Modernizing Mid-Century

The previous owners of our new house were in their mid-80s. The woman, known as Bix, felt that they needed to move to one of those graduated old age homes where you are moved to apartments with more helpers, as you gradually fall apart. Ludlow, the husband, wasn't too happy about that. But Bix insisted. 

Ludlow and Bix were waspy types who lived in this community since it went up in 1960. He was a Harvard educated lawyer. Probably with a combination of old and new money, they did quite well for themselves and, by the time they moved on to the old age home, they owned several homes. Bix was a traditional housewife for the most part. The house is traditionally girlie, but she had an bohemian edge. The basement was devoted to her art and she put in sky lights and drying racks everywhere. 

While these eccentric old folks are amusing enough, we really do need to update this house. And we need to do it very cheaply. Here's the kitchen:

As much as I would love to rip out these old cabinets and fading tile, we're stuck with it for a while.  God, I hate that tile countertop. And there's a black oven, a white fridge, and a stainless steve stove. People, you must pick one finish on your appliances and stick with it. 

Get a closer look at the wallpaper border in this room. 


Nice, huh? Bix really loved wallpaper. Here's what I'll be peeling off the walls for the next three years. 


DSC_0032 2

The fish wallpaper border is in the bathroom, because fish, water, bathroom, water. GET IT? 

The first project is going to be the kitchen. I'll peel off the wallpaper, paint the walls a green-based white to neutralize all that orange, and then add some black hardware


30 thoughts on “Modernizing Mid-Century

  1. “People, you must pick one finish on your appliances and stick with it.”
    But, but it was on SALE!
    Take the wallpaper border out, and I don’t think the kitchen is half bad (at least from a safe distance).
    I’m normally not a wallpaper person, but I actually kind of like the fish bathroom.

  2. “…the fish wallpaper in the bathroom is something that I now must buy.”
    Bathroom or mudroom or office?
    If those are solid wood cabinets (or a nice thick-ply plywood), that’s really good, even if it is pine. (Just guessing here–not a wood expert, just related to some.) For good or ill, it looks like those materials will last another 50 years. Your only way out is if the built-in appliances start dying.
    Now I’m starting to notice the blue tile trim on the counter and how perfectly it matches the blue in the wallpaper.
    I wonder what a really clever designer would do with $1,000 bucks and that kitchen.

  3. If you don’t mind the blue on the tile trim, how about replacing the wallpaper border with paint in that shade of blue? Dish towels, too, if you can find them. (Glue Betty Draper outline with cocktail in hand to fridge, if desired.)

  4. Removing the wallpaper and getting a new countertop would completely change the look of that kitchen. I have to say I kinda like the cabinets – I would do my best to keep those, and yes to the black accents instead of white. It’s a bummer that they chose a white fridge, but can’t you just put that fridge in your basement or garage and put in a new black fridge?
    Enjoy the projects, they will make the house yours.

  5. Formica countertops cost next to nothing to put in, and will last for a good long time. I like the black hardware. We ended up painting our 1960 knotty pine cabinets an off-white, with brushed silver pulls.It works for our very dark kitchen. Our Bix and Ludlow were June and Bud. They liked brown…

  6. I never understood the appeal of stainless steel. Is it to look like a restaurant chef? But I’m not a restaurant chef and don’t fantasize about being one. If I have a role model in the kitchen, it’s a 19th-century French farmwife. Or maybe a Victorian houseservant. But not a restaurant worker.
    Personally, I kind of like this kitchen. Perhaps it’s because I’m a waspy Yale-educated lawyer.

  7. I like the cabinets in the picture, too. They might be worse in person, but in the pict, they’re nice. I don’t like the white knobs, but I don’t know what the right replacement would be (but it seems doable, an affordable fix).
    They might be able to handle being painted white (you were considering that, right?), but I agree with everyone who said to wait before taking that on.
    We hated our bottom drawer fridge. Hated it enough to replace the sub zero the house came with, before it was actually broken. Our explanation was that we use our fridge a lot, especially for ice cream and Popsicle, and the bottom fridge was too hard to get to for those treats.

  8. “We ended up painting our 1960 knotty pine cabinets an off-white, with brushed silver pulls.”
    That sounds nice.
    “I never understood the appeal of stainless steel. Is it to look like a restaurant chef?”
    People overdo it, but you can get some very pretty effects by combining stainless steel and wood. It’s a reflective, non-staining surface, and you can set hot pots down without fear. (Not sure I could live with the scratches, though–this is all very theoretical from me.)

  9. can’t you paint the cabinets?
    Keep an eye open for a stainless fridge with black sides on sale. I love a stainless fridge with black appliances. Replace counters with something cheap that isn’t tile until you can afford granite/solid surface. You can tell it has good bones for sure.

