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MODERNIZING THE PRESENT BY HONORING THE PAST by Carla Labianca

Insights from local professionals on doing right by our homes


Every home has a story. And around South Orange and Maplewood, those stories are as varied as the families who inhabit them. Drive down any road in our towns and you will see home styles as diverse as the SOMA community. From Robert Shoppell’s Shingle Style Victorians to the 1920s Sears Kits to Milton Klein’s Mid-century Modern masterpieces, each is a distinctive work of art. Our appreciation for them is one of our many commonalities.

The furnishings in this living room lean modern but they work seamlessly with the original wainscoting and trim found throughout the home. Modern elements tone down period details making them feel less formal and more appealing to the way we live today. Photo credit: Sarah Gee

As their stewards, we repair, renovate and decorate them. We live and love in them. Renovating our homes isn’t about restoring them to their original grandeur, but maximizing their historical attributes within our budgets and desire for modern conveniences.


Matters Magazine asked a handful of SOMA’s talented architects, interior designers and stylists to provide their insights earned through challenges posed by their clients or their own experiences. Functionality and designing for togetherness are the common threads.


Epic Proportions


When it comes to transforming a house into a balanced and cohesive home, Sarah Gee, of Sarah Gee Interiors, stresses curating your surroundings with pieces that reflect your family’s personality and connect your past and present. Rather than decorating for decorating’s sake, choices should be intentional.


With their carefully thought out proportions and signature features, such as molding and inlaid hard wood floors, SOMA’s homes lend themselves perfectly to curation. Juxtaposing original elements with modern choices adds character and depth.


According to Sarah, “This can be done in simple ways: matching any new moldings with the existing, keeping consistent ceiling heights, and layering different styles of furnishings so that the decor doesn’t feel ‘one-note.’ When the bones of a home feel right, our modern lives can seamlessly blend with the more traditional elements of these older homes.”


Sarah believes that modern furnishings and elements work seamlessly with period details, toning them down and making them less formal and more appealing to modern lifestyles.


What Are Four Walls, Anyway?


On average, tri-state homeowners live in their home for 10 years, time for a whole host of life events from the mundane to the extraordinary. Our greatest witness to our episodic lives, to our evolution, is the home in which it all takes place. So it is unsurprising that at some point we choose to turn our attention to renovating it.

The eclectic mix of mid-century furniture, modern art, vintage accessories, and antique Persian rug in this Maplewood home complements rather than competes with the original wood mantle, ribbon inlay floor and crown molding. Photo credit: Sarah Gee

All that living informs what we need those renovations to accomplish. Marvin and René Clawson of Clawson Architects called their 1927 Maplewood Craftsman home for over 20 years before embarking on their renovation. Oh sure, they mused over it, studied its DNA; they are AIA award-winning architects, after all. But between three children and work (they reimagined or designed over 300 homes in SOMA during that time) renovating their home took a back seat. A classic case of the cobbler’s children going barefoot.


Originally designed for Irvington’s school superintendent, their home had not been touched and that worked to their advantage. The specific enhancements they chose for the house are a testament to their willingness to get comfortable in the existing space as they found it, before determining how to mold it to their family’s needs.


Maintaining their home’s existing character and its context within the neighborhood were paramount to the Clawsons (that and convincing their children that the kitchen backsplash would actually look great!).


Explains René, “The addition and alterations are more than just a box on the back. They are thoughtfully integrated, making it a challenge to determine what spaces are original to the home and what spaces are new. This was achieved by integrating doors, hardware and decorative lighting from the original home, as well as salvaged and reclaimed items to blend the new with the old.” Marvin adds that “the exterior details, including the deep eaves, exposed rafters, paneling and gable battens, were created to match details on the original house and Craftsman homes of its vintage.”


Define Open Concept


A New York Times contributor recently interviewed on NPR about HGTV’s 25th anniversary opined that “the reason that they are so big on open concept is because it gets the male viewers....Guys like to watch sledgehammers taking out walls; it’s for TV. It’s not for, like, what’s [in] the best interests of the house, necessarily.”

“Open space is nice when there’s flow with designated areas,” says Hanh Truong of Style by Hanh. Photo credit: Hanh Truong

Free-flowing is a phrase commonly used to describe open concept living, a wildly popular floor plan. That sounds lovely and, in some instances, it can be. “Open space is nice when there’s flow with designated areas,” says Hanh Truong of Style by Hanh. “I have seen homes lose their walls without proper thought and planning which can become an awkward space to live in.” The goal of a home renovation is to create comfort, not to introduce lifestyle challenges – such as no walls to hang art, the echo of clanging pots and pans in the kitchen that compete with the TV in the living room, and the clutter that seems to mushroom without borders to contain it.


Hanh believes that sometimes design calls for openings to be closed to create better use of space. Although counterintuitive, too many openings inhibit flow. Hanh described a kitchen she designed that had two openings and an exterior door. By closing up one wall she added a floor-to-ceiling pantry and an island, creating functional space.


Revising the Narrative


We should seek to preserve our homes’ uniqueness and respect the architects and artisans who imagined and created them, while we re-imagine them to accommodate twenty-first century sensibilities. Julie and Darren China, the duo behind the architecture and design firm Idea Space, are well versed in the art of honoring the past while adding contemporary style. “We incorporate modern elements into classic 1920s or Victorian homes,” Julie says. “It’s all about marrying the historical aspects of the home with new elements that feel modern and fresh.”


The addition of glass doors to the rear yard introduces natural light to the space providing an open, airy feel. Photo credit: Raquel Langworthy

The ordinary functions of daily home life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries compartmentalized rooms in ways that restrict the flow our families seek today. The advent of TV and handheld devices, the need for home offices and our desire to be in the action have all changed the way we need our homes to function. Within the context of the existing home, the Chinas’ objective is to create connected spaces that provide a greater sense of interaction.


It is possible to respect thoughtful craftsmanship while addressing the aspects of homes that don’t accommodate modern living. Darren says, “So many of us have moved to SOMA because of the character and inherent soul of our homes and the detailing of these houses. Manipulating that character and furthering the story line of a turn-of-the-century house while creating a modern sensibility is feasible without losing the soul.”


The Chinas know how to create intimate spaces that beam with sunlight and entice movement while retaining the home’s aethestic. For a turn-of-the-century home, rather than a fully open floor plan, cased openings can delineate rooms with elegance. In a mid-century modern, incorporating design elements, like a bookcase that forms a room divider, elucidates how function can be beautiful.


Our homes are as beautiful and unique as the families that inhabit them. With careful thought and the help of skillful architects, designers, and tradespeople, we can marry the forms of the past with the functions of today.


A founder and producer of the annual Resource Home Show for homeowners and home-improvement professionals, now in its third year, Carla Labianca is also one half of Danbrot+Labianca Partnership, associated with Coldwell Banker Realty Maplewood. You may read more of her writings on the home at her blog, Inhabit Your Home.