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STAIR GALLERIES

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The Queen of Mid-Century Modest

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Photograph by Erica Berger

When Pam Kueber and her husband David Fisher bought their 1951 ranch house in Lenox in 2001, it was not because they were devotees of the mid-century modern style.  Their previous house, in Michigan, had been a 1912 Colonial Revival/Arts and Crafts pastiche, and through renovating that, they had learned that, as Pam says, “The way for us to go with any house is to take it back to its original bones.”  In pursuit of that end in their new place, she became a mid-century design aficionado—of a sort.  Unlike the many who focus only on the elite end of that movement, Pam has also become a specialist in what she calls Mid-Century Modest.  She began blogging on the topic in 2007 and, since then, RetroRenovation.com has become a go-to site for owners of both the relatively few architect-designed mid-century modern houses extant and the millions of tract and tract-like houses that were built all across the United States in the decades following World War II.  To date, the blog averages nearly 100,000 visitors per month, a number that will double within the next year if growth continues apace.

RI
What do you suppose you’d be doing now if you’d bought a farmhouse when you moved to Lenox, instead of a mid-century ranch?

PK
It is true that I am an accidental modernist.  Had we bought another kind of house, I would have become a huge fan of some other era.  But there is something very special about these postwar houses. That period was so tremendously transformational.  With it came the first true material wealth for most Americans, and many of them are still around to tell us about it.  We can buy their ‘time-capsule’ houses yet still live in the modern world, a world they created.  My interest isn’t just in the design. It’s the stories behind it all, the social history.

RI
That is evident from your Midcentury Modest Manifesto, which I found both riveting and moving.  And apparently I am not alone.  Your blog has a huge following.

PK
I attribute that to the fact that this class of mass housing has a lot going for it right now.  Development occurs in concentric rings around cities.  The first ring always has lots of Colonials Revivals and Arts & Crafts bungalows from the early 20th century.  The next ring has post-war tracts.  The ring after that, the exurbs, is where the McMansions often took root.  The kids who grew up in McMansions look at these tract houses that are for sale today and say, “Great, we get the pink bathroom” which their mothers may have loathed, but which they think is really cool “and we’re closer to work.”  They like the efficiency of the layouts, and that a small mid-century modest house can use a lot less energy and be comparatively green.  There are also plenty of them, so they are relatively cheap.  I estimate that there were just one million mid-century modern houses built in this country, compared with 29 million mid-century modest ones.

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                                                                                                                                    ©Kit Latham

RI
The plastic flamingo, two of which you have on your front lawn, is usually valued for its irony.  Plastic flamingos are cheap; kitchens are not.  Your turquoise kitchen with all those recycled metal cabinets and boomerang Formica countertops; is that a camp gesture, as well?

PK
I think a lot about why I am so into this style of decor.  I definitely like the whimsy in the colors and iconography.  But I don’t think it’s ironic.  My grandmothers’ salt shakers and granny square afgans are my most precious possessions. I think I made my choices out of joy and reverence for the period, not to make fun of it.  Also, when houses get updated, as this one had over the years, they end up with styles that are in conflict.  I am thrifty, so my goal here was longevity.  This is a contemporary kitchen, with a Sub-Zero refrigerator and a Bosch dishwasher.  But I wanted it to look as if it had always been there, so we would never need to update it again.

RI
Which goes straight to the heart of your blog’s philosophy to “Love the House You’re In.”
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PK
My husband came up with my blog’s tagline, Love the House You’re In.  I like it because it recognizes that we sometimes end up in ‘unexpected’ houses, so it’s probably wise to make peace with that.  It also goes along with my belief that it’s wise to work with the original bones of the house, to let it tell you what it wants to be.
                                                          Collage by Melissa Kolstad

RI
My understanding is your blog is in the black.  When you started, did you anticipate it becoming a business?

PK
No.  I tried to approach it with a Buddhist mindset: to have no attachment to the outcome.  I also thought that for someone in my line of work, freelance corporate communications, first-hand experience with how to use this new tool would be useful—that blogging would be a good new skill to have. 

RI
You’ve been blogging seven days a week since 2008.  How do you keep coming up with fresh topics?

PK
Well, my readers contribute a lot, and sometimes there’s breaking news, like a great estate sale.  But most days aren’t like that.  So every morning when I turn on the computer, I ask myself, how can I surprise and delight them today? 

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