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midcentury kitchen

Remaking midcentury modern in Portland

One couple loved their 1950s era home, and they wanted more of the same

When Robert and Amanda Nathan started searching for their first home in Portland, Oregon, they saw lots of Craftsman options—but the one that resonated with them (and that they purchased) has roots that are more Joseph Eichler then Greene & Greene.

“There’s no shortage of Craftsman options in Portland,” says Robert. “We looked at many of those, but the one that really spoke to us was this midcentury home. We hadn’t been in that mindset at all, but we loved it because it was different.”

The entry wall is replaced with a wooden screen that lets light pass through to the entry. A wet bar is designed with legs, sliding cabinet doors, and laminate countertops to look like a piece of furniture from the 1950s.
Left: Before the remodel, the entry was a long, dark hallway. Architect Risa Boyer designed a wooden screen to replace it. Right: The Nathans chose to replace a coat closet with a wet bar. Boyer created one that looks like a piece of midcentury modern furniture. Terrazzo floors replace dark walnut floors.

The low-slung house they purchased wasn’t designed by an architect when it was built back in 1950. However, Risa Boyer (the architect who was tapped to help them with the latest remodel) says the influence of a midcentury developer is evident. “The Eichler influence can clearly be seen here,” she says. “It’s a similar style, even though the climate doesn’t really lend itself to it.”

One similarity: a compact footprint. When they bought the house, it contained two bedrooms and a single bath. After living in it for half a dozen years, the couple decided to add some square footage. Even though the style wasn’t what they originally had in mind, they had no thought of changing it.

The living room is decorated with (mostly) vintage midcentury modern furniture.
Amanda Nathan says of her husband, “Robert has been amazing at finding the furniture to complement our home.” Over the years, he has carefully collected the vintage pieces throughout, including the Cado wall unit, the Edward Wormley sofa, and the Milo Baughman armchairs. “The Eames lounge is a licensed reproduction,” he says. “It seems like a cliche, but if you’ve ever sat in one, you know how comfortable it is.” The carpet is composed of FLOR carpet tiles.
Photo by David Papazian

“We wanted a little more space—a larger living room and a master suite. But we wanted all the new things to look like they’d always been here,” says Robert. “In the first remodel, we reused window frames and used reclaimed wood to cover the new ceilings.”

They took over a patio to expand the living room, and a small addition makes room for a master bedroom and bath. For the most part, it was a success. “But we made a few mistakes and didn’t fix everything,” admits Robert. Two items were particularly troublesome: A dark wood floor and the fireplace. Neither one looked as if they were installed when Harry Truman was president.

The living room’s fireplace wall is coated with a bright orange paint. The bedroom is part of a new addition, and they made sure the new wood ceiling matches the old.
Above: The new fireplace wall features an orange color by Sherwin-Williams called Chrysanthemum. Below: In the new bedroom addition, pains were taken to match the wood ceiling in the original part of the house.

A handful of years passed, and they were ready for more. “Our first remodel was about space,” says Robert. “The second time around it was about aesthetics.”

That might not be entirely true. Given that the new space contains a reconfigured kitchen designed for entertaining, a wet bar near the entry that makes it possible to greet guests with a cocktail, and a covered patio allowing all-season use, it’s fair to say the remodel could be as much about fun as looks.

Once again, the guiding thought was to make it all look as if it had always been that way. That doesn’t mean the new house feels like a time capsule. The kitchen, in fact, balances between yesterday and today.

The old kitchen as a narrow galley, the new space has an island instead of a wall, making it open to the hallway, the dining room, and the living room.
The old kitchen was described as a “narrow channel.” One of the walls came down to make a new, open space. The kitchen countertops are crafted from Caesarstone, the Globe pendant lights are from YLighting, the counter stools are by Bertoia for Knoll.

Back then, the cooking area was a galley kitchen that ran like a narrow channel between living and dining room. Boyer removed a tall bank of cabinets to open up the room.

Now, the other side of the kitchen is defined by a large island that’s flanked by a waterfall edge on one end and seating for four on the other.

