How Our Contemporary Kitchen Renovation Went Jetsons Retro

We had planned the most beautiful, sophisticated kitchen renovation for our 1954 Florida ranch house. Quarter-sawn walnut cabinets would replace 1970s-era faux wood; sleek black Paperstone counters would supplant gold-whorled white laminate. All that remained was to sign the contract with Jason Straw, Woodworker. A maker of fine furniture and specialist in historic home renovations, Jason would ensure our new kitchen did not look like it came from a big-box store.

Then, late one Sunday evening, Jason called.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about your kitchen,” he said.

What a rare delight! A contractor as obsessed with our kitchen as we were!

“And I can’t do this kitchen.”

Whatever did he mean? Had he finally hit the big time? Was he moving to Hollywood to design fine wood furniture for studio moguls like we always suspected he would?

“You do not need a contemporary kitchen,” Jason continued.  “The focus of this kitchen needs to be your stove.”

Our stove. The vintage 1950s Universal we had salvaged from our first home two years earlier, the stove we had unsuccessfully attempted to restore on our own, then U-Hauled seven hours to the experts at Antique Appliances, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains (see sidebar below).

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Our well-traveled 1950s Universal gas stove, post-restoration (Photo by Antique Appliances)

“You need a 1950s kitchen,” Jason said.

I gasped. I squealed. A year before, at the start of our kitchen renovation journey, I had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince my husband, Will, of the need for a retro kitchen to match our fifties ranch house. Will didn’t buy it. His arguments in favor of resale value and the ethereal nature of fifties kitsch swayed me back to sleek and contemporary, a plan that made me happy, but not ebullient. Not squealing like a small child, like I was now, frantically emailing Jason my abandoned Fifties Kitchen Pinterest board. Now I had a co-conspirator in the resurrection of my midcentury dream. How would we persuade Will? He hated retro!

“No, no,” Jason said. “It’s not going to be fifties kitsch. It’s going to be cool. It’s going to be like Barbarella. Tell him it’s going to be James Bond‘s kitchen. Like the Jetsons.”*

It worked. We had Will at “James Bond’s kitchen”.  We threw out the contemporary plans and began anew.

vintage kitchen renovation

The kitchen: Before

And that is how our groovy blue boomerang kitchen came to be, with its retro WilsonArt boomerang countertops edged in shiny aluminum, boomerang door pulls, the backsplash’s glass tile angled in a boomerang-like box weave, and custom boomerang accents on the valance.

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The kitchen: After (Philip Marcel Photography)

The wood cabinets look like vintage fifties steel but hide modern features like solid maple dovetail drawers that shut with a whisper. The white WilsonArt sink matches the retro theme with a modern twist – it’s an undermount, so water does not spill forth, and crumbs slide easily from counter to trash with the sweep of a sponge. Undermount LEDs allow us to actually see the food we’re preparing, and at night they illuminate the glass subway tile backsplash like Christmas lights. Our wall oven can handle Thanksgiving, and the fridge does not require fifties-style manual defrosting (that and energy consumption are the only factors keeping us from splurging on yet another vintage appliance).

Our stove feels right at home. So would the Jetsons. So do we.

*OK, so, technically … Barbarella, Bond and the Jetsons are sixties, not fifties. But like Atomic Age design, the Jetsons evoked the look we sought: not kitsch, rather, a past society’s vision of the future.

The Details

More photos of the kitchen

More photos of the stove restoration process

The Kitchen

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Moved refrigerator, cut opening in wall, removed swinging door to open up kitchen. (Philip Marcel Photography)

Jason Straw, Woodworker, Gainesville, Fla.:

Slightly changed layout to remove swinging door and cut opening to dining room with oak ledge, cutout edged in dark stained wood to match existing trim throughout house. Replaced casement windows above sink with single-hung vinyl. Moved fridge to back wall where kitchen table once stood. Installed wall oven and wall microwave, drawers below for bakeware and cabinets above for items used less frequently. Nearly doubled cabinet space while making kitchen appear larger and more open.

