Monday, April 29, 2013

Modernizing a traditional home design with color, Part 1: Fireplace make-over

There's a home design trend right now that amalgamates seemingly-opposed highly traditional with highly modern elements.  I don't know that it has a name or an agreed-upon descriptor, but examples of it are everywhere.   
The popular retailer CB2 has coined the phrase "mix in modern" to describe this design headspace, which seems to assume that a shopper is starting from a traditional home design that they wish to update.  Notice in this picture how there's a Victorian chair juxtaposed with a modern or contemporary table and accessories.  Screengrab from CB2. 
To a certain extent, I think some of this trend is a simple rebellion against the matchy-matchy paradigm.  But what makes this design trend artistically viable is not what it opposes but what it embraces (drumroll, please): cross-referencing. 

In the example above, the unlikely Victorian chair goes with the modern table because they cross-reference the same color and pattern palette.  Specifically, both are minimalist white.  Not only do they go together, they actually go together well because they counterbalance and offset their respective design extremisms (incidentally, that's also the reason why American hip-hop succeeds so well as a dance style - because it knits together diverse styles in a coherent new way).  This same table paired with an equally-modern chair would probably be too harsh and unimaginative.  And ditto for across-the-board Victorian - nothing new or original with that. 

So the minimalist re-interpretation of the Victorian chair modernizes it in a new way.  The primary modernizing element is the painting of its wooden frame (solid upholstery is not a new idea, regardless of color).  And that's what I want to talk about in this blog post - how to use paint to update and modernize design elements that otherwise would look terminally traditional. 

In my case, I haven't done it with furniture so much as with architectural elements (the subject of this post) and fixtures (which I'll discuss in Part 2).  Newer neo-eclectic builder-grade tract homes are somewhat schizoid right now - by popular demand, they are leaning more modern or contemporary design elements, but they still tend to get built with a large number of profoundly traditional elements.  For this reason, if you want to build a non-cookie-cutter design without spending a ton of extra money, you have to find creative ways to upgrade or "re-interpret" some of your builder-grade elements as-is, where-is, without incurring replacement costs.

We adopted this approach with respect to our fireplace.  Before I show you our photo progression, let me elaborate a bit on the underlying design problem.  Virtually all greater Houston suburban tract-home fireplaces generally look something like (gulp) these three examples:
The builders usually take a few left-over ceramic tiles from the kitchen and entryway and slap up a fireplace surround using them.  Maybe you'll also get a mantle (or mantel, depending on which spelling you prefer) made out of left-over crown molding.  In this example, the mantel is both floating and under-sized.
Same idea with a larger mantel which seems to be positively levitating above the fireplace.  It looks to me as if it might zoom off into outer space, which is perhaps appropriate for a home in a NASA community
More kitchen floor tile repurposed as a fireplace surround.  I included this pic because the corner configuration is similar to ours, which I will show below. 

Fireplace screengrabs from a few active real estate listings in the Clear Lake, Texas area, courtesy of the Houston Association of Realtors website
This is a matter of taste, but I find those examples above to be profoundly blah.  Even at the best of times, fireplaces are challenging because they represent the antithesis of artistry: they break both the rule of thirds and the rule of diagonals.  Add to that the fact that tract-home fireplaces are usually constructed of scrap materials and you've got a real style disaster on your hands. 

We didn't find any of our builder's upgrade choices to be worth the money (they offered a couple of faux stone options that cost thousands of dollars, but nothing contemporary).  For that reason, what we did instead was order the highest grade of tile for the surround, rather than having the builder use left-over floor tiles.  Because only fourteen tiles were needed, this mini-upgrade only added $165 to our contract price:
Here it is in drywall stage.  At this point, it has clean lines and it's looking like it has good modern or contemporary potential.  Regrettably, the builder did not offer stacked stone or anything like that, because this would have looked really nice if finished with a clean expanse of stacked stone from top to bottom. 
Here's what it looked like with those fourteen high-end tiles installed.  Still looking like it has potential. 

