Big Ideas for a Big Room
How to make a 1960s-era space work for a modern family.
A main floor family room is the equivalent of finding the Holy Grail when house shopping. Who wouldn’t love a home with room for the whole family to sprawl out in casual comfort? The problem is that most older homes in the inner city weren’t built with family rooms as part of the plan. My clients had opposing viewpoints on whether to stay local or hit the highway in search of a home with enough open area. In the end, they settled on a 1960s-era ranch style home that boasted privacy, lots of space, and a giant main floor family room oozing with vintage character - but in dire need of a major makeover.
If your home is stuck in a bygone decade, the only solution to achieving contemporary style is likely somewhat drastic. You don’t need to tear down walls, but you may need to peel back a few layers of “decorative” enhancements to arrive at a simple and streamlined base for moving forward. We ripped up broadloom, tore off trim, unloaded an old wood stove, and ripped out a cartload of stained oak. Suddenly, this split-level space looked more like a sleek, light-filled studio than a retro rumpus room, and its underlying strengths were revealed.
One of our greatest obstacles in this house was an overabundance of stucco. We’re not just talking stippled ceilings here, my friends, but stucco everywhere! I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again : I hate stucco on any interior surface. I spend too much time getting rid of cheap stucco finishes. So how do I suggest you smooth out your stucco? The most economical approach I’ve found so far is to skim coat with plaster. It’s painstaking and it’s dusty, but it costs less than putting up new drywall. It wasn’t me spending days smoothing out all the bumps, sanding, and dealing with the mess, but one thing I do know is that having an envelope of smooth walls makes a huge difference to the room.
Among the challenges with this home’s original space was the multi-level plan, the sloped roof lines, and the combination of materials. Somehow, you have to overcome the design discord and make all these distinct elements work together. In this case, the answer was gallons and gallons of white paint. Suddenly the brick walls brightened, the ceilings soared, the views to the garden became more engaging, and the whole room began to read as one light, bright, contemporary cocoon. A little harmony goes a long way.
My clients expressed two different design briefs: one wanted “institutional modern” while the other wanted “mid-century warmth.” My job was to marry these two agendas and the solution rested on two elements with big impact: floors and glass railings. Six hundred square feet of engineered oak floor with a limed stain introduced the natural beauty of wood grain while still maintaining the stark monochromatic palette that would deliver the minimalist look. The raised dining platform offered its own set of challenges in terms of sightline and flow between living and dining areas. A custom glass-railing system allowed the dining room to “float: in the space. While the templating and installation of the railing is custom, the railings, connectors, post and base moulding are all stock components that can be mixed and matched for best results. The choice of floor and railing were a bit of a splurge, but getting the fundamentals right is the key to success.
I wish I could show you the original wood stove. It had a log cabin on it - and just didn’t work in any way with our new direction. It had to go. In its place, we brought in a new element to redefine the room: A long, lean, gas fireplace that’s elevated to create a commanding focal point from every angle. Whether it’s walking in the front door, sitting in the living room or dining on the elevated platform, the new fireplace is on display from every angle. Slabs of marble or natural stone were way out of the budget , so I chose to clad the entire fireplace in 1- by 2-foot pieces of ocean blue limestone. Since there’s little variation in the veining, the tiles blend together and give the look of a monolith of stone to address the clients modern brief, yet the soft tonal striations running from side to side create an ocean horizon effect that’s calm and textural.
Let’s face it, once you’ve finished overhauling a huge room, the budget has all but disappeared and you’re left to figure out how make the most of what remains. But furnishings are the all important elements that you come in contact with each and every day. It’s no time to give up and throw in the towel; it’s time to aim high, and shop wisely. My best advice for furnishing a big room like this is to use the fewest number of high impact, large scale pieces to create commanding vignettes and ample seating. Forget about little bits and bobs, and opt for simple, modern, streamlined pieces that compliment the cool, quiet backdrop you’ve just created. Pick simple, natural materials and covers that can be washed and removed for easy care, and you’ll always be able to give the room a fresh look with an accent colour if the desire ever strikes.