Kara Vallow’s Bicentennial Chic kitchen: That’s what it’s all about!

“I am just not a cocktail chic girl,
nor am I a spare and stark Dwell dweller at heart.
I’m more hokey pokey than Swingers,
and I find perverse comfort and nostalgia
in the anachronistic, 1960’s does 1780’s design style…..”

vintage kitchenPut your whole self in and prepare to shake it all about: Today — a great big, happy hudee look inside the remodeled kitchen of Kara Vallow, a producer, animator, artist and writer known for her work on “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” among others. In cahoots with her sister, production designer Kristen Vallow, Kara channeled warm fuzzies from their 1970s childhood in Philadelphia — epicenter of America’s Bicentennial fever — to design a kitchen that captures the vibe without overdosing on the kitsch. We’ve written about this design look before. We called it Bicentennial Chic. Kara and Kristen call it “revolutionary style.” Whether it’s your style or not, you sure gotta call it imaginative — and fun! Lotsa photos, taken by Mark Douglas, styled by Kristen Vallow –>

knotty pine

Growing up in the 70s: Kara soaking up the vibe in “ratty Poconos” summer cabin decked out with knotty pine paneling and fauxlonial furniture.

Cultivating “the coziness of the 20th century’s loose interpretations of the colonial style”

Kara writes:

If you were born in the 60’s or 70’s there’s a high probability that you grew up, like I did, with some Early American stylings; maybe a shiny unpainted “reproduction” maple kitchen set from Ethan Allen, or a hokey set of bicentennial themed curtains. I grew up in an authentic, 1960’s “colonial.” But, my mother’s personal style skewed modern, and she forewent Ethan Allen for silver and gold-mirrored wallpaper and bright orange shag carpeting from a place called “John’s Contemporary.” The Ben Franklin curtains and the wood paneling in the den, incongruously, remained. The styles were so contradictory that it seemed downright un-American, the two design philosophies competing for preeminence, we thought it might start another revolutionary war.

spirit-of-76

bicentennial-bedroom Kara explains these two fabulous family photos: “My sister sent me these 2 photos – I think my pathology ran deeper than I remember. For my pony club’s gymkhana I assumed the unpopular colonial theme. Weirdly, my mom decorated my brother’s bedroom in full-on patriot, and my sister says I made him pose for pictures as a patriot.”

Growing up in Philadelphia during the bicentennial era, it seemed as if American domesticity skewed decidedly toward the traditional. “Early American”, whether authentic or like in our house, totally fake, was far more popular than what we know of as the contemporary iterations of mid-century design schemes. My sister had on elementary school friend who lived in a mod apartment and it seemed impossibly exotic and glamorous.

Kara Vallow

Today: Kara is still crazy about idyllic colonial motifs.

To craft her plan, Kara collected and studied inspiration photos — like this Formica-meets-knotty pine kitchen on our baby site Knotty is Nice[/caption]

The coziness of the 20th century’s loose interpretations of the colonial style really appealed to me: knotty pine, brick hearths, tilt-top tea tables, brass candlestick lamps with gilded eagles. This was reinforced when I visited Colonial Williamsburg at the age on nine. Being a colonial tourist was probably the first time I felt “right” – the bewigged surfaces, clip-clopping hooves on cobblestones, the bonnets and velvet cloaks, the coal fires of the blacksmith. The impersonator’s debates among gentry legislators and much to-do about gunpowder and taxes, and the anodyne pronouncements of George Washington and Ben Franklin. The place’s artifice eventually casts its spell on me. When the Bicentennial Celebration in Philadelphia rolled around, I took the “pledge to keep the spirit of ’76 alive” very seriously.

Of course, there’s also a pink bathroom in this story

kitchen before

Kara’s kitchen before.

