Miles McDermott is on a mission. The 22-year-old is so enthralled with midcentury modern design, he’s started an organization called Save the Sixties to "preserve, restore, and showcase" midcentury modern homes in the Phoenix metropolitan area. In his own apartment, he’s meticulously recreated a 1960s interior, studying vintage home decorating books to make an environment that’s completely true to the time period, not just inspired by it.
How did a man born more than a quarter of a century after the Summer of Love become so enthralled with the decade? It started with a midcentury hutch.
McDermott grew up in Mesa, Arizona, in an environment that was well removed from his current aesthetic. "Every single house seemed to be made with the same adobe brick, with terra cotta tile, granite countertops and beveled oak cabinets," he says. "When I left to start school at the Art Institute of Phoenix, I looked around at the architecture in the city and thought ‘this is amazing.’"
Although he had not been previously exposed to modern design, he confesses he had an "affinity for old stuff," developed after a lifetime of shopping secondhand stores with his interior designer mother. Naturally, he landed a part-time job at a thrift store, and that’s where cupid’s design arrow struck.
"I’ll never forget the day I fell in love with the style," McDermott says. "One rainy morning, a big midcentury hutch came in off the truck. It was in perfect condition, and a beautiful piece. My manager told me the style was ‘midcentury,’ and, after work, I pulled out my laptop to find out what the hell I’d been missing."
Of course, he bought the piece. "From there, it was a slippery slope," he says. "I started studying the style, and I began recognizing midcentury homes and buildings in Phoenix." McDermott desperately wanted to reside in such a dwelling himself, but since he was a student whose budget had him living in a trailer park next to a freeway, it didn’t seem possible. But when civic leaders decided to expand that thoroughfare, he found himself with two months to vacate and a little government-provided relocation money.
On Craigslist, he spotted his current home. "The ad for the apartment had really crummy photos, but the location was cool and it had a turquoise wall oven," McDermott says. "When I went to see the place, I found it hadn’t been updated in a long time. The owners assured me that they would be renovating before the new tenant moved in, and I begged them not to touch anything."
Instead, McDermott has spent the past two and a half years creating an homage to the 1960s, restoring and repairing the unit’s existing midcentury elements and adding many of his own. The effect is of a perfect time capsule home, one where, in McDermott’s words, "a midcentury bachelor who is starting to settle down might live."
Although he planned to restore the place from the get-go, the idea to create an exact replica of a period environment came to McDermott about a week into his residency. "I thought it would be cool to make it look like the place was straight out of a Brady Bunch episode," he says. "Pretty quickly after that, the need to do it became a thirst. For a while, I was going to thrift stores and estate sales every day, sometimes twice a day. I found things at garage sales and in dumpsters. I started meeting people who were selling things I was interested in and they began following my blog [which later morphed into Save the Sixties] to watch their pieces become part of something bigger."
That bigger whole was built piece by piece. "I found the sectional in the living room in a dumpster. I put it in the center of the room and I started thinking, the people who owned this, what would they sit here and an do?" The answer, of course: watch that newfangled color television. That idea caused McDermott to purchase a Telefunken, a modern audiovisual wonder at the time. That led to papering the walls with a wood-grain covering (contact paper used as wallpaper), installing a Malm fireplace (it doesn’t work, but the atmosphere it provides is priceless), and hanging a bear skin rug (a relic from an infamous Kodiak bear hunt in 1960) to the wall.
The kitchen and bedroom are just as groovy. The kitchen’s turquoise wall oven, the one that first caught McDermott’s eye, is now coupled with a range hood and refrigerator of the same hue. "When I found this refrigerator it didn't work, but I was able to get it fixed for $50," he says. "I wanted to paint it blue, so I took the doors off and started working. By the time I was done, everything in the kitchen was blue, including me." He swapped the 1990s era hardware with vintage pieces and painstakingly rubbed out the rust stains in the Formica countertop. A pattern inspired by Salem North Star dinnerware was applied to the kitchen wall with painter’s tape.
In the bedroom, McDermott says he was going for an "arabesque thing," with a fabric draped ceiling, dramatic light fixtures, and a velvety bed covering. "My girlfriend and I purchased wannabe Noguchi lamps and glued tassels all over them. We covered the ceiling with old bedsheets," he says. "I wanted it to have that sexy, otherworldly look that was popular in the 1960s."
McDermott’s girlfriend started living here after he began decorating. Although she’s down with the look, it’s been something of an adjustment for her. "She has trouble with things like the can opener, a 1960s piece that looks really great, but it smells like shit when we use it," he says. "She says, ‘why can’t we just go to the drugstore and buy a new can opener?’ But I can’t, I just can't. I’ve been known to buy one brand of canned food over another just because the packaging looks more midcentury." His only concessions to contemporary life are an Xbox and a small flat screen television in the bedroom. "I would use an electric toothbrush," he allows.
It’s that attention to detail that makes the home museum-like. To learn the finer points of 1960s-era interiors, McDermott studied design books and magazines from that time. "By the late 1960s, no pillow had a pattern, and they were never placed in the middle of the sofa, only at the ends. Triangulation was big, and people favored three items of different heights placed together," he says. "These kinds of things are subtle, but your subconscious recognizes them as right."
For McDermott, it’s not enough to make his own home "right," he wants to save other dwellings as well. His organization, Save the Sixties, is a reaction to the dwindling number of original midcentury homes and interiors in the area. As it says on his website, his goal is to rescue true time capsule properties from "terribly trendy makeovers" that erase their style.
With donated funds, McDermott seeks to buy such homes and work his restorative magic on them, as he did for his apartment. From there, there’s potential to use the properties as vacation rentals or event venues. He realizes there are challenges ahead for the plan, but he’s encouraged by the interest people have shown, and he’s currently applying for nonprofit status for the effort. His goal isn’t to make money, but to preserve the style he loves and educate others by allowing them to see the real deal in person.
After all, he feels a visit to a time capsule home is not only history viewing, but happy making. His home was one of a dozen on the annual Modern Phoenix Home Tour (part of Modern Phoenix Week). "One of the visitors who came on the tour moped inside, and when he saw my home he instantly lit up. Later his wife hung back and told me how much visiting the house had meant to this man," McDermott says. "Midcentury Modern is and will ever be the peak of design. It was a time in our country when good design was viewed as the answer. Somebody needs to make sure the originals can stick around so people can still see them. Imagine if we only had photos of museums and never had a chance to walk around inside of them. I'm fighting to make sure that we can still experience the era instead of reveling at the images left behind."
- All House Calls [Curbed]