Midcentury Social Innovation

An epic remodel

photography by Tina Sargeant

How are Joseph Eichler, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Lakelanders Sarah and Brent Powers all connected? The answer may be obvious to some of you, but I’m going to connect the dots for you anyway. And the lines connecting those dots just happen to all converge on my favorite design aesthetic: midcentury modern.

Joseph Eichler was a post-war real-estate developer best known for building 12 large, rockin’ midcentury modern subdivisions throughout California. Thousands of homes became known as Eichlers and are, to this day, adored, particularly by me. He was an innovator and powerful advocate for clean, efficient, modern home construction.

Steve Jobs, the revolutionary social innovator who changed the world in multiple industries, including personal computers, music, phones (thank you), and tablets, lived in an Eichler-inspired home growing up, according to his official biographer, Walter Isaacson. And get this: Steve Jobs actually credited living in a midcentury modern home as “one of the main inspirations for developing a simple, modernist aesthetic sensibility.” What? Living in a midcentury home helped inspire the creation of the iPhone and iPad? The Mac?

But there’s more. As we know, Steve Wozniak co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs. And guess what? Wozniak grew up in an Eichler-built home in Sunnyvale, California. Coincidence? I think not. Eichler and the architects designing the midcentury homes he loved changed the world in which we live. And if that isn’t enough, Eichler was a social innovator. Among other things, he established a non-discrimination policy (during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s) and made sure his homes were available for sale to anyone, regardless of race or religion.

And all of this connects to Lakelanders Sarah and Brent Powers, but I’m not quite ready to tell that story yet.

Cara Greenberg, author of the 1984 book, Midcentury Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, made up the phrase “midcentury modern.” The book was very well received, and the phrase stuck and attached itself to the period 1933 to 1965. Midcentury modern is an architectural and design aesthetic born of innovation and formed in the creative minds and imaginations of artists and designers, planners, builders, and architects from around the world and from all walks  of life.

Midcentury modern is poetry without the words. We see it in an Egg chair by Arne Jacobsen, the Miller House by Richard Neutra, or the famous and fabulous Eames Lounge Chair by Charles and Ray Eames. Also interesting to note, a significant component of the midcentury modern movement was the promotion of social change: design as momentum for changes in where we live, the way we live, and how we see and enjoy the things around us. This dedication to social change is made apparent in the abundance of design aesthetics: open floor plans, large sliding doors, high ceilings with beams, tall windows, and lots and lots of natural light that are reflective of the midcentury modern home, rooms with multiple angles and views of the outside world, geometric shapes and divergent lines and patterns, and steps dividing interior areas creating open yet separate living spaces by use of changes in elevation. Function began to trump fashion as steel, glass, and plywood were incorporated into home design by architects like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, both of whom trained under Frank Lloyd Wright. Homes and furniture were designed for the way people lived, or aspired to live, in the post WWII modern world. The hallmark of midcentury modern is the willingness to be bold in both design and in life.

Sarah and Brent Powers grew up in Lakeland, both actively engaged in the fabric of the community, met in a local church, fell in love, and married 10 years ago. Brent is an independent financial advisor under Raymond James, and he and a partner have been in business downtown for 18 years as Barrow and Powers Financial Services. Sarah is the founder and CEO of Lakeland-based Top Buttons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping local girls learn about fashion while at the same time teaching them how to make appropriate clothing choices. Sarah’s heart “is to inspire young women to know their value and present it to the world without compromise.” They are a team, dedicated to making Lakeland a better place to live and a better place for girls, many of whom learn fashion, and morals, from movies and magazines. Sarah and Brent have four kids at home, three girls and a boy, and are active members of a local church, raising their children in a strong, faith-based environment. They believe that social change begins with individual choices, choices we all can make.

Sarah and Brent asked me a year or so ago if I would consult with them during the house-hunting process. They were in the market for the right house and had been renting after selling their previous home. I love looking at houses so jumped at the chance to go with them as they searched for the right place to create a new home. We looked at a number of houses in Lakeland and the surrounding area before discovering a newly listed house built in 1958. It was in just the right, very convenient, neighborhood near Lake Hollingsworth. Cul-de-sac: check. Large yard for the kids: check. The right number of bedrooms and bathrooms: check. Quiet area: check. Great floor plan: check. Pool: check. Sarah and Brent loved the house and its potential: check. I loved the house (loved, loved, loved the house): check. And midcentury modern architecture: check. Wait. Did I say “check?” I meant, “CHECK!” They bought the house that day.