Kara continues:

I actually bought my very ordinary, 1956 ranch house in part for the pink bathroom, which I am currently unmuddling after 10 years of living with an old linoleum floor and leaky faucets.  I’ll send you some photos when I’m done, if I’m ever done. The worst part of the house was the kitchen.

kitchen before

It was a makeshift galley that was squeezed in-between the living room and an unnecessary third bathroom. Its renovation, done by homeowner/erstwhile handyman in the 1970’s, was a total disaster.

kitchen before

The old counter took a turn and jutted out into the space, which was already very narrow. I enlarged the space by eliminating a half bath [there was already a large (pink!) bathroom on the first floor and another full bathroom upstairs].

kitchen before

I enlarged the opening between the living area and the kitchen by a foot or two. I wanted to open it up a little but retain the living room and kitchen as two separate spaces.  I also added sliding glass doors that open up onto the garden.

“Going for a kind of midcentury, colonial revival thing that no one understood or approved of”

vintage kitchenShe took her design cues from original features of the house, and scrutinized old catalogs and photos for inspiration. She did the initial remodel in 2009, and continued working through last year toward the kitchen we are looking at today:

ethan-allen-treasury

ethan allenI was going for a kind of midcentury, colonial revival thing that no one understood or approved of.

I found these old Ethan Allen catalogs online and the images just rocketed back to some sort of ‘safe place’ in my psyche. My sister and I pored over the images… We were mesmerized.

We are both artists working in creative fields, and STILL people thought we were nuts. I know you will understand!

vintage kitchen

The house has original exposed brick walls and fireplaces that I took cues from for the backsplash.

vintage kitchen vintage kitchen

The wallpaper is a sunny, baskety pattern from Hannah’s Treasures.

vintage kitchengaffer sattler range

There was a specific Gattlers and Sattler model stove I coveted and I waited until I found one – in motley condition — at a stove restoration place no longer in business.

vintage kitchen

It took almost a year but they it restored it and painted it to match my Big Chill refrigerator (a workhorse that has never given me a day’s problem).

Kara has strong opinions about some of the products she used:

Regarding my appliances: When it comes to kitchen appliances, nothing new can compete with the virtues of vintage: the rounded lines and gleaming enamel and chrome, the simplicity and durability.  Somehow, we have been persuaded to lust after commercial stoves, paneled or stainless steel refrigerators and granite, shudder. Even people with old homes, who don’t even cook, insist they want/need a “cook’s kitchen”. I think it’s a fad that began when men became interested in cooking and couldn’t possibly cook without all those BTUs, on one of those rinky-dink ranges that women had been using for years. Commercial or “modern” kitchens in an old house causes severe cognitive dissonance. Stainless steel anything will be the avocado green of the 21st century.

vintage kitchen

Linoleum: I have a love affair with linoleum. It is pretty and colorful, and there are still 100s of colors and patterns being made. Real linoleum is bio-based. highly durable, anti  microbial. It’s made from linseed oil, cork, ground limestone, and pigments on a burlap backing, all renewable. My house is completely solar-powered and a priority for me is to get by without major environmental impact.

Kara was inspired by this vintage knotty pine kitchen found on our sister website Knotty is Nice.

Kara was inspired by the knotty pine kitchen in this Formica ad, which we have feature here and on our microsite Knotty is Nice.

beautiful knotty pine kitchen on retro renovation blog

Betty Crafter’s knotty pine kitchen also was in her inspiration file.

Back to the kitchen, she says:

I really love knotty pine paneling – I LOVE it. It reminds me of our summer vacations in the ratty Poconos in the 1970’s. Unlike the more formal style of the 18th C. Colonial furnishings, the Early American style was casual and rustic, often coated in wide knotty pine-wood walks, cabinet and floor planks.

vintage kitchen

I really wanted a knotty pine kitchen. I ended up going with something as close to my knotty pine dream as I could get without being committed.

vintage kitchenvintage kitchenvintage kitchen

I found the three mid-century colonial copper light fixtures that hang over the island on Ebay for $20.

dutchdoor4

I also really desired a dutch door because they remind me of a barn and I can imagine a horse sticking his head through it.

vintage kitchen vintage kitchen vintage kitchenearly-american-benchcolonial-fabricvintage-apron-early-american

