How do I Keep My Remodel Mid-Century? 

14 min read When you need to make a major update to your mid mod era home, use these four Mid Mod Cornerstone design concepts to keep your remodel mid-century!

Last week was all about starting small. This week we’re talking about how you can plan dramatic changes for your home without erasing its mid-century character. This episode is for people asking, how do I keep my BIG remodel Mid-Century while I tweak … or transform? My friends, I’ve got the answer for you.

Today, I’m introducing a new framework I’ve been working on for a while: the four cornerstones of mid-century design.

These are design principles that were common in the mid-century era and are found in virtually every home built in that era – even the most modest ranch.  

We’re going to talk about how to incorporate these design cornerstones throughout the remodel process to help you maintain, replace, or improve on the mid-century features of your home. 

These design principles can help guide decisions as you go through the steps of dreaming, discovering, distilling, drafting, and developing your master plan. They will help you create your very own mid-century masterpiece, that both reflects its roots and is perfectly suited to your modern life!

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • How to make the most of (or revive) your home’s mid-century charm, even if someone has already erased it. 
  • A quick introduction to each of the four cornerstone concepts of mid-century design: Asymmetry, Simple shapes, a Mix of Materials and Flow between Spaces. With these design tools in your pocket you can’t go wrong!
  • How to incorporate these design concepts into your remodel Master Plan to help you stay on top of the process from start to finish and plan a remodel you will love!

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Resources to Help You Keep Your Remodel Mid-Century even as you Update

And you can always…

Read the Full Episode Transcript 

Last week was all about starting small. This week is about how you can plan big changes for your home without erasing its mid-century character. By the way, this advice will also work. If someone else or even you in a past life already came through with a white paint roller, a stack of shiplap panels, and home depot’s finest collection of brush nickel, fixtures, and wiped the mid-century from your 1950s or sixties or seventies home, whatever your starting point is, this episode is for people asking, how do I keep my big remodel plans Mid-century? My friends. I’ve got the answer for you. Hey there, welcome back to Mid Mod Remodel. This is the show about updating MCM homes, helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast. You’re listening to season nine, episode three.

So last week we talked about how to start small. And this week we’re getting into what do you want to do when you dive into big home update plans. And this could be true for you if you just purchased your home, but you know you bought the house ready to make some major transformations. This could also be you. If you’ve been a long-time homeowner of a mid-century home. Some of my one-to-one design clients have been in their home for 20 or 30 years, raising their children or growing up themselves. If this is you, you may find as they do, that you’re ready to make changes even though you’ve already made them. Your budget has changed. Your needs have changed. The life you wanna live in your house has changed. And I would bet your appreciation of mid-century modern style has changed since you found your house several decades ago. Perhaps when you moved into your house, particularly if it was more than 10 or 15 years ago, you didn’t really see the mid-century era of its construction as a pro.

And I hope that now that you do. So for long-time listeners of the podcast, or even if you just discovered it, you’ve probably come here because you think mid-century modern is pretty cool. And I wanna help you find out how to bring back mid-century charm to your house, that it once had or protect what it’s got going on while building on it and making it even more. If your house has had a lot of its mid-century charm erased, I’ve talked about that problem before in season four, episode three, “Remodel Your MCM Time Capsule or Flip with Love”. There are pros and cons to each of those situations. If you have a house where no changes have been made, or if you have a house where almost everything has been changed. And I chat about that in the episode, but today I wanna talk about four things to keep in mind as you plan a significant remodel.

If what you want is for the end result to feel really friendly to your home’s mid-century origins. The most important resource this week is going to be the brand new workbook I’ve created, which will go along with the design cornerstones I’m about to lay out to help you keep your remodel mid-century. And you can get that directly at midmod-midwest.com/cornerstones, but you can also as always find show notes with all the references I’m about to make and a transcript of the conversation on my website, at midmod-midwest.com/903. Today, I’m introducing the new framework I’ve been working on for a while, the cornerstones of a good mid mod remodel. And if you wanna follow along with this, do go and grab the workbook that I’ve just made for this at midmod-midwest.com/cornerstones.

