are always buying things to put in their homes? I never feel that way here. We have everything we need already, and it all has a place in this design. Cramming more stuff into the space would completely contradict what the architect was trying to achieve here,” Kernan remarks.

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Another great feature of the home is the unification of interior and exterior spaces popularized by the famed German architect Mies van der Rohe in 1950. Post-war Modernism emphasized a feeling of openness and interaction between the two realms. “We really enjoy entertaining, and when we open the four sliding glass doors that span the living and dining room walls, the courtyard feels like a natural extension of the main living area,” notes Kaufman.

“The kitchen is a great conversation piece,” Kernan continues as we glance over at the bright blue plastic laminate that covers every surface of the room. Miraculously, most of the organically formed, original chrome appliances including the Toastmaster hot food server (a built-in drawer system intended for thawing, heating, or reheating a variety of American classics like Apple Brown Betty, Frankfurter buns, and Harvard beets) survived the numerous technological upgrades of the last five decades. As a whole, the kitchen exists as a living fossil representative of a shifting American consciousness that (unrealistically) glamorized the role of the modern housewife (picture the June Cleaver stereotype with perfectly pinned back hair donning a matching apron, stiletto heels, and a sparkling smile reaching over to pull a steaming hot casserole from the oven just in time for dinner). Designers of this period modeled appliances after flashy automobiles (namely the Cadillac) and created even more built-in accessories and shiny electric gadgets to wow this burgeoning market of happy homemakers. In addition, new home designs of this era repositioned the kitchen as the nucleus of an open living area by pulling it out of its previous walled-in confinement, a trend still popular today.

“I will never again live in an environment that does not thoughtfully consider and incorporate all of the elements that this home encompasses. Once you begin to feel how well the space flows, it becomes so comfortable, so natural, that you rarely find yourself wanting to leave,” concludes Kernan as she pours a glass of wine and heads out to join the others mingling in the back courtyard.

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