During a recent perusal of the local online real estate listings I became increasingly perplexed and disheartened by the offerings out there. It wasn’t so much the houses themselves that disappointed, but the various updates and renovations that had been done by the owners (likely at considerable time and expense) that left me confounded.
Let me start off by saying that I have always been a huge fan of “Modern” architecture and interior design. This is not to be confused with “modern” (notice the lower case “m”) or “contemporary” design that has been all the rage for the past few years, but truly Modern design from the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s. Picture open-beam ceilings, spike-legged furniture, walls of glass, open-riser staircases, terrazzo floors… you get the picture. It was the architecture of the affluent postwar cocktail-set made accessible to the masses. In many older communities you can still find great untouched examples of “big-M” Modern houses… or so I thought.
Specifically, I had been on the hunt for a “Brady Bunch Modern” style house. Split-level, with open beam ceilings, shale-rock fireplaces, windows that went right up to the ceiling. Thousands of these houses, most of them circa 1958-62 were built all over suburban North America. Much to my delight there appeared to be several on the market right now. My excited coos of “OMG, that is fabulous!” however, were soon replaced with “Ohhh, ewww, what is that???”. For every perfectly intact 1961 Modern exterior, there seemed to be an equally intact 1983 rustic oak country kitchen inside. Every 1961 sheer glass transom window served to highlight a 1990 shiny brass light fixture. Faux Victorian stained glass window inserts, 6-panel doors, ornate neo-traditional crown mouldings… why did these homeowners feel such hatred toward their houses that they went out of their way to permanently scar them?
Don’t get me wrong, as a designer I can fully appreciate the desire, the yearning, the need, for change. My entire livelihood is dependant on beautifying and updating spaces. Each of my own apartments has been in a constant state of flux from the moment I move in until the moment I move on. I have also run the full gamut of personal-favourite styles, from French Provenciale, to English Colonial, to the aforementioned Modern. I love working with clients with whom I can run in an entirely new style direction. There aren’t many things that truly irk me (in a design sense), but fighting with the existing architecture is the one that gets my back up every time.
As lifestyles and family dynamics change, the functions of a home and its different rooms evolve. Today’s new houses are quite a change from those built 30, 20, even 10 years ago. Bathrooms are larger and more plentiful, kitchens more open, closets more spacious, and formal dining rooms increasingly obsolete. Built-in workstations, media rooms, and spa-style retreats are the new must-haves. Not surprisingly, when it comes to renovations, these are the spaces that take top priority. If you live in an established neighbourhood, are close to all the amenities, get along with your neighbours, and have put down roots in a community, it often makes more sense to stay and renovate than to buy new and take the chance of missing out on all that. Just make sure to incorporate the renovation as seamlessly as possible.
I’m not saying that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak. I’ve seen many fantastic renovations that completely changed the entire look, feel, and function of a house. There’s no reason that you can’t go from Cape Cod Colonial to Westcoast Contemporary, from Georgian Revival to Japanese Minimal, even from Mid-century Modern to Southwestern Traditional (my own personal feelings notwithstanding). With the proliferation of new materials and styles on the market now, along with a more savvy consumer, there is a newfound appreciation for the different options out there. The secret is to make sure that the bigger-picture is in keeping with each of the smaller elements. This is where the advice of a professional designer can make a world of difference in the finished product.
Often it’s hard for people to be completely objective about their own homes. We all tend to see what we want to see and put blinders on to details that we’d rather forget. This tunnel-vision can prevent us from seeing what others see, whether they are our guests or potential buyers when it comes to resale. A professional designer is trained to look at the bigger picture, and to offer advice to help you avoid some of the pitfalls of renos gone awry. A designer can often point out details that the homeowner and contractor may overlook, helping you to achieve a finished product that you can be proud of.
That said, I recently signed away the next several years of my life to a 1975 condominium that was lovingly updated in 1989 in shades of pink, peach, and shiny brass. Look forward to many, many updates on the pitfalls of do-it-yourself renovations, the drawbacks of using friends as free-labour, the dangers of power tools, and the ins and outs of condo-board bribery!