Playing the Mods: Mid-century modernism reflected in LV homes

Tue, Apr 20, 2004 (8:45 a.m.)

Ask most any fan of mid-century modernism why he or she enjoys the ultra-cool look and lifestyle from the '50s and '60s, and the answer is usually the same. The optimism.

"Everything had an optimistic feel to it and that's so attractive," said Mary-Margaret Stratton. "The clothing, the music, the furniture, the objects, the kitchenware they all express that optimism to me."

That optimism was an outgrowth of World War II. The United States was established as a superpower. The post-World War II economy was booming. And other than the looming threat of nuclear annihilation by the Reds, life was pretty, well, swell.

Naturally the fashion, style and art of the times mirrored the feeling that anything is possible, especially when looking to the future.

From the clean, simple lines of the architecture to the bright, bold colors of the art, mid-century modernism emerged as the adventurous new aesthetic to match the can-do spirit of the time.

It was all part of that "great, big beautiful tomorrow," as Walt Disney said at the 1964-'65 World's Fair in New York.

Five decades later, however, the world is still waiting for that promise to come true.

There are no rocket cars or robot servants. The minimalistic approach has been replaced by cookie-cutter boring or eye-gouging obnoxious. And the color palette has changed from bright and bold to generic tans and whites at least in Las Vegas.

The end result? Corporate homogeneity has replaced the stylized imagination of individuality.

But not for all Las Vegans. True to form of the era's optimism, many in Las Vegas cling to the old ways and are confident of their return.

El Ranchito

Stratton could easily be defined as old school.

Really old school.

The kind where courses on Rat Pack hip and Elvis chic go hand in hand with classes on mid-century modern architecture and fashion design.

Her 1957 house in the south end of the Huntridge area has been refurbished to its mid-century modern glory, with a dash of '50s Las Vegas kitsch thrown in.

The walls are white, peach and green. There's a small bar with leopard-skin prints covering the vinyl on the rim and matching stools in the lounge. One bathroom has a pink flamingo vibe, while the other is devoted to Elvis.

There are gold-sequined fabric curtains covering a dining room wall, and bright sparkles on the ceiling.

Her decor is a mix of '50s and '60s original furniture and recreations, including butterfly and bertoia chairs, floating shelves, case study day beds, faux furry rugs, a Chenille bedspread and retro light fixtures and lamps.

There's also a Rat Pack altar in the living room.

Oh, and the outside of the home is themed to match the sea-foam green and bright white colors of the El Rancho Vegas, the first casino on the Strip in 1941.

The 39-year-old Los Angeles native, however, is quick to dismiss notions that she's all retro.

"I don't want to get pegged that it's all about the past, because it isn't," Stratton said. "It's about what's good."

What's "good" to Stratton are the looks, styles and fashions of mid-century modern.

"I'm a designer and I like good design. Whether it's old or a new, I don't care as long as it's a good design," said the freelance art director, Web designer and writer.

"The style of things from (the mid-century modern) tend to be of a higher quality than from this era."

The modern look of her '50s home is what attracted Stratton to it last summer.

After moving in in July, she quickly began the renovation work, ripping up old carpet and restoring the natural hardwood floors, knocking out walls and painting all the walls, some in retro colors such as avocado green.

Her love of '50s and '60s culture, however, didn't happen overnight. It was a gradual evolution.

Stratton first took notice of the "mid-mod" era (as she calls it) in the mid-1980s, when she bought one of her first cars, a '63 Falcon Futura convertible.

Several years later Stratton began investing in other retro artifacts.

Her first piece of furniture was a glass coffee table she bought for $15 from the Salvation Army. She keeps the table in her San Fernando, Calif., home, which was also built during the mid-mod era, with a U-shaped design and lots of large windows to allow plenty of light.

Since buying the coffee table she's found many items at stores, flea markets -- even on the streets and alleys after they had been discarded by the owner.

"You have to be more creative, maybe a little more discerning and maybe a little more willing to put elbow grease into something," Stratton said of collecting mid-century modernism pieces.

She also frequents Wal-Mart and Target for period pieces as well. In fact, the yellow, green and peach colors of her kitchen were inspired by a Target dish towel.

"Target and Wal-Mart are amazing places. Even places like Lowe's and Home Depot," Stratton said.

Ultra-Lounge

Bill and Pat Benham, 46 and 49, respectively, have lived the retro life for a decade.

Their first house near Atlanta was built in 1863, and they spent years restoring the home to its original Victorian look.

Except for the kitchen.

With appliances from the '50s already in place, the couple went for a mid-century modern look for the kitchen and began collecting pieces from the era five years ago.

And that's when they got hooked.

After deciding to relocate to Las Vegas, the Benhams had one qualification: the house must be mid-century modern.

After some research on the Internet, Bill located the development behind Boulevard mall, where the homes were uniformly built in the early '60s.

Three years ago the Benhams moved into their 1963 home, buying it from the original owners.

Then the real work began. Painting. Ripping up carpet. Scouring flea markets for furniture and, in many cases, restoring the pieces they bought.

