Brick has been used as a building material since long before the three little pigs. But mid-century brick is particularly well suited to the ethos of modernist designers: it is humble, honest, tactile and capable of both great simplicity and great variety.
Louis Kahn explained the most basic principle of modernism to design students with this question: “What does the brick want to be?”
This question makes a thru line for all of modern architecture – mid-century modern included. From humble houses to soaring sky scrapers, the Moderns were committed to determining the right material for a purpose and using it honestly.
There are several problems with painting mid-century brick that can be summarized this way:
Painting brick is contrary to the mid-century ideal of honest materials. Materials should look and function as they were originally intended.
The very trendiness of painted brick (thanks so much, Joanna Gaines!) means that it is in style and will go out of style. Once your brick is painted, you can’t (easily) un-paint it.
The brick on your house wasn’t intended to be covered in paint. By changing the breathability and permeability of your home you may create moisture problems, invite mold, and even damage your wall structure.
Paint needs to be repainted. Brick in itself is an extremely low-maintenance material. Once its painted, your brick home will need to be regularly maintained for the rest of its life.
Mid-Century Brick: the Modernists’ friend
Now, lets talk about how many Modernist Masters focused on brick as a key building material. Here is aquick spin through some of the mid-century modern greats:
While we’re on the subject of great Mid-Century Modern building materials, check out my other recent posts in the Mid-Mod Materials series: Mid-Century Materials: A Valentine to Natural Wood and Exploring Mid-Century Color: Cherokee Red.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Midwestern ranch builders
Check out my instagram feed for more praise of brick as a mid-century home building material!
Mid-century Brick is amazing and paint is bad for it (here’s why):
Brick withstands all weather and helps your house breathe.
Bricks are more complicated than they may seem. Brick is graded for climate-appropriate behavior. Depending on the cold and moisture in your climate, your brick home will have measurable qualities of absorption.
Brick is low maintenance (unless you paint it)
Brick is an incredibly low maintenance material. It will take care of itself and need no additional work for all time. Once you paint it you’ll need to start doing paint maintenance.
Since painted brick is prone to moisture issues you’ll likely have to update your paint MORE often than a wood or painted siding home. Even if you manage to escape actual structural damage – the paint may bubble, peal or otherwise underperform.
Natural variations make a forgiving and interesting surface.
The natural color variations of brick makes a forgiving surface, masking small misalignments in the construction.
The masons who laid mid-century brick walls weren’t always perfectly precise. But the variety of size, color, and distortion in an original brick wall distracts the eye and adds all those irregularities into a pleasing whole. Painting the brick erases that flexibility and can highlight “mistakes.”
Brick shows the pride of the craftsman.
On the flip side, a brick wall reflects the pride of the craftsman. The builders of your house chose that brick for its color and texture, choosing among locally available options to make the most interesting choice. They may have opted for more or less variability in color and texture. Overwriting that with a flat paint job isn’t a very respectful salute to the home’s builder!
Mid-century brick increases the horizontality of your house.
The typically elongated brick and stack bond pattern often used in mid-century houses further emphasizes the low horizontal nature of the home style. Subtle contrast between mortar and brick in each individual unit adds up to an increase of that horizontal impression. Paint masks this pattern, hides the contrast between brick and mortar, and generally ruins the effect.
Brick automatically ups your mid-century curb appeal.
Don’t cover the mid-century features of your home with paint – natural materials are what make your home special. Painted-over brick and stone do not have the same appeal to future buyers or history.
But the most important thing about painted brick might be that …
Painting Brick is Bad for your House … Structure
When you paint brick you seal in moisture.
Brick is a naturally porous and breathable material. The designer of your brick house ASSUMED that nothing would ever compromise that breathability. They didn’t need to worry about mechanical or passive air venting in the same way that a contemporary house with plastic or hard surface siding would need.
When you paint, you are changing the way your brick performs as a wall material. But you aren’t ALSO changing the eaves, the venting, the wall construction or the way the bricks are attached to the house structure. Painting brick is going to cause your whole house to behave differently.
This is similar to what can go wrong when you cover up your home’s original siding with vinyl. You are changing a single aspect of the building system without addressing the whole home.
It gets worse …
What’s worse: in the early stages you won’t even know anything is wrong. The paint surface itself will hide early signs of moisture damage or mold. You’ll only know there is a problem when it is too late to deal with it simply.
Gary Mason, Certified Master Inspector, of Home Check Inspection Services, warns strongly against making quick changes to “untouched” older homes. A house that’s been performing well for 60 years can be thrown wildly out of whack by unilateral changes.
You might think of painting the brick as a cosmetic update – just changing the color of a house – but actually you are modifying the permeability of your walls. Messing with the materials science of your home can have disturbing consequences up to and including structural failures.
So Why did you want to Paint that Brick? (and what you might do instead)
To change the color or look of the house
I get it. I love my house in part because its wood siding meant it could repainted. Changing up your home color is a dramatic transformation that gives you instant gratification.
Painting brick is extremely on trend right now. That’s exactly why you shouldn’t do it.
Lest you turn your home into a washed up has-been in 10 years, I recommend that you find other less-permanent ways to stay on trend than painting your brick siding OR interior feature walls.
Consider painting other parts of your house – the trim, the non-masonry siding. Adding in plantings or a series of landscape interventions (fence, deck, or privacy screen) can transform the look of your house.
To make interior spaces brighter
One of the most baseline pieces of current amateur internet interior decor advice is to “Paint everything white.” The logic is this: It will be clean, “modern,” easy and bright.