OK, now the good news. Sarah and Brent moved in during construction and did not kill each other or me, or anyone else that I’m aware of. Did I mention that the house was in need of a few updates? Translation: a complete top-to-bottom renovation. And because of  circumstances largely beyond their control, they moved in with the dust, the destruction, the chaos, the mayhem, and the construction workers. All one big happy family. And, of course, I was there just about every day (the bright spot in their day, I’m sure). Alas, I have discovered that not everyone loves the renovation and decorating process quite as much as I do. But I have to hand it to Brent and Sarah. They were wonderful to work with. Fun and funny, always maintaining perspective and a great sense of humor and adventure. Well, “always maintaining perspective and a great sense of humor,” might not completely and accurately capture all of the finer moments of this particular remodel. But, it was a remodel after all. What do they say at the gym? No pain no gain, right?

We started with the budget. A carefully planned (Brent is definitely a numbers guy) and prepared budget with timelines and priorities. I’m not sure Sarah actually showed as much interest in this aspect of the project as Brent did. Sarah has a wonderful style and design sensibility, and had a plan that would take form and shape over time notwithstanding the budget. The budget was just a “formality.” Our job was to make it happen. And truthfully, I will admit, poor Brent was outnumbered. One genial, good-natured, and very kind man up against two strong-willed and opinionated women just wasn’t working in his favor. He was, in short, in trouble from the start.

The extensive reconstruction on the kids’ side of the house was largely finished before they moved in. One of the bedrooms had previously been used as an office and was in need of significant changes to convert it back to a bedroom. We took out some sliding glass doors that led out to what was originally a breezeway, created a wall, and closed one of two doors to the bathroom. The second bedroom would be shared by the two youngest girls. We installed heart pine as ship lap on all the walls. Above the ship lap we added a funky, gold metallic Zoffany wallpaper. We moved the dining room bronze and crystal chandelier to the center of the bedroom to add elegance, and placed the beds end to end along one wall to increase usable central floor space.

We completely remodeled Brent and Sarah’s son’s room. We highlighted the angled ceiling and walls with bead board, added wallpaper with a cool pattern of dark-blue and gray branches for an outdoors feel, and finished it off with a unique loft bed shaped into a fort. The goal was to create a magical room with an outdoors/camping feel for their young son. Pretty cool, huh? We added a vintage, square-armed mid-century chair, newly upholstered in a taupe fabric, and an Ikea cubby to keep all of his cherished treasures organized. We ended up with the perfect space for the quintessentially rambunctious growing boy. Even though we wanted a fun space, the sophisticated wallpaper and bead board will provide a room he can grow with.

Our goal for the girls’ bedrooms was to create a space that would grow with them. I designed a headboard to go with a midcentury, vintage dresser and added an accent wall with a subtle travel-motif wallpaper in white and gold selected by one of the daughters. We removed the outdated paneling but left a large, deep, built-in desk with a Formica top for schoolwork and projects. We gave it a contemporary turn with black lacquer paint. We found two vintage chests and combined them into a double dresser with a marble top. We added custom woven blinds to all the bedrooms and bathrooms.

Bead board was installed in the hall bathroom to coordinate with the son’s room, and we added gray porcelain tile with a travertine look to the floor for durability and cost effectiveness. We then added can lighting and new faucets, leaving the existing vanity and sink, and painted the vanity to give it an updated appeal. We finished by adding new subway tile in a pale gray to the tub and shower surround. Bingo: a new bathroom with a completely independent appeal. We painted the walls in the girls’ bathroom and painted the existing cabinets a deep gray. This bathroom actually looked like the previous owners had accomplished a relatively recent redo, so we saved some time and money on it.

I love terrazzo floors, and this house had them throughout the living room and dining room. Terrazzo is a composite mixture of concrete, quartz, granite, glass, and similar materials and is most often used as flooring. When the floor cures, it is polished to a high gloss. Today, terrazzo is a fairly rare and expensive material. However, it was used extensively in years past as a sturdy, moderately priced flooring. We added terrazzo to the laundry/mud room floor and expanded the steps from the living room to the upper-level game room. Prior to renovation, the living room was open to the back of the house. We closed it off to create an office for Sarah and upper-level living space that the kids will use for games and projects. We matched the new steps with the existing living-room floor. Matching the existing 57-year-old floors was a bit of a trick. But the terrazzo floor guys were experts and did a wonderful job, and the floors turned out great. We definitely made the right decision.

We decided to use wide-plank, gray wood flooring everywhere the terrazzo wasn’t except the master bedroom where we kept the existing coffee-colored brick. The wood flooring and coloring of the terrazzo blend beautifully to create a sense of continuity throughout the home.

The existing living-room walls were wood-panel tongue and groove. We decided to leave the paneling and painted it Benjamin Moore Revere Pewter to give the room a fresh, updated look that worked well with the midcentury appeal of the space. The midcentury A-framed beamed ceiling and large front windows provided perfect amounts of natural light but did not help the ambiance of the room at night. We decided to add can lighting by drywalling between the beams to provide the necessary space for the electrical materials, canisters, and housings.