The Cabinets

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Wood cabinets look like vintage steel, with boomerang pulls. (Philip Marcel Photography)

Painted flat panel wooden cabinets to mimic the style of old metal cabinets that Jason still finds in houses. Vintage look with modern convenience – extends to ceiling, solid maple dovetail drawers  shut with a whisper, two two-tier lazy susans use previously dead corner space, hidden trash and recycling, adjustable shelves, spacious boxes large enough for pots, pans and baking sheets. Undermount LEDs allow us to actually see the food we’re preparing and light up the glass backsplash like Christmas lights at night. Plywood is domestic, formaldehyde-free using soy-based glues. Boomerang pulls are extremely difficult to find vintage, but Rejuvenation makes a reproduction.

Source, cabinets: Columbia Forest Products

Source, boomerang pulls: Rejuvenation

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Custom cut valance edged in aluminum to echo boomerang theme. (Philip Marcel Photography)

Custom-cut, aluminum-edged valance over the sink and boomerang pulls echo the overall boomerang theme also found in the countertop pattern and backsplash.

The Counters

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Boomerang counters and undermount sink by WilsonArt. Laminate and aluminum ledge on window as well. (Philip Marcel Photography)

Aluminum edging wraps around the vintage edition boomerang laminate. Jason also placed aluminum edging on the top of the back splash and custom cut the aluminum for the valance to play off the boomerang theme, also found on the pulls. The WilsonArt sink is under mount, a wonderful touch not typically found with laminate counters. Again, the retro look avoids the drawback of actual fifties kitchens: Because the aluminum edging does not protrude above the counter and because the sink is undermount, sweeping crumbs off the counter is made infinitely easier.

Sources: WilsonArt: Retro Dungaree Counter, Sink. Faucet: Kraus, Amazon

The Backsplash

The backsplash is a glass subway tile, turned 45 degrees, laid in a box weave pattern, subtly picking up on the boomerang theme. Easy to clean, reflects the LEDs like Christmas lights at night.

Source: Subway Tile Outlet

Lighting

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Three Astron Midcentury Modern pendants by Rejuvenation illuminate the sink. (Philip Marcel Photography)

Recessed can lights in ceiling, LEDs under cabinets, space-age-looking shop fan. Three Astron Mid-Century Mondern Pendants over sink. Very Jetsons.

Source: Rejuvenation (pendants), white interior, Neptune Blue exterior

The Floor

Sheet of Marmoleum, the precursor to linoleum, made of linseed oil and jute fibers. Easy to clean; hides the paw prints of two dogs who love their muddy yard.

Source: Indigo Green Store, Gainesville, Forbo Flooring. Color: Concrete

Appliances:

Wall oven and microwave (w/trim kit): Kenmore, Sears; Fridge: Whirlpool, Lowes (to be replaced one day with this retro GE model); Dishwasher: Existing

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Fridge, wall oven and microwave moved to side to open up room. (Philip Marcel Photography)

Stove: Vintage, restored by Antique Appliances in Clayton, Ga. See separate post on stove restoration. 

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1950s Universal gas range restored by Antique Appliances. See separate post for details. (Philip Marcel Photography)

How We Became the Kind of People Who Spend Their Disposable Income Restoring a Vintage Stove

See related post on how our contemporary kitchen renovation went Jetsons retro.

The kitchen renovation began years before we had even moved into our current home, when we bought our first house, a charming 1948 brick bungalow.

In the kitchen of that house, flames protruded from three of four burners on the old white stove: standing pilot lights. The 36-inch appliance looked like a larger version of the fifties-era stove I had gladly left behind in my garage apartment in West Palm Beach (I had to light that one with a match too). When the fourth burner failed to light, our Realtor got on the phone with his counterpart, who talked him through it.

“The owner’s a vegan baker, and she says it’s the best stove she’s ever had!” our Realtor said. “She loves it and wishes she could take it with her.”

Hmmm, I thought, Previous Owner did not love this faulty behemoth enough to actually take it with her.

“I’m sure we’ll love it too,” I said, and made a mental note to check prices on CraigsList. This thing was going out the door if only as a Curb Alert special.

