Everyone loves a picture-perfect midcentury modern home. But even for those lucky enough to own one, the reality is that the house will likely need some work.
Many houses from the ’50s and ’60s will have undergone uninspired to downright unfortunate renovations in the ’80s or ’90s. And an untouched time capsule—while easy to pine over online—comes with the tall order of balancing modern conveniences with midcentury authenticity.
To figure out the best way to renovate a midcentury modern house, we turned to Denver-based real estate agent and investor Adrian Kinney, who specializes in midcentury real estate. Kinney also has multiple midcentury renovations under his belt, including an award-winning restoration of a Cliff May prefab and his latest project, a 1956 post-and-beam remodel that made the cover of Modern in Denver.
How does Kinney do it? Here are some of his top tips.
Know your midcentury history
One of the most common pitfalls of midcentury renovations is “falling into the ‘trend’ of midcentury style and not the true aesthetic,” says Kinney. Start any renovation project with front-end research; search for what homes looked like back then, paying attention to the common materials, colors, shapes, and textures.
Kinney believes this is the difference between having a house that’s inspired by midcentury design and one that’s wholly midcentury. The good news? “Doing the research is much easier this day and age with the power of the internet,” he says.
Start with the essentials
Although it’s not as flashy as terrazzo or as fun as a cool pendant lamp, renovating the systems of your home is essential. Things like the roof, electrical, HVAC, plumbing, and sewer lines might be over 55 years old and fixing them can be very pricey.
Pay attention to the details
When Kinney purchased his latest project, the 1,600-square-foot house in Lynwood, a full remodel was in order. But instead of opting for the latest and greatest, Kinney wanted to restore the home with respect for its roots. He says, “Let’s just say all midcentury things can fit into modern, but not all modern things can fit into midcentury.”
If you want a timeless and authentic renovation, Kinney says that first and foremost, materials and details matter.
Opt for brick, metals like brass and chrome, and genuine wood elements, not the “shiplap vomit” that’s so ubiquitous today. Kinney loves walnut for any type of wood paneling because it’s “rich and elegant.” However, be aware that this will likely clash with the original oak floors—aged to a gorgeous honey yellow—of most midcentury homes. You can stain the original floors or switch up your color palette.
If you have a larger budget and slab on grade floors, Kinney says, “Terrazzo is my everything.” In wet spaces, opt for tile, either a repeating geometric pattern or classic 4x4s in pink, teal, or yellow. Overall, “Small details make it authentic.”
If you have a time-capsule home, preserve it
If you’re lucky enough to have a home that hasn’t suffered through renovations in the ’80s and ’90s, “save as much of the details as you can,” says Kinney. “That is where so much of the home’s future value comes from, because so many buyers don’t want the ‘ticky-tacky’ of the McMansion builds.” Instead, potential buyers want “character, charm, and yes, even some of the little quirks of the home—it has soul after all!”
In practice, this looks like keeping the original cabinets (maybe with a refinish) and adding new hardware inside and out. New appliances can do wonders to an old kitchen, and you can even get some with retro style from companies like Big Chill. and if you want to add flair, Kinney advises using “geometrical, repeating pattern back-splash tiles.”
Embrace the wood panel walls
For a purist like Kinney, there are never “too many” real wood panel walls. He says, “I would never remove them if they were in great condition—but I know not everyone is like me.”
If you love the authenticity but aren’t sure about that much wood, Kinney suggests using brightly colored paintings, adding some extra lighting, or even adding an extra window or two. “A combination of ways can make the old, dark room feel new and refreshed.”
Hunt down the perfect pieces
Whether you have a time capsule home or a midcentury with good bones (and not much else), take risks to bring back the style of the 1950s and ’60s. When working on his latest project in Denver, Kinney found authentic pieces from eBay, Craigslist, and estate sales. When he couldn’t find what he wanted, he hunted for craftsmen that could reproduce or recreate designs, often turning to Etsy for custom work.
His advice: “Talk to a local designer—they probably know someone that can make exactly what you’re looking for!” By emphasizing original design, these special pieces will fit the space and make for conversation pieces in every room.
Update the windows, if you can
It’s not cheap to update windows in a 1950s home, but if you have weather above 80 or below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, Kinney says, “your heating and cooling bills will thank you for new, double-paned windows.”
To keep costs down, look for a local window company that will glaze in double pane windows. Kinney acknowledges that these are less efficient than a true, tabbed and framed window, “but they are so much more efficient than the single-pane window they replace.”
Another helpful piece of advice is to leave any huge, triangle, or clerestory windows alone and only replace the windows around it. “This will help with the HVAC bills without completely draining the bank account.”
Make it tech-friendly
Midcentury modern homes were built as homes of the future, and Kinney believes that “having them live their futuristic ‘past’ is possible today.” When you’re renovating your house, add in connected switches, plugs, lights, shades, and drapes. “It’s all available now for regular people to buy it, install it, and connect it to their own system.”
Don’t forget your exterior spaces
“Outdoor spaces in midcentury modern homes are an extension of the indoor spaces,” Kinney says, so don’t neglect them. Make them useable, livable, and easily accessed from your home. This might mean adding more doors to get to the spaces—Kinney added sliding glass doors to the backyard from many of the bedrooms in his Lynwood project.
Look for geometric, angular shapes, and integrate different materials like flagstone, slate, concrete pads, and wood. Outdoor spaces are more important to midcentury design than other types of architecture; Kinney explains, “The modernist home was supposed to have a smaller interior footprint, and then connect seamlessly to the outside.”