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How Mark Ashby Design converted this small Zilker ranch house into a midcentury-modern dream home
By Hannah J. Phillips
Photographs by Clay Grier
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In this post- “Mad Men” era , the resurgence of midcentury-modern (MCM) design remains as steady as it was when the show wrapped in 2015. Combined with the joy-curated ethos of Marie Kondo’s recent influence, the current aesthetic is simplicity—both as a nostalgic return to the elegance and efficiency of the 1950s and as a nod to a contemporary minimalism that sees the home more as a canvas for living and gathering than as a museum for collecting.
With this in mind, the team at Mark Ashby Design worked with Rick and Cindy Black Architects to completely redesign this Zilker home’s kitchen, sunken den and bathrooms. Adding terrazzo floors throughout, the Ashby team used built-in furniture, tile, textures and cabinetry to curate a custom look. The resulting mix of clean minimalism with a personal, natural element in each room creates an overall balance of perfect imperfection.
We chatted with designer Christina Simon to learn more about the project and how she aggregates an authentic MCM feel without appearing overstated. The best way to re-create the look, she says, is to learn the language of MCM and adapt it to your own taste and resources.
“The concept of midcentury modern can have a number of different expressions,” says Simon. “You might see one type of fabric in Europe and take cues from that to make it more current, or choose a different textile to make it softer. The more you’re studied on it, the more nuanced it will look.”
Simon recommends learning this language at local showrooms like The Renner Project, which beautifully displays what has been done in design by collecting all the references in one place.
“We are so lucky to have access to a space like The Renner Project, which can inform how we mix and match pieces to create an elevated, inspired feel. Once you know the precedent that places like IKEA and CB2 are stealing from, you can find even better looks in that language.”
One huge component of MCM is minimizing clutter through architectural details, designing built-in furnishings to simplify a home layout. Simon and her team incorporated this into the sunken lounge with a daybed that maximizes both space and light.
“For midcentury-modern architects, it was all about simplicity and finding a way to integrate things so they don’t have to move,” says Simon. “For this home, we wanted to add a clean line but with textural interest; replacing the original wall here sparks more curiosity and invites natural light.”
Light can be a particularly challenging MCM theme to re-create in contemporary homes without overelaborating.
“Some light fixtures from that era can look pretentious, but the Noguchi Museum Shop has been an incredible resource for authentic pieces that aren’t overdone,” she says. “Their paper lantern collaboration from Tom Sachs’ drawings are keeping his work alive and accessible, and we love using these light sculptures for a warm look that isn’t showing off.”
Likewise, Simon integrated natural-looking ceramics in the kitchen and an intentionally unintentional collection of planters in the sunbathing addition to add an organic vibe in both spaces. Noting the overlap of the MCM renaissance with a new surge in handmade ceramics, Simon argues that the intersection is no coincidence.
“We are all craving items that have been hand-touched and have a soul,” she says, “so when we selected the ceramics, we wanted bold, simple shapes but with a texture and nuance so that the lines aren’t exactly perfect.”
In the bathroom, a vintage brass vase corresponds to the un-lacquered brass fixtures of the tub to suggest that same hint of imperfection.
“The brass is a living metal, so it will change over time with your skin oils and the humidity in Austin,” says Simon. “I loved this bathroom scheme, because when you allow things to not be totally perfect, or when you add something unexpected like the photograph, you make the whole space look more thoughtful.”
For Simon, these touches of imperfection create a balanced theme throughout the entire home, using MCM language but departing from it with thoughtful personality.
“The more you get off the obvious, beaten path,” she concludes, “the more it looks like you cared about how to put your home together and it becomes more you.”