So these are all designed principles that were common in the mid-century era that you can play up to maintain, replace, or improve on the mid mod features of your home. In short they are; asymmetry, simple playful shapes, a practical mix of materials, and flow between your spaces. I’m gonna give you a little thumbnail sketch of each and then we’ll dive a bit deeper. When I talk about asymmetry mid-century home designers were not interested in making tiny castles with perfectly matching windows flanking each side of the door and carriage lamps on each side of the window, and then matching strawberries on either side of that. They were open to the possibilities of making the most with what they had. They wanted to really make casual, practical, friendly homes that were more about balance than they were about perfectly book-matched elements. That goes hand in hand with the simple shapes. Mid-century houses have really simple shapes in a fractal way. The concept holds true at every scale, large to small. The shape overall of a mid-century house can be very simple, a Gable or flat roof, a simple rectangle based floor plan.

You can picture it, but at the same time, the details inside the house are also made up of simple shapes. Ranch trim, that classic door casing and floor baseboard, is just a gentle curve with no extra fluted details or multiple ornate components for a mid-century designer of furniture or houses, squares, rectangles, trapezoids, simple, single curves and starbursts are the watchword. Then the third cornerstone is that practical mix of materials. Mid-century houses are made up of a mix of materials that are both natural and sort of futurist. They have plenty of wood in doors, floors, cabinets, and siding. Often they include brick or stonework, but they also delighted in the new. Mid-century folks embraced plastics and enameled metals. They built their homes with new standardized building materials, four by eight sheets of plywood, pre grooved luan panels, wide swaths of formica and bold color-block tiles that matched to their brand new appliances.

They loved to basically have that high, low combination, and they weren’t necessarily fixated on luxury so much as they were on practicality, clean-ability, durability. We’ll get into this more later. And then lastly, there’s that fourth crucial feature, the great flow between spaces. Now this shows up most dramatically in sort of high-end open planned interiors and the glass wall of windows that flank between a living space and a poolside patio in a California high mid-century house, but even a modest mid-century home has a nook dining room off of an open plan living room or a picture window or a sliding glass door. The high end version of the style literally seems to dissolve the barriers between inside and out and between interior spaces, but even in a mid-century modest house, you’re gonna see these open flowing elements more so than in a more traditional earlier era of house.

Each of these features of a mid-century home exists in your house. I pretty much guarantee it. Now, depending on how much your house has changed since it was constructed, your mileage may vary, but we’re gonna talk about how to dive in on each one of these today. And then next week, I’m gonna do a deeper dive day by day, all week long. So if this has your attention sign up to get notified for each day of that mini series, by going to midmod-midwest.com/cornerstones, and you’ll get not only the workbook download, but a quick video link every day, next week, with a helpful design exercise to help you make sure you’re incorporating these elements into your house. Guys, sign up for this guide. I’m really excited about these design principles. I’m gonna be talking about them going on from here, and it’s a perfect lead up to the mid-century design clinic on patio’s decks and outdoor spaces.

I can’t wait to share all of this with you, but let’s dig it a little deeper right now. Circling back to the beginning, the first cornerstone that I mentioned was asymmetry. This leans into the exuberance and the informality of mid-century designs. Note. Most of these cornerstone principles are practical when you’re feeling bound by asymmetry, you have to make choices about the aesthetic of the house that can compromise the way it actually works for the people that live in it. A house that depends on asymmetry for its design can be more functional. Mid-century design is all about the concept of balance rather than the concept of symmetry. And this shows up in the way the front of a mid-century facade works in a typical mid-century ranch. Remember you’ve got the garage on one end then the living spaces and the middle and the bedrooms on the far side, the bedrooms might have higher windows than the living room where you might have like floor to ceiling windows, or at least you’ve got a picture window.