Needless to say, this isn’t the stuff June Cleaver encountered in her black-and-white kitchen. Yet, it doesn’t look out of place. Like the ones that proceeded them, the new cabinets are crafted from plywood topped with vertical grain Douglas Fir veneer, and their flat, inset doors also look very much like what they replaced. Globe light pendants fit in both then and now. The appliances are large and modern, but not the trophy-size units that would be appropriate for a restaurants.

A detail shot of the geometric screen and a close up shot of the curvy wooden arms of the dining chairs.
Left: A detail of the entry screen that was designed by Boyer and crafted by Andrew Mauss of Aura Cabinetry. Right: The Thonet dining chairs by Joe Atkinson have a sleek, Atomic Age design.

“We love the original aspects of the house, but we really enjoy using a garbage disposal, having prep spaces lit by more than a single strip of lights, and a cooktop that’s not right next to the refrigerator. Before, we would be preparing food and constantly have blasts of cold air blowing across it when we opened the refrigerator door,” says Robert.

Three other key elements in the open plan are new, but have an aesthetic that speaks to the past. A coat closet was replaced with an L-shaped wet bar. “The bar was really fun to design—I wanted it to look like a piece of midcentury furniture,” says Boyer. “Just like the Case Study furniture, it sits on legs. It also has a laminate counter and cabinet drawers, which was common in the 1950s and 60s.”

Above and below: One of the centerpieces of the latest remodel is the outdoor fireplace. In Portland’s rainy climate, the sheltered hearth makes it possible for the Nathans (seen here) to enjoy their patio year round.

For some, replacing a closet with a bar might be an issue. “I guess we were more worried about serving guests a drink than finding a place for their coats,” deadpans Robert.

The second new element with a vintage look is the large, wooden screen that divides the dining room and entry hall. Before the remodel, this was a solid wall, which made for a long, dark walk into the house. The Nathans wanted a delineated entry, but something less foreboding. The screen was the perfect answer. For inspiration, Boyer looked at period images of Richard Neutra homes, as well as the work of Portland-based modern architects Saul Zaik and John Yeon. “Back then, screens like this were common, but they would have been more dainty and would not have hovered above the floor,” she says. “Ours is much bigger and brawnier. It defines the entry, but keeps the space open and airy.”

It makes for an inviting space. “When we host dinner parties we often stay in this room for hours after dinner,” says Amanda.

The long dining table has eight midcentury modern dining chairs surrounding it.
Robert collected the vintage Thonet chairs by Joe Atkinson over the years. “You spend quite a bit of time on 1st Dibs and eBay looking for things,” he says. “It can be a slippery slope.” A Powell Street pendant hangs above the table.

Boyer also channeled Neutra when designing the fireplace. It’s a case of the new being better than the original. “The one that was there just didn’t look like it belonged with the rest of the house,” she says. “It was functional, but looked like it should have been in a different kind of house.” By contrast, the new fireplace with its long, low profile and skinny, horizontal bricks looks like it has always been there.

There are now two fireplaces, one inside and one outside. The outdoor fireplace is the anchor for an al fresco living room and grilling area. “Usually, you can’t use features like this in Portland year-round,” says Boyer. “But we created a covered patio for them with the fireplace, a grill, and seating. They use it in any season.”

Robert Nathan’s office has a complete set of midcentury furniture: desk, armchairs, and shelf.
A collection of vintage furniture gives Robert’s office a Mad Men vibe.

“The outdoor fireplace is my favorite,” says Amanda. “Robert questioned this space many times, and asked ‘how often do you think we’ll really sit outside by the fire?’ The answer: I sit out there all the time—rain, cold, sun, it doesn’t matter. I even ask our friends to bring heavy coats so we can take advantage of the space in cold weather.”

Although they may not have been in the midcentury mindset when they purchased the house, the Nathans are there now. Robert has spent years sourcing the vintage pieces that furnish the house, including a sizable collection of midcentury clocks. “I have a clock problem,” he admits. How big is that issue? “Let’s just say that when the time changes, it makes for a long Sunday morning,” he answers.

Amanda is right there with him. “I love the feel of midcentury homes,” she says. “I can’t imagine living in any other style. I’m pretty sure I was born in the wrong era.”