Paradise Lost

Photo by James BunoanOrange: four-bedroom, two-bathroom stucco house

Occupants: David McDonald and John Peterson.

Year built: 1962

Square footage: 2,100

Paid: $250,000 in 1998

American architect Louis Sullivan coined the famous design phrase “form follows function” in an 1896 article on skyscrapers.

What he meant was that the form a building takes is prescribed by what it does. Hospitals, in Sullivan's mind, shouldn't look like racetracks; bathhouses shouldn't resemble churches.

What's amazing is that after 108 years, we still can't put this relatively simple concept in context. But architects still try—professionals and amateurs alike—as they have in a peaceful house on a quiet street in Orange, where all should be right with the world.

It's the home of David McDonald and John Peterson—and it's one of many homes in several areas of the city that were built during the late 1950s and early 1960s by seminal mid-century modern architect Joseph Eichler.

Eichler was, if not a genius, a mother hen—looming large over construction; carefully choosing naturalistic materials such as redwood, concrete and grass; and designing turned-around floor plans to revolutionize architecture.

In the process, he turned the original California classics, the bungalows and Spanish revival stucco homes of the 1920s and 1930s, on their ear. They were all about the front yard and the neighborhood; they faced front, with clearly marked front doors and large porches, and emptied armies of kids into the streets, which weren't yet too dangerous to play stickball in.

By the '50s, parents had seen the danger of the streets; in response, architects like Eichler and ranch-house king Cliff May shifted floor plans, moving garages, bedrooms and bathrooms to the houses' fronts; hiding entrances; and focusing attention on the safe, insular back yard.

Eichler was part traffic cop, too; using partial walls that were just taller than a man, he directed one's eyes and feet—but preserved the illusion of openness that was so crucial in mid-century modern houses.

Move those walls around, and you've destroyed a key part of Eichler's vision of what should be seen and unseen. In McDonald and Peterson's home, for instance, they tore out the partial wall that was the kitchen's backstop—leaving it open, but shielding it from view as you enter the house. They've opened the kitchen up; it's now no higher than its pink-granite counters, which top natural wood single-panel cabinets below.

Now, the first thing you gotta look at when you enter the house is that modern kitchen with its halogen lighting and stainless-steel appliances. Their 1962 home has become a classic example of what happens when 21st century function meets 1960s form.

By changing just about everything that matters, they've created a comfortable nest from a home that once had a small master bath and a narrow galley kitchen—but in the process, they've stripped their Eichler of nearly all historical context.

From the speckled, odd-sized asbestos tile flooring to old appliances, this house was all original when McDonald bought it in 1998—and it meant something. It was a personalized document of how we lived.

Now, it's anonymous, from the Spanish-style terra cotta tile underfoot to the Home Depot-esque ceiling fans overhead. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

“We love the mid-century style,” Peterson, a self-employed oboe repairman, said, giving me the grand tour. But as with form and function, everyone has a different definition of what that is. (And what is is, but you probably know that story.)

In their living room, for instance, they've replastered the original cinderblock fireplace—once delicately gridded by the lines delineating the cinderblocks—into a hulking monolith. Clustered nearby are two club chairs that scream Pottery Barn, Art Deco and 1930s.

They were still doing club chairs in the 1950s, but club chairs aren't really mid-century. In the master bedroom—painted in shades of beige and white, like most of the rest of the house—are their only two true mid-century pieces: two small blond, molded plywood chairs that are reminiscent of Arne Jacobsen's 1952 masterpiece, the Ant chair, so named because it resembled an ant standing up.

These chairs are the true measure of mid-century modernism—not the house that encases them in banality. They're knock-offs, Peterson tells me, but they're old knock-offs, probably done not long after the originals.

Like old originals, old knock-offs are cool. Because they meant something. They had a history. And history—whether it's original or copied—can't be invented. It has to be earned.

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