Los Angeles is full of all the ubiquitous icons of mid-century décor; the atomic starbursts and boomerangs. In the east end of LA where I live, there are an astounding number of homes designed by a Richard Neutra, Gregory Ain, John Lautner and R.M. Schindler. I am just not a cocktail chic girl, nor am I a spare and stark Dwell dweller at heart. I’m more hokey pokey than Swingers, and I find perverse comfort and nostalgia in the anachronistic, 1960’s does 1780’s design style.

vintage kitchenvintage kitchenvintage kitchen

My sister and I like to call it “revolutionary style”, but really, the style was so traditional that it isn’t “revolutionary” at all!

***

Yup: Straight from the heart of Los Angeles, Birth of the Cool: 1960s – 1970s Early American interior design — done well — has a rightful place in our design pantheon. Let’s hear it for the Revolutionary Revival!

P.S. This story also gave me a major flashback to the pair of brass finger hole candlesticks I bought on a trip that passed through Gatlinburg or some such back around… 1974, when I was 14 or 15 years old. Possibly the first “serious” interior design accessories I ever bought with my own money.

Kara’s resource list:

Thank you, Kara, for sharing this terrific story! Thanks also to Kristen and Mark for help with the photos — and for supporting Kara in pursuit of this dreamy dream kitchen.

And you bet: Of course, we wanna see the pink bathroom when it’s done!

Read more about Early American style:

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Comments

  1. Betsy in Michigan says

    It’s not my style, but I really do appreciate it. I love it when people’s taste shows through (because you’re right on about no-taste granite!). I knew there would be people who dug “Coloney Baloney” – what a museum professional friend and I used to call it. We used to run into lots of those brass relief plates for wall hangings at thrift shops in the 1990’s and wish we knew someone decorating in mid-century Colonial Revival style. I have a mid-century chalkware Revolutionary soldier table lamp (needs rewiring and some paint touch-up) that needs a home (but you can’t have my Liberty Bell olive jar I got as a kid during the Bicentennial!).

  2. says

    With respect to Kara’s statement about stainless, granite, and commercial everything, I could not have stated it better myself! It’s cold, unimaginative, and austere – probably the worst three style aspects I could imagine. I do not agree with her statement about it becoming the next “avocado green” though because even avocado green has loads of style and charm compared to stainless and granite – I get what she is saying though.

    In the mid-1970s my parents built a new modern style house and one aspect I remember so well was lots and lots white combined with burnt orange carpet. Even the fireplace was this white brick with sparkles in it. It looked far to pretty and exotic to have anywhere near ash and smoke, so they never built fires.

    • Beverly Jurens says

      Totally agree. AND, they will look so dated soon, maybe they already are, but the design shows keep insisting it is what people want.

  3. Juanita says

    I LOVE Kara’s design style! I was born in 1964 and growing up with all of the early American furniture and decor was so comfortable. My mother was more traditional. But my Aunt across town – I couldn’t wait to get there! Everything was early American and she had knotty pine panelling in the basement. Her cabinets were and still are the wood color of Kara’s. She had linoleum flooring in the kitchen and bath and then Kelly green carpeting throughout the rest of the house – even in the eating area which we thought was so progressive. Thank you, Kara, for the great trip down memory lane!

  4. LuAnn says

    Revolutionary Style, Bicentennial Chic…or Patriotic Cool-onial! Whatever it’s called, it brings back such warm fuzzy memories. A new neighbor was renoing/demoing their new old house when I walked my dog yesterday morning. I saw their cross-hatch door with diamond window panes standing by the dumpster. I have been dying for one of these original doors for years. So I met the owner and asked him if he was using the door or throwing it out. He said that he had to ask the contractor, but he didn’t think he wanted to use it. So, I came back in the afternoon to find out the verdict, and it’s mine. DH and I drove it the few doors back home (those things weigh a ton!). Yea! 🙂

    • Mary Elizabeth says

      LuAnn, good for you! Once again we prove that a polite inquiry within the neighborhood often gets excellent results in the retro reno business. Also, the 1950s custom of bringing a pie to the new homeowners sometimes helps. 🙂

      Also, now you and your husband have met a new neighbor and might become fast friends. Also, if he rips out any more “junk,” he might think to ask you if you want this wagon wheel chandelier or whatever.

