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Renovating and decorating a mid-century house | Home Front

Dwight McNeill, left, and Siobhan Mueller.
Jun 29, 2017

Siobhan Mueller and her husband, Sander, hired architect Dwight McNeill of McNeill Baker Design Associates for a restoration and small addition to their quirky weekend home. The house in Virginia’s Hunt Country was a time capsule from the 1950s, with its original metal kitchen cabinets, aluminum bathroom tiles and parquet floors. Mueller, a senior vice president at Widmeyer Communications, used primarily online shopping sites and blogs to create a mid-century vibe. The getaway is featured in Local Living, read it here.

McNeill and Mueller are here to answer your questions based on their expertise — architect and owner — on how they undertook this project and how you can too.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 10 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Today's chat guests are a great team: home owner Siobhan Mueller and architect Dwight McNeill. Siobhan and her husband Sander restored and renovated a 1953 weekend house in Virginia's countryside, furnishing it with many mid-century style things they found online and creating an Ikea kitchen. The renovation was artfully designed by Dwight McNeill of McNeill Baker Design Associates in McLean. Mueller is a senior vice president at Widmeyer Communications. Read the story here. And let's chat.

Hi everyone. I'm Dwight McNeill, architect for the Mueller's getaway. I'm happy to be with you this morning.

Good Morning!  Looking forward to answering your questions! 

I live in a neighborhood dating to the 1960s. Most of the split level homes have exposed cinderblock walls on the exterior that are painted white. The cinder blocks form the wall just below the vinyl siding , but above the sloping ground. My questions are 1) why are they always painted white, 2) must they be painted white? and 3) if we choose to paint them another color, should they complement or match our siding? Thanks!

Perhaps it's customary in your community but other than that, I can think of no reason why the foundation walls must be painted white. In my practice, concrete block walls are parged with concrete to give them a stucco finish and painted. The color should compliment the siding and I like to make it the darkest color on the house. As in nature, the colors nearest the ground should be dark and the ones nearest the sky should be light.

I had a tough time visualizing a major paint change, so I used photoshop.  Some of the major paint manufacturers have features on their website and you can "play" with changing colors of houses -- even upload a pic of your own. Like Sherwin Williams. Also, I have found that community members on sites like Houzz can be super helpful and offer guidance, such as in this case.  I also would do google image searches for inspiration (and comfort). My mother-in-law lived in a split foyer in Arlington for 50 years. It was white. For 50 years. Be brave, go for it!

The house is beautiful! How did you come to install an Ikea kitchen in an MCM house?

Aww, thanks! #laboroflove

For the kitchen, I fell for sleek and clean, like Poggenpohl. I found out what a Poggenpohl kitchen was going to cost, and fell over. Enter IKEA.  I was truly impressed with the style, features, options, and customer service. (Just don't go on a weekend.) I had concerns about quality, but joined IKEA kitchen hackers online forums and learned a ton. We love them and they were an incredible value.  Best decision. The original kitchen had white cabinetry and the silver aluminum wall tiles -- so I really wanted to stick with that color scheme. 


Hi - any advice on refacing kitchen cabinets vs painting? Wondering about durability. Thanks!

I'm not sure what you mean about re-facing but it's often cost effective to preserve the cabinets and replace the doors themselves with new ones. This is especially good if you're looking to upgrade the look. I prefer painted cabinets. I have them at home: dark blue base cabinets and white ones above. Of course, it's always best for wear and tear if you can get the paint factory-applied.

The lighting in the house is really cool. What are your sources?

Thanks!  The lights over the dining room table are Poulsens and we purchased them from Design Within Reach. (A splurge.) The yellow bedroom lamps are from, The large arch lamp was Crate and Barrel, the reading lamp in the master bedroom was from Urban Outfitters, and a few others were picked up in places like Home Goods, or Target. Sometimes a new (bigger/color/different shape) can fix a lamp. I posted most "contenders" here and you'll see a few from the house. 


