Bonnie Jo Campbell updates her ‘swamp house’ kitchen — and talks about living modestly to pursue a dream

Bonnie Jo Campbell in her updated kitchenOnce Upon A RiverWe have a famous author in our tribe — and she shares her Retro Renovation story with us today.  Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s recent book of short stories, American Salvage, was a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and her 2011 novel Once Upon a River: A Novel (affiliate link) continues to earn rave reviews from virtually everyone who reads it. For example, in July 2011 the New York Times Review of Books, reviewer (and famous author herself) Jane Smiley wrote:

As in “American Salvage,” her celebrated story collection from 2009, Campbell has a ruthless and precise eye for the details of the physical world…. Campbell so intently scrutinizes Margo’s [the teenaged protagonist] inner life that she does not seem to be asserting any larger point about American culture or human nature — but she is…. It would be too bad if, because of Campbell’s realistic style and ferocious attention to her setting, “Once Upon a River” were discounted as merely a fine example of American regionalism. It is, rather, an excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom.

kitchen countertop before and after
red kitchen countertop
After: Bonnie’s kitchen updated included replacing the original, worn countertop with Arborite Red Xabia. She trimmed it with aluminum trim from RetroTrims.com. And she added a Kohler Delafield sink with hudee ring and a new faucet. Retro Renovation help her point her local retailers to these products.

The reason I choose this particular excerpt of Jane Smiley’s review, is that I sure would pay attention to any renovation done by an acclaimed writer with a “ruthless and precise eye for the details of the physical world”! Bonnie’s story is that she waited 24 years to replace the worn countertop original to her Kalamazoo house, using resources found here. Read her books and you would never doubt that, of course, she would keep her updates in line the midcentury modest design of the house. Moreover — and here’s another place I  pay big attention — she underscores the benefits of “modest.” Bonnie writes:

Hi Pam — A bit about our house:

I call it a swamp house, and my husband and I bought it in 1987 for $24,500. I always tell my students that if they are serious about writing that they should live in a very modest house and try to keep expenses low so that they don’t have to work themselves too hard to pay the mortgage. They think I’m kidding, but I’m not. It’s very hard to make time to write in any case, and so if there’s a way to spend less time earning a living, then follow that way. I also am honest when I say that my poor housekeeping is part of the plan.  I can have a clean, well-kept house or I can get books written, not both.

And that was a lot of the reason why I never took the time to improve my kitchen, because I wanted to keep my focus on my writing.  And it paid off.
My last two books American Salvage and Once Upon a River have gotten quite a bit of critical acclaim. So I was able to take some time out to make my kitchen a nicer place to be. I still might not have done the improvements had my brother Tom the plumber not been unemployed.  I had done some babysitting for him a few weekends, and he wanted to pay me back by helping me with the sink and counter.

The house was built right after WWII, as were many of the houses here, and I know the house was built by a single man, because it was built without a single closet. The kitchen is fairly small, with a modest amount of storage. There’s not really room for a refrigerator in the kitchen, so I keep it in the utility room. When my husband’s mother moved in with us a few years ago, we put on an addition, so we now have a four bedroom, which allows us both to have offices, which is a great luxury.

red countertops before

I’ll say up front that my goal was just to get a new counter and sink because my old one was just terrible. And I  lived with the old one for 24 years.  I’ve been pretty distracted in that time, first studying mathematics as a grad student and then becoming a Novelist.

red countertopred kitchen countertopI had a pretty challenging time getting the sink I wanted since all the plumbing places around here told me I could not get a sink to install with a hudee ring. From these photos you’ll see that the sink was hopelessly stained because all the porcelain finish was gone. The countertop laminate was a travesty. The wall behind the sink had shelf paper on it. (Yes, I lived with it for 24 years.)

kitchen counter installationHere are some before photos of counter plus my husband Chris Magson and brother Tom with Hudee Ring (before cutting plywood).

kalamazoo stoveThe stove is a Kalamazoo brand stove that my husband became obsessed with. It’s sort of a museum quality piece, a replacement.

red microwave ovenI also have an amazing red microwave… not sure how I lucked into that at Sears. Maybe it’s not retro, though the food processor beside it is.

red kitchenred kitchenred checkerboard floorAs for the wide photos, I truly regret that I didn’t sweep my floor and polish it a bit.  I’m attaching a kitchen floor picture, one that shows how nice the floor looks when it’s waxed. We’re kind of a farm family here. We burn wood and keep donkeys, and so things can be pretty messy.

Bonnie Jo Campbell in her updated kitchenCheers!  Bonnie

Thank you, Bonnie, for taking the time to share this all with us. (Again, readers, Bonnie can attest how I torture featured contributors with the back and forth.) Your swamp kitchen update is perfection. And no need to apologize for unpolished vintage floors — we have all been there!