And then you’ve got the garage door, which of course goes all the way down to the ground. So if you think about a diagonal line connecting those window window garage door lines, it might make the house feel tilted. To balance that a mid century house design will a mid-century house design will often have a decorative stone or brick knee wall that wraps around the bedroom size to lend visual weight. Again, balance not symmetry. The bonus concept that goes along with this asymmetry is the horizontal spread of mid-century designs. They liked low furniture to help their eight foot ceilings feel a little bit more high, and they had a mostly single floor approach to their design in the Midwest. We always have a basement. You also see the split level, but in general, a mid-century house is oriented more horizontally across its yard, rather than up becoming a tiny little castle for the homeowner in its landscape.

Horizontal shapes of houses also tie into the next concept of design language of simple playful shapes. So again, that’s the long rectangular house with a simple gable roof, but it’s also the non-dust-catching simplicity of basic ranch door trim, the elegance of a kidney being shaped pool, the oblong of the Noguchi coffee table style -cheerful rectangles trapezoids. Think about the mailbox design of vintage mailboxes that kind of leaned out into the mail carrier’s access point and had an interesting color blocked trapezoid shape the boomerang design of a diner billboard sign. These shapes are really cheerful and future forward. So there were a couple of different reasons why they came into this new idea of simple shapes. Partly they were trying to set themselves apart from the past. They also didn’t have to make shapes as complex because they were manufacturing them in a different way.

When they were using mass manufactured materials like plywood and veneer, they didn’t need to think about the joinery in the same way that design of furniture and houses from previous areas had done. They also had access to new technology, new materials that allowed them to choose to make things more complexly, curved. So we could have bentwood plywood and plastic and metal shapes that were inspired by the booming auto industry. This was an era where people are talking about optimism future forward. It was a time of social change, not a perfect time, but the civil rights movement was singing into high gear women’s issues were shifting. Class structures were more fluid. The middle class was growing and all of that was reflected in design. This was the space age. People wanted their furniture and their houses to look fresh and new. So they added in new angles, new colors and new shapes.

If you think about the sort of classic motel of the mid-century era that has all of the pieces, it’s a long, low form. It has sort of bright color blocked, simple furniture inside of it. And it has that weird oblong, asymmetrical metal and plastic sign out front, calling people in and telling them about the vacancy. The third cornerstone in the mid-century modern era, there is a love of gorgeous organic materials that were found in the precessing craftsman style. Glowing warm wood grain is all over the mid-century era, unpainted stone and brick. You see these things, but they’re not precious about it. Practical mid-century designers were just as happy to use plywood as they were to use solid wood. And they were delighted to incorporate new plastics, formica, glass baked enamel metal surfaces that would be easy to clean. his practicality about materials extends to texture as well, rather than a high gloss sheen on wood grain mid-century surfaces were often matte.

So this offers less potential for our fingerprints and less requirement for cleaning. And it ties in with the, the weird ambivalence in the mid-century era about household labor. If you look into mid-century advertising and we talked about this in that interview, I did with Sarah Archer in the kitchen season, episode 502, we talked about how in the advertising you see from the era, everything is about labor saving devices and simple to clean this and lasts forever that, and yet nearly all of the ads from that time cast the woman of the household in a role of homemaker who basically had nothing else to do, but keep her households big and span. So yeah, I love this concept of practicality. It was the time right after world war II, we were just out of a depression, just over a war. It was about rebuilding getting up to speed, making hay while the sun shone.

And the goal of the mid-century house was to get everyone their own house, not to have the best house, not to have the fanciest house, not to have the most luxurious house, but to have everyone have a house. And it had to be made out of available materials. So they aimed for efficiency. They built small houses, builder, grade materials, rather than advertising things as luxurious or high end. They advertise them as being durable and easy to clean. That’s just something that I find really charming about the mid-century era and something that we should maybe set our sites back on that if our choices for the finished materials we choose in our house were should last 70 years and be easy to clean, we would make different choices than you’ll see on HGTV.

