Appreciating the Style You Have

Home style is an endless dance of looking forward and back. It’s dizzying: retro, post-modern, vintage, period, contemporary, traditional, deco, revival, eco, high-tech, futuristic. I personally love it and can spend hours browsing sites like houzz and etsy for creative ideas past and present. But making style choices can be frustrating, especially when you’re planning a remodel. It’s one thing when skirts get shorter or lapels get wider but quite another when you’re spending $50,000 on a new kitchen you’ll have to live with for decades! Is granite in or out? Are fat crown moldings cool or inappropriate? Are your bathroom fixtures retro or ready to be retired?

Purveyors of home goods and remodeling materials would have you believe your home is hopelessly outdated. It’s how they make money. Magazines and books paint optimistic scenarios about how to realize your home dreams. But it’s worth taking a step back before making any decisions about what to change, what to tear out, and what to demolish. After all, it’s really expensive – and what you already own may be worth saving.

On a recent visit to my stepson Ken, step-granddaughter Sophia and Ken’s girlfriend Kathy in San Diego, I was struck by the early-70s style of their condo. The faucets, stairways, flooring, minimalist moldings and even the garage door are wonderful examples of the design daring and honesty of that era. By contrast, many of today’s fixtures and fittings look bloated and pretentious.

Let’s begin with the vintage vinyl flooring. It’s still serviceable and doesn’t try too hard to be anything else but vinyl. You might say that it has a wood or tile motif, but there is no way you’d confuse it with either of those materials (unlike today’s vinyl flooring!). It reminded me of the slate-themed kitchen floor I grew up with. The slates were yellow, blue and red! No confusion with the real thing there. The simple honesty of old vinyl is endearing, at least to me, a baby boomer who began adulthood at about the same time the condo was built.

The vintage vinyl flooring has a strip-wood floor motif. Versions of this floor style are back and now a popular style for ceramic and porcelain tiles. Bleached-out wood tones are also a current trend in both wood and tile flooring.

Back the early 70s there was a strong back-to-nature movement. Heavy, rough-sawn stringers box the condo’s two flights of stairs. There was also an emerging consciousness about building in a sustainable way. All the windows and balconies of the condo have deep overhangs to shade summer sun while allowing the low winter sun to reach deep into the interior – an early example of passive solar heating and cooling.

Angle-iron brackets and bolts secure painted treads that still retain their pronounced grain patterns. There are no risers, contributing to the open, let-the-light-in aesthetic.

This east-facing window is deep-set with an overhang for shading in the summer and allowing morning light in the winter. Moldings are non-existent around the windows and at the ceiling — and narrow around the doors and at the floors.

There is also a minimalist aspect to many of the design choices. Moldings are minimal: none around the windows, no crown molding, only narrow moldings around the doors and along the floors. The master bath faucet design is also minimal but still retains some of the panache of the 1960s. It emerges like a rocket from an early Corian countertop and under-mount sink. A single knob controls flow rate and temperature.

This spectacular soap dish/tub/shower/stopper control combo was designed about the time we set foot on the moon.

The condo’s original garage doors were constructed of rough-cut boards. After 40 years in the gentle San Diego climate, they were still in nearly mint condition. The neighbor’s door, which had recently been replaced, was vinyl embossed and molded to look like raised wood panels. It not only looked cheap next to the real thing, but it looked out of place with the condo’s rugged stucco exterior. Kathy saw me looking at her retro garage doors and said, “I’m planning to bring them up to date.” Maybe my protests will change her mind.

I was too late to see the unit’s original fireplace. Ken told me it had a plain white tile surround. “I hated looking at it,” he said. “So I took a trip to the home center.” Now there is natural stone veneer with a 5-in. piece of crown molding supporting the mantle. It looks as though it traveled through a time warp from hyper-traditional East Coast suburbia to a desert condo built to commune with nature just as the flower children of the 60s were looking for their first jobs.

Of course Ken is from East Coast suburbia and not an aging hippy, like me. And the overriding rule for choosing styles and making design decisions is to do what pleases you. Take some time, though, to understand what you have before you pull out a wrecking bar and sledgehammer! You might regret it when it’s gone.


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