My husband & I own a home in Florida and spend several months there. When we're up here in Maryland, we have a home watch company who checks in on our house every so often and looks at all the utilities, the appliances, the heat and air conditioning, the yard, etc, and sends us a full report. We'd love to find someone up here to do the same when we're in Florida, but we've been unable to find anyone. Are there no home watch companies here? No, I do not mean security like ADT.

I'm throwing this one out to our fellow chatters. Do you know of a company that does this?

I have a really hard time ordering furniture and other large items online if I haven't been able to see it in person first. If I hate it, then come the trouble of returning it, possible re-stocking fees, etc. Too many times, I've found something I love online, only to be disappointed in it in real life. How did your online shopping go and what advice do you have, especially for gauging quality?

The honest answer's kind of scary. You are right, it's not like an ill-fitting pair of pants you can drop off at UPS. We did a lot of research, read reviews (reviews are usually honest and fairly helpful), and once went to sit in a chair similar to our orange dining room chairs for a "butt test." Advice: Measure. A bunch. Use tape on the floor for where the piece will go. Scale can be tough when buying online and how many times do you get something and think, "I thought it would be bigger." We got lucky.  Everything was great. We had a few missing parts for chairs (that were requested and sent) and a broken piece on a lamp (that I fixed), but overall good research pays off.

My daughter just bought a house (yay!) with real-estate beige walls and carpet (boo!). Her couch, unfortunately, is grey. Neither replacing the couch nor repainting is in the cards right now. Is there any way to marry these two neutrals? Maybe curtains in a color that plays well with both?

Throw pillows! I just spent a few days at The Parker in Palm Springs, MCM Mecca. The place was decorated by Jonathan Adler who used a ton of funky textiles for throw pillows. 

Where did you order the orange dining room chairs from and are they comfortable?

Hi!  The orange chairs are from Kardiel, as are a few other pieces. Kardiel does really great, high quality reproductions of famous and classic pieces.  Still a bit pricey, but not totally crazy. They also have great customer services, sent us fabric samples, and delivery was on time and in the house. As for comfort? Scale of 1-10 about a 7.  They are molded plastic, but fairly ergonomic.  If you google: Eames Molded Plastic you'll see that lots of folks produce similar products. They come with both wood dowel legs and metal legs. 

Wow—fun project and a big diversion for you, Dwight. We loved your former Morris-Day design work in Franklin Park / Arlington / McLean; it was much more shingle-style and arts & crafts-ish. What made you take on a completely different style? Will we see more of it? And more work out in the rural Piedmont?

Thanks for the shout out for the Morris-Day homes. I'm gratified they are still loved by so many people. Gratified too that after almost 20 years in some cases, I've had a chance to revisit some of those house with new additions and renovations. As for this house, the plan is very traditional (Virginia's Stratford Hall comes to mind as a possible inspiration) and there were many period things about it that were worthy of honoring and preserving. Context is everything for me and while this house is in the middle of the woods, the historical context was very strong. I love doing work in the Piedmont. My husband and I have a weekend house in nearby Orlean so I'm no stranger to mixing business and pleasure - which in this case, it was hard to tell the difference!

Hello! I have two questions: (1) How did you become an architect? I am currently a lawyer but hate my job. I love everything design and especially architecture. Do I need to go back to school or is there a way to become involved? I'm not quite brave enough to quit my day job but would love to see if I can somehow get into the business. (2) I'm looking for a townhouse in Philadelphia. The layout is pretty much the same in many of the townhouses and am looking to find a fixer upper. How can you "update" the look? While I love midcentury and modern/simple houses, I also don't want to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to completely change the look. I'm always torn as to how to update while keeping it stylish and not too expensive. Is it worth it do you think to hire an architect for these kinds of renovation projects?

I've never wanted to be anything other than an architect. Family vacations to such diverse destinations as Jefferson's Monticello and Montreal's Expo 67 sealed the deal. I know some very talented amateur architects but to become licensed, an educations is required - as well as an apprenticeship! Of course there are other ways to have a design career that don't require the rigorous prep required for an architect - although none pay better than being a lawyer. Whatever you do, follow your passion!