According to our contract, this grade of natural slate is called "gauged rustic gold". 
Here's where everything started to go to hell in a hand basket, design-wise.  Did you think I was kidding above when I said that builders use scrap materials for these things much of the time?  Most of that molding you see here was actually snatched from the trash piles of other local jobsites (it's not found anywhere else in our house), and the central piece of fiberboard?  Can you deduce what that is?
It's a left-over scrap of our master closet shelving.  The trim tradesman didn't even bother to rip it down to a more conventional size.  He simply cut it to length and slapped it above the fireplace in its original twelve-inch width. 
Aaaaaaand then just to add insult to design injury, he painted the thing brilliant gloss white such that it resembled a colonial knock-off.  Nevermind the fact that there's not another colonial style element in our entire neo-eclectic house. 
What then happened is that, artistically-speaking, you tended to perceive this abnormally-deep, brilliant white scrap-built fireplace mantel coming straight at you like the cross-section of an aircraft carrier.  That's exactly the kind of feeling I wanted to impart in the great room of our dream home.  Not. 

Aircraft carrier diagram screengrabbed from this How Stuff Works site
Ugh.  We loathed that mantel and vowed to get rid of it eventually, but beyond the slate tile, we weren't paying for an upgrade here, so we couldn't argue with the builder regarding its ugliness. 

Post-sale, we could have ripped it out and added a really nice fireplace surround here for about two thousand dollars.  The trouble is, the fireplace is not important enough to me to spend two thousand dollars on.  This is subtropical Houston - we don't even use fireplaces.  All I do with this one is burn candles in it.  So this is what I did with it instead:
I painted the entire fireplace wall, including the brilliant while mantel, a shade of grey that unified it with the expensive slate tiles.  And then I accessorized it with wood and ceramic pieces that resonate the rust shades in the slate. 
Is that going to win any design awards?  Hell, no.  But I think it maximizes the potential of the existing non-ideal structural configuration. 

Painting a colonial fireplace mantel grey is as unconventional as painting a Victorian chair white.  But I think it works in this space because it cross-references other elements that use the same color:
We have a bulkhead that separates the kitchen from the rest of the great room.  Many people don't like structural bulkheads but I do, because they provide architectural separation and definition among different focus areas of a great room.  I also painted this the same shade of grey.  It's about the same depth as the mantel, so now there are two more elements that are cross-referenced. 

You'll have to forgive my edging work, which isn't complete yet and looks ragged in this pic.  Here in the south, houses are built with textured walls (orange peel in this case), and it's almost impossible to get a clean paint edge with that kind of drywall texture in place. 
The mantel's color now also cross-references the ultra-modern Elfa Platinum shelving that I have in the great room and in the kitchen.  Just as CB2's traditional white Victorian chair goes with its modern white table, my colonial scrap mantel now goes with my ultra-modern Elfa.  And it also cross-references the dark grey drapery. 

Photo from this previous post
You might be wondering what the heck shade of dark grey that is.  Good question - it's particularly difficult to zero in on a grey shade until you've put them up on the wall, because it's impossible to tell in advance whether they are going to throw brown undertones or blue undertones in your space.  So here's the 411:
Amusingly, it's called "Ocean Storm".  Appropriate for a mantle that reminds me of an aircraft carrier cross-section. 
Anyway, like I said, this one isn't going to win any design awards.  But for a $180 total investment in upgrade tile and paint, I think I've been able to successfully side-step the typical scrap-materials suburban tract home fireplace esthetic. 
Look again at my version (left) versus the structurally-similar version from a local active real estate listing (right).  Which version is likely to increase the re-sale value of the house in which it is found? 

No comments:

Post a Comment

I'm forced to moderate comments because the spammers have become too much for me to keep up with. If you have a legitimate comment, I will post it promptly. Sorry for the inconvenience.