When this house was built in 1961, the Space Needle was just a year away from its shining unveiling, and residential architects were an influential lot with a Modernist vision...
WHEN THIS house was built in 1961, the Space Needle was just a year away from its shining unveiling, and residential architects were an influential lot with a Modernist vision of clean lines and inexpensive materials used thoughtfully and simply to achieve social and domestic good. Erich Volkstorf and Laura Brodax, the current owners, share that vision and are dedicated to the Modernist “mid-century” aesthetic, which they consider sadly under-appreciated.
They searched for years to find the right house. They found their project among the trees of Innis Arden in Shoreline. And over the past two years they’ve restored and remodeled the flat-roofed residence to its 1961 Modernist apotheosis.
Volkstorf, a cinematographer, and Brodax, a tile artist, believe the house was designed by architect Bill Bain, a founder of the firm now known as NBBJ. However, apparently due to some falling-out, the house was completed in a get-it-done manner without the architect. Volkstorf and Brodax took it as their mission to “reassemble the house the way the architect would have wanted it.” To that end, the couple renovated the interior, extending the hand-troweled plaster wall surfaces and custom-milling wood to match the ceiling. They also opened up the floor plan, removing a pony wall and enlarging a dark, narrow stairwell. They added skylights and shrank the deck back to its original proportions.
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They did much of the work themselves, though also collaborated with an architect more or less of the era, Mike Soldano, whose work they admired. They did lots of research before buying, driving through neighborhoods and knocking on doors of Modernist homes, reading books and going on architectural tours.
They put an equal effort into locating appropriate fixtures, furniture and fabrics, asking shopkeepers to scour their basements and ordering from around the world via the Internet. The kitchen remodel typifies their feel for the Modernist sensibility. The original laminate countertops were fitted under the aluminum window trim, but today’s installers said it couldn’t be done. They finally found a Czech guy who nodded assent. “It was hard, careful work, but not a problem,” Volkstorf says. The kitchen appliances presented another challenge. The original oven and refrigerator were small by current standards and hard to find. But Volkstorf and Brodax stuck with the original dimensions. “We’re not the 13 Coins, we’re a family of three,” Volkstorf says. “We don’t need a huge fridge and a six-burner stovetop.”
Two Web sites that specialize in listings of Modernist homes for sale and other information are http://seattlemodern.com, and www.360modern.com.
Two books that Laura Brodax and Erich Volkstorf recommend are “Case Study Houses 1945-1962,” by Esther McCoy, and “Modernism Rediscovered,” by Pierluigi Serraino & Julius Shulman.
OK, you want to get some cool stuff. Here are a few local stores:
Chartreuse International, 2609 First Ave., 206-328-4844; Knoll, Inc., 1124 First Ave., 206-624-0174; Egbert’s, 2231 First Ave., 206-728-5682.
In a similar manner, the whole house prizes a delectable sparseness. There’s more breathing room than furniture or collectibles, but still plenty of interest. The shoebox-shaped house perches over a ravine. A curtain wall of glass, one of Modernism’s signature tropes, runs the full length of the house, open to the woodsy view of creek, trees and squirrels. “Everything is open and peaceful,” Brodax says.
White walls and blond maple floors dominate throughout the four-bedroom house, establishing a subdued color palette. But splashes of bright color, like the magenta seat covers on the dining-room chairs, and the aqua laminate downstairs, mix happy sounds among the murmurs.
Bringing in chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, a bench by Harry Bertoia and a table by Eero Saarinen, Volkstorf and Brodax made it clear they love the streamlined objects of the era. However, the couple say the best part is the way the house flows with their lives, the informal spaces flexible, generous and airy.
Mid-century Modernism may be the stepchild of the Northwest’s preservationist movement, but from Volksdorf and Brodax’s perspective, these homes, with a premium on searching but unpretentious design, remain the ideal.
David Berger is a freelance writer based in Seattle. He can be reached at email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.