Can you recommend sources (other than Ikea) for corded wall-mounted lamps? I don't have time to install a hardwired lamp at this point.

Try trendy sites that market to younger apartment-dwellers who are unable to hardwire and like to take stuff with them. I think this is kind of cool. Very raw space but pairs with their shades. They also have the wall sconces. (Urban Outfitters overall has pretty cool lighting.) I'd give Anthroplogie a look as well. 

Hi - We recently purchased a mid-century modern home that is in wonderful condition, so we don't need to do a lot of work on the house, but we're having trouble figuring out where to start decorating. We’ve been looking online for design ideas, but some of them are too quirky or expensive. Could you have us suggestions on where to start looking for mid-century pieces in the DC area? We want to upgrade from ikea but can’t afford to purchase a lot of pieces right now. What sites do you think are the best for suggestions online? I get overwhelmed scrolling through the thousands of pictures available online.

1) Yay! 2) I totally feel you on the "where to start." I found great pieces on Craig's List and KRRB. You can also troll Goodwill and Salvation Army but honestly -- as MCM gets a bit trendy, those pieces are becoming more rare and more valuable. Like these Kipp Stuart pieces on First Dibs. Gorgeous, but a little rich for my blood. Can you believe this piece in this kids room was from Walmart? (Shh.. don't tell anyone.) Target is also selling it right now with their Threshold line. And as for IKEA, I love the sites that sell the add-ons, tapered legs, Hair pin legs -- things that make it look LESS IKEA.  That + paint = something unique and special. 

What endeared you to that particular area and house the most? What were the biggest renovation challenges?

My husband Sander is a Virginia native, and we love the space of the countryside. Friends of ours have, over the years, "country homes" and we loved visiting them. It took us about five years of slow, but consistent looking to find this. As for the challenges? There were plenty of surprises, which you will always get in an older home, but we had a great builder: Jonathan Caron of Warrenton, who was creative, a great communicator, and used an awesome software called Co-Construct to keep us all on track, on budget, and on schedule. Replacing the paneling in the great room, with paneling from the bedroom was a bear.  Quite a bit of it was water damaged, and fell apart when removed. The restoration of the paneling was very important to us. As Tim Gunn says "Make it Work!"

I have two 'super standard pillows' - they are 20x28 - standard is 20x26. I am having the worst time finding shams for them - or even pillowcases! Where do you suggest?

Try Etsy. There are lots of people who, if you shoot them a note, may be able to make you one based on these measurements. I did many of my throw pillows through Etsy and have been very happy. They have lots of fabric choices as well!

Was there a particular reason you couldn't keep the original wall tiles, and maybe even the cabinets? They sound interesting. How do you decide whether to keep or replace if you are still going for the look of the same decade?

The original kitchen was designed for an un-seen cook who prepared meals in near darkness in a very cramped space. The original owner probably never saw the kitchen! We live differently now and the kitchen had to be greatly enlarged. In homage to the original, the color scheme was maintained with a small section of the original aluminum tiles used behind the bar.

Oh.. I wanted to. I really did.  I did a great deal of research into how to strip and paint (sand blast or bead blast) or how to repaint with a sturdy steel coating, but honestly -- it was one long piece, that was pretty roughed up from years of use, and making it work in a new space was going to be a huge challenge. I made sure I was absent the day they were taken out. :-(

You had me at "aluminum bathroom tiles." How prevalent were they back in the day, and are they readily available today? Did you have to search those out for replacements?

A quick internet search turns up a few sources for "aluminum tiles." We choice to preserve and reuse the existing because we knew the size and patina would all match. We did have to be very clever about marrying new, contrasting tile to the existing in the new shower, but an excellent contractor, Jonathan Caron Construction, made it happen! 

Why did you decide to keep the paneling as is and not paint it or restain it?

