Architecturally opinionated houses aren't for everyone. But for those who love them, passions run deep.
This was true for Eric Janus and Carolyn Chalmers. The couple, both retired lawyers, have owned a distinctive Mondrian-esque midcentury home off West River Parkway in Minneapolis for over 30 years. Recently, they took on an interior refresh with the help of architect David O'Brien Wagner of SALA Architects to reinforce that modern point of view.
Those bold moves resulted in a win for the project, dubbed Midcentury Primary, in the 2022-23 AIA Star Tribune Home of the Month contest, a partnership with the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects that honors residential design.
Janus and Chalmers purchased the house in 1992 from the original owner who designed it in 1963 — a commercial architect inspired by design luminaries of the day: Charles and Ray Eames, Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier. Exterior details, including the sharp rectilinear design, double-height wall of glass and block of bright primary color (red in this case), leave no doubt.
"It had been on the market for a year, and they were going to take it off and 'update' it. We entreated them to leave it as is," said Chalmers.
Early on, the couple exhausted their remodeling budget by replacing the HVAC system and, when the appliances gave out, the kitchen. Fortunately, the house was built well, with strong bones, according to Janus, who added, "The original sliding glass doors still work and the roof lasted until 2019."
A few years before embarking on this latest renovation, Janus and Chalmers, who raised two children in the house, considered moving to ease the burden of lawn mowing and snow removal. But putting a deposit down on a new condo development nearby made it real, and the couple realized how much they loved and would miss their light-filled house.
So, they pivoted, decided to stay, hire out the yard work and reassess the entire interior right down to the furnishings that would bring the house to its full potential.
Special attention was given to the kitchen, where Janus and Chalmers spend lots of time cooking together. While functional, the decades-earlier remodeling darkened the space and the design wasn't in sync with the rest of the house. Another problem area was the sad powder room, which shared space with the mop closet.
The couple wanted to amplify the style of the home and create a stronger connection to the original design. They chose Wagner based on his work for a friend's midcentury house and his appreciation and understanding of the aesthetic.
"Carolyn and Eric didn't want a heavy hand with this and put equal weight on making the house better for how they live and better for the house itself," said Wagner.
Honor the house, honor the tile
One of the home's distinctive features is its quarry tile floor — a gridwork of 6-inch-square putty-colored tiles with black grout — plain, maybe even a little homely, but intrinsic to the design. Wagner, Chalmers and Janus had many discussions about whether to change the tile or grout color but, in the end, felt doing anything different would dishonor the house.
"The architect who built this house used the tile grid to determine where all the walls should go," said Wagner. "There are no half-tiles anywhere."
Wagner dug into 1960s editions of Architectural Record magazine and books by architects of note from the period to develop a language for the refresh — a sympathetic palette of shapes, fabrics, colors and materials to complement the original while brightening the house and clarifying each room's function.
Tapping into the era's penchant for bursts of primary color, Wagner pulled the red from the front door into metal kitchen shelves, library shelves and one side of a coat cabinet. Blue from an interior door pops up in the new powder room on vibrant hexagon tiles from Heath Ceramics. The handmade tiles turned out to have a connection for Janus and Chalmers.
"Eric's parents, first-generation Americans of modest means, had a fine sense of style and their dinner service in the 1950s was Edith Heath," founder of Heath Ceramics, Chalmers said. "So that had a special resonance with us in addition to being beautiful."
The powder room was also where Wagner allowed himself a little design leeway, adding slatted birch walls with highly specific integrated storage (a tissue seems to pop out of a perfectly sized shelf).
That same blue also shows up on the kitchen island and kitchen window soffit underside. The color and other surprising touches, like metal roll-up appliance garages, add fun to the house while still staying well within the parameters of Wagner's careful research.
The Home of the Month panel recognized this quality, with one judge noting, "One of the things that I love about this midcentury architecture is that it's so playful. They [didn't] mute it down."
A two-story wall of rough-cut cedar in the living room was a design conundrum until Wagner stumbled into a solution at his daughter's soccer game.
"I was chatting with one of the parents who mentioned she had an artist friend who'd shown a large-scale installation at a local college and was hoping to reinstall it, and did I know anyone who might be interested," said Wagner. "It was perfect for Eric and Carolyn."
Artist Eileen Cohen customized the undulating ceramic sculpture for the space. It adds dramatic visual interest, whether viewed from the interior or exterior and changes with the light. The couple said they appreciate it every day.
Unsolicited but not unwelcome opinions about the house are part of the deal, Janus explained.
"Almost everyone who comes to the house — from Amazon delivery persons to appliance service people — comments on it. To many, it has a commercial look from the outside ('a dentist's office'), and everyone loves the inside when they come in."
About this project
A 1960s architecturally designed home off West River Parkway in Minneapolis takes on a thoughtful modern-day renovation. Light, form, color and texture, essential components of a Mondrian-esque palette, are carefully considered when creating this livable and artful family home.
Designing firm: SALA Architects.
Project team: David O'Brien Wagner, AIA; Marta Snow, AIA.
Project partners: General contractor, Welch Forsman; custom metalwork, Nash Industries; cabinetry, Ingrained Wood Studios; artwork, Eileen Cohen.
Laurie Junker is a Twin Cities-based writer specializing in home design and architecture.