      • LuAnn says

        You are so right, Mary Elizabeth! My walks with Miss Daisy may have to involve going past the dumpster for awhile. And thanks for reminding me, I’m getting ready to bake cookies and write a nice “Thank You/Welcome to the Neighborhood” note. I also met another couple yesterday I’ve seen before but never met who have lived here since the ’80s. Yup, yesterday was a great day!

  5. Jen 4 practical design says

    I love those simple slab cabinet doors with their dipped in honey look. These doors are warm, welcoming and so easy to clean. Such a welcome change from the so called upscale all white, black and grey cabinetry full of groves and bevels to catch dirt and grease. No thanks, simplicity of design wins every time.

    • Mary Elizabeth says

      Well, the real estate agents and interior designers keep telling us that is what home buyers want. But they tell us a lot of st***d things. Our last week’s real estate supplement in the local newspaper reprinted an article (from the Washington Post) in which a designer said that one of the latest trends that people wanted was “higher thresholds between rooms.” The author claimed that this gives the house an airy, open feel and more light. Hmm. I think you meant to say “lintels,” Mr. Expert. Higher thresholds would result in trip accidents. It’s the top of the doorway you want to raise, not the part you step over.

  6. Beverly Jurens says

    I LOVE this. I missed the Bicentennial, but have also been obsessed with all things colonial. This is the perfect mix of old and new. Very chic and inspired.

  7. McKenzie says

    Those cabinets are a dream of mine! My 1960 ranch was a foreclosure, so the bank got a hold of it and beiged it all up! Beige carpet, beige exterior paint, beige interior paint (on every! wall!). Restoring our home is going to be a life long journey, one that I hope I can complete with as much success as this home owner has had!

  8. Ed says

    “Stainless steel anything will be the avocado green of the 21st century.”

    Is it wrong that I suddenly want to run out and buy a stainless microwave, just to shove it into the back of the closet for NIB retro kitsch in twenty to fifty years? Stainless shows fingerprints too easily, I went with white enamel to match the rest of my early 90’s era kitchen.

  9. Shelley says

    Mmmmm, so lovely! (I was 12/13 in 1976 and remember the Bicentennial mania well: such an optimistic time, pride without too much bluster.) Your kitchen is wonderful: such a great marriage of homey warmth and style. The delicious honey cabinets! Aahhh!

  10. Tut says

    Neat stuff. BTW, the bedroom and horse photos are linked wrong. Horse one goes to full-size bedroom. Bedroom has no link.

  11. Ranger Smith says

    Kara – Well done! I refer to Dutch doors as “Mr. Ed doors” because of the old TV series with the horse always having his head sticking through it. Like you, I got my linoleum from Linoleum City. The stove is a beauty. You really have done an excellent job on your kitchen.

  12. Margie C. says

    I think this is a great kitchen, Kara. But, please reverse the doors on your fridge! It will save you so many steps and so much hassle to be able to open the door from the left side! Trust me!

  13. Pip says

    Style, design and art work are only made beautiful through our commitment and passion. Kara’s Kitchen and her exemplary writing and story telling skills are both proof of this!

  14. Penny says

    Waaah! I had a wagon wheel fixture in the dining room of my 1980’s ranch house when we first built it. I forgot all about that and, of course, one of the family members thought we needed a new updated version and the old light fixture disappeared to God knows where.

    I agree with everyone here about the stainless steel appliances, boring beige/olive green/maroon/white colors, everything needing to be ceramic and/or granite. Is this really what people want? Where is the imagination and color of years’ past? Who decides this anyway? I am so thankful for this site and for everyone being able to express the wonderfulness of being a retro lover despite those naysayers around us!!!

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