Painting never even crossed our minds, as the paneling is such an important and powerful part of the design.  Right now white and bright is very popular, with a lot of original woodwork getting painted. Just keep in mind, some day, if anyone wants the wood back, stripping it is a beast. (I used to refinish furniture. Doing walls? NopeNope.)

I just bought a small (770 sq ft) SFH built in 1950. The kitchen has been renovated, but that's it. I'm a little overwhelmed. Any overarching tips or ideas that will help keep me anchored as I move from project to project? I want the house to feel cohesive, welcoming, and timeless. (Btw - thanks for the tips on how to decorate on a budget!)

Congratulations!  For starters. I'm not an Interior designer. I'm more like an Internet Designer.  I scroll and troll and find things I love and Pin them to boards. Sometimes they are crazy expensive, so I search for similar things I can afford. Pro Tip: If you find a pic of something you love, without much source info, do a reverse google image search. It will find everyplace that picture shows up on the Internet, and often shows you things very similar. I also read lots of DIY blogs that encourage me to think, "I can do that!" (Pin it, keep track of it. Come back to it.) What kept me anchored, literally and figuratively was the huge Moroccan shag rug in the great room. I knew I had to have it, and I got it, and then built around it. Surround yourself with things that make you happy and inspire you. I love thing was are special, and have stories.   Good luck!

We live in an area with a lot of 50's and 60's generic-ish ranch houses, and as the new Midcentury-loving generation moves in, we see a lot of houses that are just crammed with period accessories (and replicas). I applaud your restraint in not filling every possible inch with *stuff* -- and I'm hoping my wife will one day agree.

Good luck. Our Arlington home, which we have been in for 20 years, is crammed, lacks storage, and I tend to want to save everything my kids draw or have ever worn. (Don't be me.) Also...while we like to keep the house light, bright and spare, don't be fooled. I swept everything on the kitchen counters into a laundry basket and threw it in a closet. I still haven't found the dog treats. (Honesty in Web Chatting.) 

There is probably a rental-management company in your area that offers this kind of service for people who come down in the winter. You want someone who is accustomed to managing single-family homes, as opposed to a serious multi-dwelling complex manager. The advantage is that they probably also have a network of contractors who can do whatever might need doing while you're away (like weird emergency plumbing or whatever) and can be trusted to show up.

Yes. We are hoping to get some names.

Is that original to the home? What a great creative feature.

Yes!  We didn't touch a thing. He had all of it hand-carved!  I noted in an earlier answer that Uncle Buddy's niece gave us amazing pics of the house just after it was built. He had his favorite opera singer in the frame over the fireplace. (We did a mirror.) I love having these little peeks into the past. 

In have a MCM dinette set that features four Italian black ladderback chairs with rush seats (original) in the style of Gio Ponte, which my late uncle bought new when he was a young, single Mad Man living in NYC. They've been in constant use and are a little beat up. I'm wondering if there is a point when you retire a lovely vintage piece to keep it from damage, especially a heavy use item like a chair. I feel a little guilty when I let people sit in them. Will these lovely chairs hold up for another 60 years, especially since the legs are somewhat slim?

Ooooh. Those sound amazing.  I might take them into a specialist for a little love and repair and then yes -- place them in a quiet place, like around a small table, or in a bedroom, so they can retire happily.  All it takes is one friend, with too many drinks in him to lean back, laugh or rock in that chair and it's all over. (I speak from real experience.)

For us Boomers, mid-century design is what we grew up with - faux Danish and starburst mirrors. Any ideas how to incorporate just a bit of mid-century design without giving me Leave it to Beaver flashbacks?

I hear that.  I group in the late 70s/80s and have orange Daisy kitchen wall paper flashbacks. No matter how much I see wall paper I love in fancy settings, all I can think of is stripping and scraping and crying.  And plaid couches? Do we EVER think those will make a comeback? We incorporated the fun, more iconic pieces into the house without being kitschy or stagey. (The couches are Crate and Barrel and pretty standard.) I love modern, but I also love comfortable and welcoming, and not empty glass box living. (sorry Philip Johnson) 

You two seem to have clicked. I haven't had that luck. How did you—how does one—find a sensitive and compatible architect?