They even hired a floor company to create a very retro terrazzo floor for the kitchen, which was created by painting the concrete foundation gray, covering it with bits of colored paper and applying a varnish finish.

It's been an arduous process, but the results have been worth it, they said.

"When people come over for the first time, we get the same reaction, 'Wow, I'm back in time.' And I guess that's the idea," Pat said. "But we're just used to it. This is us. This is Pat and Bill."

Especially the "green room," a makeshift atrium with bamboo on the walls, an avocado green chair, a multicolored tile coffee table Pat made and a frog pond fountain from the '60s that Pat convinced a neighbor to give them.

Almost everything in their home is authentic, from the astro-style drinking glasses and pink pots and pans to the gold day bed and mod-style lamps and clocks on the wall.

The most up-to-date item in the home is a widescreen, high-definition plasma screen TV in the living room. Given that flatscreen TVs were all part of the future as promised by "The Jetsons," the TV goes perfectly alongside a mid-century modern table and lamp.

While the couple prefers to stay at home and enjoy their modern surroundings, when they do go out they often dress in the styles of the time. They're also in the process of renovating a 1978 Argosy motor home, complete with white leather chairs, blue shag carpeting and orange and astro-style curtains.

Eventually the couple wants to build a Styrofoam home they can design and mold to create their ultimate mid-century modern home.

"It was an era when everyone was optimistic about the future. I think people (today) are disillusioned ... and are at that point where they want to feel different. And I think (mid-century modernism) feels good."

Mod look

Whether as a statement of individualism or a wish for the simpler times, mid-century modern is becoming popular again, decades after it fell out of fashion.

"Most of the designers nowadays are just copying and reproducing old trends from the '50s and '60s and bringing them back," said Mario D'Loe, owner of House of Style, 220 E. Charleston Blvd., a vintage clothing and accessories store.

"Myself, as a designer, I've always liked the '50s post war. That period of time up to the late '60s are some of my favorite designs and designers."

D'Loe said he appreciates the form fit of the styles of the time, such as tailored shirts with coats for men and women's dresses with small waistbands and flared skirts.

"They were more like an architect for the body," he said. "They tried to make the women more feminine and the men more masculine."

Even more noticeable than the fit, though, are the use of colors and material: space-age metallic fabrics in gold and silver, copper belts and large silver purses; dark green beaded dresses; red, black and white checker-board outfits with matching gloves, purse and hat; and the wild mixes of oranges, greens, grays and Earth tones -- often on the same outfit.

"Everything is like you're going to the moon," D'Loe said.

It's also his most popular style of clothing.

"People want to be different," he said. "I remember going to vintage stores when I was younger because I wanted to be different than everyone else. I see kids doing the same thing now. They want to get away from the Gap. And I think that's important. Being different is cool."

Retro TV

Markus Rothkranz has seen the future of Las Vegas.

And it's steeped in the past.

An Elvis look-alike private eye, with a turbine car. Ultra-cool lounge music blasting out of space-age record players. Mind-control beams. UFOs. Flying cars.

It's all part of Rothkranz's retro-future-themed TV show, "Atomic City," a "Get Smart" meets "The Jetsons" meets "Bewitched" quirky comedy.

The show is set in 2025 Las Vegas, and centers on the exploits of Stan Velvet, P.I., a blond-bombshell rocket scientist with partial amnesia, and secret government test labs hidden throughout the Nevada desert.

Throw in some government agents in black suits, mad scientists, experimental weapons and ... well, you get the idea.

"It's a show for everybody," Rothkranz promises. "It's got that magical '60s charm."

It's also the future that many in the '60s dreamed about.

"We were reaching for the stars," he said. "We had a little bit of fear because of the Cold War. But at the same time, we had a fascination about what was possible. Are we going to have flying cars? Are we going have robots for us? People thought that was going to happen.

"Of course, it never did happen. But wouldn't it be cool if it did?"

Which is the entire premise behind "Atomic City." It did happen.

Rothkranz even backs up that idea by saying that he researched all top-secret government weapons and gadgets featured in the show, and that they did exist.

It's just most of them didn't work, such as the mind-control ray.

Now, he said, "we have the technology to do almost anything we dreamed up back then. So, 20 years from now, if we wanted to, we could create that fantasy world.

"What I'm offering on this TV show is, wouldn't it be cool if ..."

Rothkranz has filmed much of the pilot, which he also wrote and directed, and says he has several interested investors in the show, especially in Japan, where the bright colors and sci-fi plot rival much of the country's popular programming.

His five-year project got a boost in September when he showed the promotion clip for "Atomic City" at the Brenden Theatres Las Vegas 14 at the Palms, and again in January at the National Association of Television Program Executives at the Sands Expo Center.

"It's as far as you can get from reality," Rothkranz said. "And that's why it's going to be a big hit."

Plus, "I think people like that period for the reason people like James Bond, 'The Jetsons' and 'Get Smart.' It was a simpler life. But an optimistic simpler life."

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