  10. “You can tell it has good bones for sure.”
    Yeah, there’s a very visible difference between a house that was last worked on in 1963, versus a house where grandma has been switching out the wallpaper and carpet at appropriate intervals. I saw one of the former about a month ago–depressing.

  11. The kitchen’s nicely laid out. You have great storage space. I like the look of the cabinets–and I think it’d be very expensive to replace them.
    You can paint ceramic tile:,,20210751,00.html.
    You could cover the white fridge with a stainless steel adhesive film:
    I don’t like the balloons, though. The topiaries and fruit baskets aren’t to my taste. The fish could grow on me.

  12. When we moved into our house, I didn’t like our kitchen’s layout. The double oven was black, the refrigerator and dishwasher were almond. Not the same almond.
    Over time, the appliances died, and were replaced. This isn’t the economy to tear out appliances for aesthetic reasons. I’m a Yankee, so I make do until it dies. Then, I look for appliances on sale.
    In the end, the changes I made after more than a decade weren’t the changes I’d have made when my kids were toddlers. I’m glad we resisted the urge to tear everything out and start over, though. I’m sure we’d have made our own mistakes, as we aren’t interior design geniuses.

  13. “You could cover the white fridge with a stainless steel adhesive film”
    That’s so funny. When we were re-doing our kitchen about 10 years ago, we told the architect that we wanted white appliances. (Our kitchen is a high-end version of a standard middle-class 1950s kitchen–linoleum floors, butcherboard countertops, white cabinets, white appliances.) He expressed some doubt about his ability to find a high-end refrigerator in white, but assured us that we could laminate white enameled sheathing to a stainless steel fridge. In the end, though, he found a white refrigerator, so it was moot.

  14. y81,
    You could have gotten one of these in white:
    Those are a bit coffin-like, but if you could see your way toward aqua appliances, you could get a matching 1950s fridge and stove:
    Combine aqua fridge and stove with a black-and-white checkerboard floor, and you’re really cooking.

  15. If it was me, I would hire guys from in front of the local paint store, rent a steamer, and have them pull the wallpaper. A good coat of white paint where the wallpaper was, live with everything else for three years, and see what my ideas were at that point. If it was me.

  16. I was just looking at the new Jim the Realtor video, and in about the first minute, there’s an interestingly botched kitchen remodel:
    The kitchen is a classic midcentury one with white and aqua cabinets (very cute), and the renovators slapped on acres of travertine countertop and flooring. The effect is indescribable.

  17. I like crowd sourcing my home decorating. This was amusing.
    I probably won’t paint over the cabinets right away. They are solid wood, not wood veneer or particle board. They have an unfortunately orange tint to them right now, but I’ll see if I can neutralize it with green-based white paint on the walls. They might look good entirely stripped and then they polyurethaned. I might look into putting a cheap, but nice countertop and an under-mount sink. We’ll see.
    Other than that, we’re spoiled. The last house was a wreck when we moved in. This just needs a paint job, so I can’t really complain. And I should kiss all that wallpaper, because it scared away so many buyers that we got this house super cheap.

  18. “They are solid wood, not wood veneer or particle board.”
    “They might look good entirely stripped and then they polyurethaned.”
    Yeah, I think the tendency is for treated wood to darken up with age. You might get something you like a lot better by following your plan (although is there an out-of-the-way area for you to experiment with first?).
    Another option I like (not sure if it would work well with this particular home if you’re going in a midcentury direction) is glass cabinet knobs.

  19. I love glass knobs. I think they’re always appropriate. But, I don’t know how well they work. Are they fragile?
    Now are you going to tweet your paint colors? I think some of the painting apps might let you?
    Now, it’s not quite as good as the iPhone app where people post pictures of themselves trying on clothes in dressing rooms and get crowd feedback. I’m thinking I’d be more willing to do this with my house than my person.

  20. our new old house also came with tile countertops which we hate.. but they’re not so bad. Cleaned and re-sealed the grout, now it cleans up easily, can put hot dishes on it with no fear, etc. It’s still on the list, but well down from replacing the horrible old 80s box fluorescent light, replacing the 3.5gal toilets, the boys’ ratty old bathroom, etc etc.
    Solid wood needs to be held on to, there are lots of options for refinishing that.
    I love the fish wallpaper.. sorry..
    the other paper is kinda interesting at least.

  21. Whaddabout painting the cabinets white as a stop-gap? Assuming that your current plan to, one day, strip and polyurethane them to the original wood, would not be made more difficult by a coat or two of white paint.
    (That could be wrong). My approach has always been to just paint first – without sanding or stripping or primering – and think later.

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