Easy. Call me. But seriously, Siobhan, Sander & I have been neighbors and friends for many years. I worked with them on an addition to their Arlington house previously (actually I kind of hijacked the project) and have been along for the ride on most of the in and outs of finding a weekend country place. But to answer your question, if you see a house you like, find out who the architect is and give them a call. Architects offer a very personalized service and building a house is probably the most money you'll ever spend on yourself, it's important that you and your architect get along. Good luck!

I would like to know more about Siobhan's experience with Rit dye...

My hands and feet were yellow for days. People were asking about my bilirubin levels. 

I have a 1950s home that has red brickwork on one side of the front door and wraps around the one side of the house about 3 feet. There is no other brickwork around the house. It looks lopsided to me and I want to paint it the color of the house (white). Do you have suggestions on painting brick?

I love painted brick, and when creating a exterior color palette for a house, I like a assign a color to every material. In your case, I'd make the brick color a tiny bit darker so that it contrasts with the white, minimizing the "lopsided" effect and maintaining the texture.

I love the looks of ikea kitchens but am worried about durability and practical every day use. I have lived in two or three apartments now that have ikea kitchens and I feel like it's very wobbly and not stable. Do you have this experience or do you think it's just the way they were installed?

I think IKEA has greatly improved their quality over the past few years. In many of the forums, people suggested resources for purchasing the IKEA base boxes, and having custom cabinet fronts created for them -- even linking to the manufacturers who specialize in such services. (And the pictures were of stunning, incredibly high-end kitchens.) Their point was, who cares what's inside? It's all the same, and works the same.  We had professionals help install -- which was worth every penny.  I watched in complete awe at how quickly and easily everything came together. While we are not there every day, and it isn't suffering the sheer use and abuse of our Brookhaven cherry cabinets in our Arlington kitchen, I have been very impressed at the quality and value for the price.  People can't believe they are IKEA. 

I may have missed this in the story but how many owners have there been? It sounds like the Mueller family and Dwight talked to relatives of the original owner, but I wonder if previous owners (if there were many) diddled with the original design.

Hi!  There have only been a handful (two), and the house was untouched.  Everything was original. We even found a wood palette of the aluminum tiles and mint green tiles in the laundry room, leftover from construction 70 years prior.  The family we bought it from (truly lovely couple) even kept the blue prints! And yes, we met Uncle Buddy's niece through local friends and she had amazing stories. She was the one who gave us the extra hand carved pieces for the window surround and fireplace, and she was the one who gifted to me the bright red Kimono that Uncle Buddy wore while entertaining, and the photos of him from the 50s wearing it at parties.  (Hi G!) It was like bringing a piece of him back to the house.  

There was only one other owner between Uncle Buddy and the Muellers and they did a great job of maintaining the house in its original condition. Unfortunately, they didn't replace the roof before the red gum paneling became water damaged but that's another story. Thanks to relatives and a local architect that maintained Washington Reed's original drawings, we had plenty of information to inform the new work.

Loved knowing more about your project and how you worked together. Thanks for being on the chat. We'll be taking a break next week so the next chat will be on Thursday July 13 and our chat guest will be Haskell Harris, Style Director of Garden & Gun magazine. Bye all. Happy Fourth.

Thanks everyone. This was fun. And as Uncle Buddy might've said, "Cheers!"

Thank you everyone for your questions!  I have never typed so fast in my life. Good luck to all of you embarking on new projects, renovations and redesigns. May you find everything you love, for a good price, and may it work in the space! 

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

• Home Q&A archive • Find Jura on Pinterest
Siobhan Mueller
Siobhan Mueller is a senior vice president at Widmeyer Communications. She found a new love for mid-century modern architecture and furniture with the purchase of her home in Amissville, Va.
Dwight McNeill
Architect Dwight McNeill co-founded McNeill Baker Design Associates in 2013. He specializes in custom residential design.
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