Note: it will also be easy to photograph with slightly overblown exposure for unrealistically perfect Instagram shots.
This is a brute-force approach to a more complex question: how can you bring light into your home? You can still paint most of the house white and have a similar level of brightness without damaging the integrity of your mid-century brick. You can add natural light by removing window treatments or (thoughtfully) adding in skylights. You can consult with a lighting designer on the right kinds of fixtures for your space. Try just about anything before you splash white paint on your brick to “brighten” a room.
To cover dirty or damaged brick
Often people want to paint brick because previous tuck pointing or other repairs on the house seem unsightly.
Note: if your brick has been tuck pointed, seek the advice of a professional mason before proceeding in ANY way. It may be sign of past – or ongoing – structural issues.
Stop and think before you paint over a bad repair job. A careful redo of the repair (more precisely matching your mortar) or doing an era-appropriate pressure wash can be much more cost effective solution than completely covering an entire brick wall. If you paint to cover problem brick you may have a new problem – peeling paint – in just a few years.
You can update mid-century brick WITHOUT painting it
Here are two fabulous examples of design professionals who chose re-vamp their own mid-century brick homes WITHOUT painting over the brick. Check out their strategies here and in their own words by clicking through.
Chris Magee is an architect in Cincinnati Ohio who’s 1953 home (designed by Wright apprentice Ben Dombar) makes my heart beat fast. He’s since moved on to another amazing mid-century home, but his family’s several years updates updates to this mid-century brick beauty are documented at his (now on hiatus) blog Cincinnati Modernation.
Aletha VanderMaas is a designer and specialist in mid-century homes in Grand Haven, Michigan. Here’s her 1959 brick and stone ranch featured in Midwest Living (follow the link to SEE HER LIVING ROOM WALL) or you can read all about her progress and thought process at Mid Mod Michigan.
A note on Trendiness
I always advise people not to lean too hard into the latest cutting-edge fashion when remodeling. The same era-based trends that dominate fashion show up in house design.
Painted brick is in fashion right now. Don’t become a fashion victim.
Walk through your neighborhood. You can tell at a glance when each house was last updated; just look at the siding color. Wide wooden boards in (peeling) mint green say the house is original from foundation to rafters. Dark brown paint or aged cedar means the late 70’s or 80’s. The end of the last century was dominated by beige and is probably narrow strips of vinyl too. The most recently updated houses are turning up in shades of grey.
That’s fine when we’re talking about switching up the paint color on wood siding. Anyone can catch up with fashion or fall back to the original (paint it back to Cherokee Red) at any time. When you’re making a permanent choice like to-paint-or-not-to-paint your brick, however, it is a much more extreme move.
Choose your battles. If you love a trend, embrace it. But try to focus on the most modifiable parts of the house, not the least. If you must paint something, don’t paint the brick, paint the siding, trim or fencing next to it!
Don’t just take my word for it
Consider these other expert opinions on the subject:
Here’s a little more background on brick
Here’s a (short) history of Brick and Brickmaking by BrickArchitecture.com (mission: to bring together people who are as passionate about brick as we are). For (some) more history and (a TON of) additional photos, check out William Hall’s “Brick.” published by Phaidon. Its not online so check the library.
My wonderful former architecture firm, Moss, has a number of posts on the history of brick in Chicago. (A few written by me.) Brick and Mortar, or Building like the Third Little Pig, The Brick that Built our City: Chicago Common, and Brisch Brick: a Local Building Material.
If you really want to get into the technical “details” on brick and how it – and other materials -work within buildings, check out Architectural Detailing: Function, Constructibility, and Aesthetics by Edward Allen.
Experts Agree paint is bad for brick and . . .
Jennifer Cappeto is an architectural conservator specializing in masonry conservation and material analysis. Her blog, The Masonry of Denver has a great two part series on Why People Paint Brick Buildings, and Why We Shouldn’t, both of which I highly recommend.
Laura Friszt, writing for contractor-finding website Networx, reiterates some of the advantages of unpainted brick and suggests some good alternatives to paint if you need to update a brick home in her post The Problem with Painting a Brick House.
Stacy Freed of Mullen Real Estate Team lists five very strong reasons your brick should stay unpainted but also includes four loopholes that might make it ok.
painted brick is bad for mid-century homes
Even HGTV agrees (in this one post). Atlanta realtor Eric Benjamin stresses in Don’t hide your Mid-Century Home’s History that “The worst possible thing you can do to a midcentury modern home’s exterior is paint over the original stone or put up vinyl siding or stucco over the wood.” Listen to THIS advice and ignore all the photo galleries of painted brick. This is one “instant style update” will not last long in either fashion or building science.
Preservation Idaho has a wonderful field guide to loving and taking care of local mid-century homes. Their “advice [on interior brick] is simple: clean it, use it, don’t paint it. Stone and brick fireplaces are often a wonderful centerpiece of mid-century homes: embrace the color variation of natural materials and don’t underestimate the power of a deep clean.”
Joan Gand, Founder/Principal of Chicago Bauhaus and Beyond, has some basic Midcentury Remodeling Do’s and Dont’s. Her first AND second points beg you to preserve your brick. 1.“God is in the details” – so don’t destroy them! 2. If it hasn’t been painted, don’t paint it.
Have I convinced you?
I really hope I have. It is tragic when people make rash changes that strip the character and durability from their mid-century homes. If you are looking for ways to spiff up your home – and painting mid-century brick is still on the table – reach out to me today and I promise to come up with a few GREAT alternatives.