Read more about Bonnie Jo Campbell’s kitchen update (and her life):

If you want to buy one or more of her books, you can also see them here: Bonnie Campbell’s books on Amazon (affiliate link).

Readers, note that I wrote about Arborite Red Xabia appears to be a good substitute for crackle ice laminate. You can see the effect very clearly here. Red crackle ice is going to be much more expensive, because it is a specialty product. Also, I have a sample of the red cracked ice laminate from some years ago, and I was concerned about the pixelation of the digital printing. I know other readers have used it, though, and were happy with it. Bottom line: Get samples — large samples, preferably — before you commit.

Products that Bonnie used to create her retro red countertop: 

  1. Dale says:

    I like her approach to life. I have friends who put a $30,000 kitchen in a house they paid $60,000 for – plus they eat take out all the time and never really use the space. People are just silly.

  2. Kersten says:

    Love this philosophy of living simply. This is a constant battle at our house, and I spent the last 4 hours going through “stuff” to pass along. I swear I make 4 trips to goodwill each month, and we still have too much. Bonnie, the kitchen looks welcoming and toasty. It is always so nice to see a person’s personal touches, and not a sterile unthoughtful space. I’d like to add that I *love* the idea of hanging a chandelier in the garage! So sweet.

    1. Hi Kersten — Thank you for your kind words, and thank you for noticing the chandelier in the garage. Another writer, Jaimy Gordon, who won the National Book Award in 2010, gave us that chandelier, and the garage seemed like the right place. We also have some stained glass in there that my cousin made. B.

  3. hannah says:

    Bonnie, it’s a WONDERFUL transformation! 24 years, wow. We just moved into (our first owned) home in May 2011, and I’m still chomping at the bit to get things done. You serve as a great example in patience and vision.

    Someone tell me I’m not the only one who noticed her homemade pot-holder on the cutting board. 🙂 (I got a kit for Christmas from Mr. Wonderful and have been a potholder making fool – and the GOOD loops that are cotton too!).

    Pam, thank you so much for appreciating our ‘diamonds in the rough’ and not expecting full blown, perfectly decorated Frank L. Wright type of offerings (though I love those too!). Thank you for appreciating our humble abodes, and the accomplishments that sometimes happen in baby steps due to availability, finances and time.

    1. Thank you for noticing my homemade pot holder, made by my poet friend Elizabeth Kerlikowske, who generously provided her pals with her kitchen wares. Those homemade ones are the very best potholders! Thank you for your kind words about my kitchen!

  4. gsciencechick says:

    Love the counters, floor, and, of course, that fabulous stove! Congrats! Plus,

    I can agree on that students do not get the concept on living modestly!

  5. Marianna says:

    I live in a W. Michigan house of similar vintage, with nearly identical kitchen cabinets. My house was built for a war-widow and her daughter (therefore I am blessed with one teeny closet in the bedroom). Love Bonnie’s use of RED throughout the kitchen, and respect her decision not to paint the cabinets. I’ve been working at painting mine, and it’s a true pain in the butt trying to sand off all that shellac!

    1. Off and on I’ve considered painting the wood in my kitchen, but in the end I ended up removing what paint was on the walls, using that super caustic paint remover. To my surprise it worked, though you can see where it was above the ends of the counter. Maybe it was laziness that made up my mind! B.

  6. Cynthia says:

    Love the kitchen and love Bonnie. I will definitely be checking out your books, Bonnie. I also am a writer, and am working on a novel (set in the 60s…wow, why would anyone want to do that?). 😉 Just finished a second draft and am having a group of reader/writer friends give me their feedback, so we’ll see what happens from here. I agree about giving up other stuff for writing time. Heck, I haven’t had a “real” job in fifteen years. I don’t miss it…

    Enjoy your new kitchen…it’s fab. Cheers!

    1. Good luck with your novel! You’re doing the good hard work, and you’re so smart to share it with friends before sending it out in the world. All my books are a bit in the past, but eventually I’m going to have to write a book in which people have cell phones! B.

    1. Hi Allan — Thanks for the kind words about our kitchen! The stove really is a thing of wonder, though the large size made us give up a little table where we used to store some things. The left-hand side “oven” is only a warmer, so it’s sort of wasted space. However, I can put the big cutting board on top of the stove and have that as counter space. I think the dials are bakelite, but I’m not sure–have to do some of those tests. Our old stove was a ’72 Kelivinator, in gold, and I rather liked that as well; it lit up and the dials were space-agey. We may change to gas one of these days (they’ve got it next door), and in that case we’d change the stove, but we’re enjoying it. BJC

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