jeudi 18 août 2011

I am not ready for my childhood to be "retro" -- but it is.

When we first bought our house, a friend came over with her mother on the day we closed, took one look around, and said "You are going to be working on this house until the day you die."

After fifteen years and about $60,000 worth of siding, windows, roofing, gutters, a refinished basement, two water heaters, a furnace, and an upgraded electrical panel, I'm still ashamed to have a party. The longer you live in a house, the more daunting it becomes to have work done in it.

My next project (and I know my limitations so I don't end up on Renovation Realities), was going to be the downstairs bathroom. It's a 1950's cape cod house, so the bathroom is one of those tiny 5 x 7 functional-only bathrooms. I had a bath designer come out, and explained to her my vision of a step into yesteryear with gleaming white subway tile, a pan shower replacing the hulking seafoam-green tub with the massive rusting chip in it and the curved bottom that plots to kill me every time I step into it, and white hex tile with black accents. I knew the minute she walked in the door that her company would not try to get this job, because she came armed with a fat stack of glossy brochures from the kind of high-end cabinetry companies to which I'm sure the Real Housewives of New Jersey refer when remodeling their bathrooms every five years, sending the old fixtures to Green Demolitions.

Then Mr. Brilliant was laid off in January, and I started looking around said bathroom, and suddenly it seemed like a waste of $10,000-$15,000 to gut a bathroom with plaster walls and replace it with sheetrock. Yes, it's one of those 1950's tile bathrooms, but while most bathrooms of that era that are seafoam-green-and-black have the black tiles as accents, mine has black wall tile with the green accents. So I started to reconsider. We're hoping not to have to age in place, because the property taxes in New Jersey will kill us, assuming we're ever able to retire. So it may not pay to do the shower conversion right now. The tile is in good shape, and while the floor is a dull green that needs replacement and a new subfloor, and the holes in the ceiling that had to be punched so that a leaking pipe from the upstairs bathroom could be replaced have to be patched, but it occurred to me that perhaps this bathroom could be saved for the cost of a new vanity or sink, a few boxes of hex tile from Home Depot, a new mirror and a couple of well-placed shallow wall cabinets, a new light bar, and the labor to deal with the difficult stuff.

So I started looking around for photos that others had taken of their sow's ear bathrooms turned into silk purses. It isn't so much that I wanted to return it to its 1950's glory, though I did recently find on Freecycle a listing for an original seafoam green sink and toilet and thought about it for about five minutes until remembering that the seafoam green is the part of this bathroom I loathe most. But in these austere times, the days of the $20,000 Zen retreat seem to be over.

While looking for others who had scaled back their plans, I stumbled on Pam Kueber's very cool Retro Renovations site. Pam isn't just about learning to live with mid-20th-century tackiness, she's about reveling in it as some kind of Golden Age of Design. For someone like me, who is old enough to remember chrome-wrapped boomerang kitchen tables and who worships regularly at the altar of Gustav Stickley, it was difficult to wrap my mind around this concept. But Pam's enthusiasm, and that of her readers, is so infectious that I almost found myself starting to appreciate the design sensibility of my childhood.


But who knew that there is, in this country, an entire subculture of people who, instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to make their midcentury houses look like McMansions, have chosen instead to restore them to their original hideous glory, with pink bathrooms and ugly Don Draper sofas and pink kitchen appliances and tulip chairs.

If you watch This Old House, or read the magazine, there's always a bit of self-importance about restoring an old Queen Anne, or a Victorian, or especially a Craftsman house (which is my own particular favorite design aesthetic). Perhaps it's because these eras all pre-date anyone who's still alive today, which gives them a hushed museum quality to which that kind of reverence fits. But the mid-20th-century aesthetic, with its absurd turquoise kitchens and seafoam green bathrooms and bright orange sofas and kidney-shaped coffee tables, has a kind of gleeful tastelessness that after you read Pam Kueber's blog, makes you kind of understand it, even if you aren't quite ready to contact that guy getting rid of the seafoam green bathroom sink.

Today Pam Kueber has attained that revered condition of Blog Nirvana -- a LONG profile in the New York Times. Go check it out, and then check out Retro Renovations.

As for me, next time I go to get my hair done, I'm going to check out World of Tile on Route 22 in Springfield. Who knows, they might have the same seafoam green and black floor tile that I have now, and perhaps when it hasn't been trod on for fifty years it looks awesome.

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