The fourth cornerstone of a mid model remodel is flow between spaces. Now, most obviously this is gonna be the flow between inside and outside spaces. Um, and this idea had been sort of brewing for a while. When we get to the mid-century moment, we can point back to Frank Lloyd Wright with his pushing the boundaries of what contemporary building technology it was up for by creating those zero corner structure windows, that he was literally sticking together with wood, with, uh, tree sap for a while there, by the way, that is not a solid building technology. Um, but it was also, um, because of the way that the early ranch style houses came out of California. Cliff May widely regarded as the father of the modern ranch house. And he’s got a fun bio I’ve talked about on the show before. Not actually trained as an architect. He was a furniture designer who took inspiration from his family’s ranch style house, by which I mean house on a cattle ranch, to design houses that would suit the furniture he had created.

He, and then all of the California modernist designers that came around his era were separating the structure of the house from the exterior walls of the house, and also extending the psychological boundary of the house beyond its walls, by having a deeper eave, such that as you stand by a window in the rain, you look out and it feels like the boundary of your domain, isn’t the window itself, but the drop line of rain that’s happening outside, or even as you stand outside on a nice day that your deck, which looks right into big picture windows into your living room might actually be more part of the house than it is part of the yard. Creating more flow between the inside and outside spaces in your house can not only help you expand a small space and turn it into a larger one without an addition, but also turn up that feeling of mid-century design.

At this point, if you’ve grabbed the workbook, you know that I’m gonna be asking you to identify where each of these features shows up in your house. And remember at the top, I said, each of these cornerstones is pretty much guaranteed to exist in your home. I stand by that. Even if you have a house that’s been completely flipped, we can find something to build on. And even if you have what retro renovation calls a mid-century modest house, you still have these cornerstones, and then you can play them up to greater effect. All of these ideas connect together. The horizontal asymmetrical lines help blur the boundaries between inside and out the materiality that works best for this era, that slim line Roman brick, for example, also further emphasizes horizontal design. And then the simple practicality of materials ties in with the simple shapes that are used in the forms of mid-century design.

It all goes hand in hand. So if you wanna think a little bit more about how to incorporate these ideas into your home update plans, then the fifth secret cornerstone is to take time to think about design while you plan your home update. And to do that, you use my very favorite system, the master plan method. When you go through the steps of dreaming, discovering, distilling drafting, and developing your master plan, you’ll remember to incorporate these elements into your home and you won’t fall into the trap of planning a great remodel for your house to change it, to update it, and then find that when you’re done, you changed and update it in such a way that it’s no longer mid-century. That’s the question from the top of the episode, how can you plan a big update without losing your mid-century character? And the answer is by taking the time to master plan a great remodel and focusing on these four cornerstones, we’re gonna be going through these again all week.

Next week, I’m gonna do one cornerstone per day over Instagram, all of next week. But also I’m going to be digging into each of these things more deeply during the mid-century design clinic, which is happening the first weekend in August that’s Saturday, August 6th, we’re going to be doing a two hour practical design workshop on the subject of mid-century decks, patios and outdoor spaces. So we’ll be talking about how to incorporate mid-century design principles of asymmetry, simple shapes, mixed materials, and flow between spaces into your patio deck or other outdoor space update. You can go ahead and get your ticket right now. Um, here’s just a hint. I recommend you download the Cornerstones workbook first because there’s a discount code in there because I love you guys because you’re action takers. And because you listen to the podcast, it’s there for you. So come to the design clinic.

I can’t wait to see you there. You can plan it and do it this summer. You can plan it and mastermind it next summer. If you’re planning to do any exterior updating on your house in the near future, you don’t wanna miss this design clinic. And frankly, if you’re just curious about how the master plan method works and what it feels like to apply that kind of design thinking to your house, you should come to this clinic because it’s just really the best example I have of how powerful and how effective the master plan method is for planning great mid-century designs. All right. That’s all for now, folks. I will see you all of next week on Instagram to talk about the cornerstones of mid-century design and then the following weekend, we’ll be going live with the mid-century design clinic decks, patios and outdoor spaces. Can’t wait to see you there.