As I recall, during the entire renovation and decorating process, Brent made only one request. He wanted Joshua 24:15 included in the plan. Consequently, the words, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” are now prominently and permanently featured above the sofa in the upper-level living area. It is the perfect location because this area acts as a family gathering and game-room area. The room contains a custom game and craft table, foosball, Pac Man, and of course, Battlestar Galactica.

By closing off and dividing the upper-level living space, we were also able to create a large office for Sarah. We installed peacock-green grass wallpaper, a vintage Drexel Heritage Louis IV black desk, vintage club chairs upholstered in a contemporary black and white pattern, and a Lucite vintage chandelier. Behind the desk, we used open-back, Asian bookshelves to highlight a black-and-gold vintage Hollywood Regency chest. We added a table with four chairs, white metal base, and rosewood table top for meetings. I believe the space is a perfect reflection of Sarah’s personality, and it is my favorite room in the house.

The front door essentially opens into the dining room, so it was important to make a kind of design statement right off the bat. We placed a wonderful vintage French Blue lacquered sideboard with very cool hardware under a large, dramatic, wildly and colorfully abstract modern painting by artist Austin James that I found on Magazine Street in New Orleans. In fact, I found most of the art either in New Orleans or Charlotte, North Carolina. The dining table was custom created by local artist Jonathan Bucklew who also created the game table, master-bedroom bed, and master bedroom mantle. He brings a chic and modern West Coast vibe to his designs that are a perfect fit for midcentury modern. His designs are sophisticated, using durable products and finishes that work well for an active family lifestyle.

The kitchen, like most of the house, was a big project. The wall between the kitchen and dining room had to go, but I didn’t want to lose the cabinet space. So we created a wide peninsula with lower cabinets that open on one side into the dining room and on the other side into the kitchen. We removed all the dated cabinets and awkward angles and walls, and asked Tom Sharrett, a Lakeland custom cabinet maker, to create and fit new charcoal-gray cabinets, incorporating open shelves and white subway tile into the design. We closed a window in order to create a longer counter run and more cabinets. Sarah and Brent kept the existing Sub-Zero refrigerator and Bosch dishwasher and added a Wolf induction cooktop, undercover microwave, and double ovens.

The powder bathroom off the kitchen was in need of an update. We kept the original footprint of the room and added Thibaut black-and-white graphic wallpaper. We found a large art deco mirror and floated a lacquered, freehanging vanity with an installed sink under it. We finished with a black-marble countertop.

The master bedroom was originally either a large library or a family room with coffee-colored brick flooring and a substantial, natural-stone fireplace. Located down a hallway off the kitchen and effectively separated from the rest of the house, it was an ideal space to transform into a gracious, private, adult retreat. We kept the dark ceiling beams, and painted the wood ceiling and walls a bright white. We adorned the floor-to-ceiling windows with an alluring Duralee gray-and-blue linen fabric and found a charismatic geometricpatterned rug for the floor. We removed some of the built-in bookshelves and added a closet, redoing and lacquering the remaining bookshelves white and backing them with the same green grass cloth we used for Sarah’s office. We placed the Bucklew low-profile custom bed in front of the windows, balancing
the fireplace and stone-wall surround across the room. The beautiful backyard views became the headboard. A matching custom fireplace mantle tied the space together into an elegant, yet personal, refuge.

My design goal is always to create a warm, inviting living space reflective of my client’s lifestyle. Sarah and Brent are accomplished and philanthropic Lakelanders with a young and active family. So we wanted to make the spaces durable yet sophisticated, eclectic layers of design and texture with midcentury elements true to the original aesthetic of the house. However, I steadfastly believed that we should avoid creating a time-warped Mad Men stage set. Sarah and Brent lean toward traditional, so we did a lot of transitional design with selective midcentury modern pieces. I also wanted to create some edgy surprise. For example, I upholstered two Danish chairs in a bright, multicolored vintage Kantha cloth and installed them in the living room with two funky paintings by emerging artist Johnny Taylor. This arrangement provocatively combined modern furniture design, classic South Asian fabric, and abstract mixed-media paintings — all presented on midcentury modern terrazzo floors. I enjoy the challenge of creating harmony among a variety of elements in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. And I particularly enjoy developing individual vignettes throughout a home with the juxtaposition of contrasting components. It adds a certain, hard-to-define sensuality to four walls, a floor, and a ceiling that brings them to life.

Joseph Eichler, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Sarah and Brent Powers are connected. They are all innovators and courageous social doers with an appreciation for the clean-lined, timeless efficiency of midcentury modern homes and architecture. They have been pioneers and business developers in their own communities, leaving a lasting legacy in the world around them. And they have all been drawn to those important, timeless aspects of life, developing a bold taste for the organic simplicity of design. Midcentury modern connects them through the originality, ingenuity, and creativity it has come to represent.