Mid-century masterpiece

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Amy Serre liked her living room sofa from the moment she laid eyes on it. With its clean lines and low profile, it was a picture-perfect piece of mid-century-modern furniture. Indeed, it had been sitting in the Worthington ranch she was thinking of buying since the middle of last century. And upon closer inspection, the decades-old couch was smelly and -- yes -- moldy.

"But we thought, oh my God, it looks so great in here!" Serre said. "Can it be part of the deal?"

The sofa's flaws weren't anything that couldn't be fixed by Fortner, Inc., the company that reupholstered and refreshed what is now the centerpiece of Serre's mid-century living room.

In a way, the whole house was like that sofa. From a distance, the ranch was an ideal '50s specimen, well-loved by the one family who'd lived there since it was built. But it also had a cotton-candy pink kitchen that was too cramped for even two people, and an unnecessary aqua sewing room with a fold-down ironing board. Luckily, a few intelligent upgrades -- like an airy kitchen and sleek bathrooms -- easily brought it into this century.

When they first found this place, Serre and her longtime boyfriend, Zeke Shaffer, were living in the second of two 1800s-era German Village homes they'd renovated.

"We had always said, 'Someday it'd be fun to redo a '50s ranch,' " Serre said.

Architect Tim Armstrong designed and built the ranch for himself and his family. He lived there with his wife and two daughters for decades, and after he died, his wife continued to live there until she was in her eighties.

"Everything in the house -- the kitchen, the laundry, the baths, the wallpaper -- was original to 1955," Serre said. "If you were looking for a vintage, original 1950s house, this was it."

The architect was an obvious fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, and his varying ceiling heights echo Wright's style. Many of the details, like can lights and a built-in double wall oven, were quite innovative when the house was built.

For the first year they lived there, Shaffer and Serre got to know the house and its quirks as they worked out their renovation plans. The small, U-shaped kitchen was the first challenge, as it was a tight squeeze for two people who enjoy cooking together. Their biggest project, then, was merging that claustrophobic area with the adjacent sewing room by knocking down a wall. They replaced the linoleum floors with four-inch planks of white oak, expanded the original doorway and added an island.

A library was transformed into a combination half-bath and laundry room. The couple uses one of the three bedrooms as a guest room and repurposed the other as a sitting room. Both existing bathrooms received vast makeovers, with streamlined fixtures, an earthy color scheme and new windows to welcome light.

In decorating the space, Serre, a minimalist, didn't want things to be too theme-y. But she has tried to work at least one 1950s item into each room. The two club chairs in the living room are vintage Paul McCobb from the '50s, ordered online. And the master bedroom boasts a paper and bamboo light fixture by Isamu Noguchi, a famed mid-century artist.

"We tried to do a little of that without being overly into that," Serre said.

Their dining table, another mid-century relic, was a more random acquisition. Shaffer spotted the sculptural wire base while on a business trip: It was sitting in the back of a pickup truck, covered in mud. He asked the driver how much he could give him for the table, and the guy, who was planning on taking it to his farm to use as a trash can, gave it to him for $20.

"I was telling my girlfriend about it," Serre said, "and she said, 'I think you have an original Warren Platner table.' " Platner's circular steel tables are considered a modern design icon.

Outside, a guest cottage once used as an art studio has been transformed into a home office for Shaffer and Serre's business, a marketing firm that represents food manufacturers.

It's been a big plus for the work-from-home couple: "You don't have to clean up the papers every night," Shaffer said.

At 2,600 square feet, the house is modest by today's standards (though after their smaller German Village homes, "it's like a mansion," Shaffer said). Yet they stayed true to a desire to keep the home's original footprint intact.

"We were trying to be sensitive to what the original owners were trying to accomplish," Shaffer said, "just bringing it into the 21st century."