Décor at the Core

Accentuating what's unique about your modern home and the people living in it

The interior design of mid-century modern homes is as varied today as the homeowners who live in them.

What attracts people to these homes is that there is an everlasting quality characterized by simplicity and democratic design.

The bones of MCM homes were innovative for their time, creating a useful footprint for daily living. They were also unobtrusive so that homeowners could put their own thumbprint on the design. 

Elizabeth Torbit plays with thoughtful furniture arrangements and bold pops of color to accentuate this Marin Eichler home.
Elizabeth Torbit plays with thoughtful furniture arrangements and bold pops of color to accentuate this Marin Eichler home.

“One of the great achievements of Eichler homes is that they are permissive and have a chameleon capacity,” Matt Kahn, who decorated the interiors for the Eichler models a half century ago, told the Los Angeles Times. “The structure isn’t dictatorial. It can change moods with the inhabitants, from generation to generation.”

People who buy, renovate, and decorate MCM today are often so in awe of the homes’ beauty that that they don’t want to mess with the original. But professional designers say: Don’t be scared; there’s a way to honor your home’s original design integrity without forgoing a modern-day perspective.

“When remodeling a structure from any era, the client and designer first need to decide how much of the original concept they want to incorporate into the new design. There are no hard-and-fast rules,” says Chip Jessup of M.Designs Architects in Los Altos.

Designer Elizabeth torbit.
Designer Elizabeth Torbit.

“In the case of Eichlers and other mid-century modern homes, you want to respect the era, but you don’t want to be a slave to it.  You don’t want to limit yourself. After all, we’re not living in the 1950s.”

Some MCM homeowners believe that good design for interiors means recreating the mid-century look chair by chair and lamp by lamp. On the other hand, interior designer Elizabeth Torbit of Torbit Studio in San Francisco challenges homeowners to expand beyond what was originally presented—and even bring different eras together.

“By all means, blend old and new—vintage, modern, and contemporary 21st century pieces—and don’t be afraid to mix it up by integrating heirloom pieces or personal collections and artifacts as well,” she says. “This very mix brings charm and personality that often is lacking in some contemporary homes when they are furnished solely from one era, or one genre of a design period.”

One’s home is a reflection of oneself. For those who live in it, it will function best for all when you start with a detailed strategy.

“The great thing about modern design is that it can be a stage set for almost any type of furnishing,” says interior designer Sarah Shetter, who launched the Los Angeles-based design firm SPI Design with partner Alison Palevsky in 2004. The pair founded their firm on the ideal that modernism can be successfully combined with comfort and livability.

“Most people have assembled over the years some items that they are attached to and would like to use in their new—or newly remodeled—home,” Shetter says. She recommends that homeowners first take an inventory of what they already have and then use an editor’s eye to pick out the best pieces and build a design around those.

So where to start with a design? The best thing to do is to take it slow.

“Don’t choose the first flooring or paint color or appliance that catches your eye,” Shetter says. “Take time to investigate the house itself, the era it was built in, and the underlying philosophy of the architecture. I believe the underlying philosophy of modernism was to create a new way of living at a pivotal time in our country’s history. Thinking broadly like this will bring more options into the picture.”

Torbit says that most homes lack an overall plan, resulting in a home that feels like it’s been chopped up in bits of ideas and themes, either over many years or even in a onetime, complete house remodel.

In order to create a visual flow throughout the house, she recommends that homeowners first collect images from magazines, books, and blogs that make them feel that their home is truly a place that they feel connected to.

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