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Our 1950 Universal gas range, pre-restoration (Photo by Antique Appliances)

And then, somehow, the stove won us over. Even though we had to wrap the oven door in aluminum foil when our turkey roaster wouldn’t fit on Thanksgiving. Even though a previous owner had replaced perfectly functional handles with ceramic knobs to to match the kitchen door pulls, and the slippery devils always heated to scalding, slipped from my grip and slammed the oven door shut. Even though I occasionally had to scrape charred debris from the burners in order to light them.

On our honeymoon, we got a call from a friend who we had asked to check on the house.

“You guys know I would only call you if it were really, really important,” she said. “There are teeny tiny little flames coming out of your oven.”

She had, sensibly, left the house to make the call, but had not yet called the fire department.

The thermostat had long ago stopped working, as had the range top clock and broiler. We used a detachable thermometer inside the oven to make sure it reached the correct temperature. The oven never had insulation, so the whole kitchen grew several degrees warmer when we cooked. Oh well, who wanted to eat hot food during Florida summers anyway? Gazpacho and salad dominated the menu.

We made a lot of excuses for the stove. It was just so … cool. It had character. Visitors loved it.

And so when it came time to move to a new house, the stove came with us. Mostly because we had to rent out the old house, and the idea of renters plus standing pilot lights did not mix.

This was the beginning of our investment into cool.

Preparing to move, we pushed the stove away from the wall and quickly realized that for starters, we were the first people to do this since the Eisenhower administration, and second, while the two of us moved our rental-grade oven into the house without breaking a sweat, we would need at least two more people to move this one out of the house. Scrubbing away layers of grease and clearing dust from 1950s wiring, we felt lucky to be alive. I got out my Dremel and attacked the rusty burners, to little avail. We threw out the range hood. We recouped up about $17 for the copper gas hookup at the scrap-metal yard.

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Before: Rust that my Dremel failed to remove from our beloved 1950s gas range. (Photo by Antique Appliances)

And then, once we moved the stove over to the new house, we found out that the local utility would not allow us to install our beloved antique appliance. The stove — dust, grease and all — had been grandfathered in to the old house because it was installed in the 1950s. Current code would not allow such a stove to be installed without new safety features, even though we had cleaned it to a greatly enhanced level of safety.

“Fine!” I said. “I’ll do it myself!”

Ironically, in business school, I had just learned about the concept of “sunk costs” but still could not walk away from this one.

By now, we had a toaster oven big enough to bake a pie, a slow cooker, an electric burner and a grill. We wouldn’t starve.

Online, I found Antique Appliances, a repair shop in Clayton, Ga. that specialized in vintage ranges and refrigerators. The owner, John Jowers, had unyielding patience with my incessant questions and half-baked DIY dreams. He talked me through the options and sold me the oven safety valve I needed. The shop installed them all the time, and after reviewing photos of my stove he was sure it would work. It was a simple job.

Of course I failed in my attempts to install it myself. Three gas contractors also refused to install it. Though they all had serviced old stoves like this, they had never before retrofitted one with safety equipment. It made them nervous.

“It’s going to cost you a damn fortune,” one contractor said. “Just buy a new stove.”

He did acknowledge I had done a nice job cleaning off the rust with my Dremel.

So, did I do the sensible thing as he advised, and head out to Sears? Of course not. I simply dug my heels in deeper.

By now, winter had become spring. It seemed like fate that we had scheduled a family reunion in the Smoky Mountains that summer, and that our route would take us up US 441, through Clayton, Georgia, directly past Antique Appliances. The shop schedules out repair jobs months in advance. They fit us right in.

My husband, Will, would argue that “fate” did not extend to his renting a U-Haul trailer, again calling upon his friends to move the stove into said trailer, and picking up my mother at the Atlanta airport en route to the Smokies. This behavior fell under the “deranged home improvement” category.

And so we found ourselves crawling up I-75 in the right lane with a trailer hitched to our SUV, swinging off the Perimeter highway to retrieve my mother from a MARTA station, going out of our way to avoid situations in which we might need to back up our vehicle.

At each stage we reassessed our decision and came to the perfectly logical reason to proceed:

“The stove is just so cool. It has character.”

vintage antique appliances

We made it!

Having never before driven to Atlanta under the speed limit, we arrived hours later than predicted. Even though he had closed up for the day, John Jowers drove over to meet us and the U-Haul.

Worth the trip was the sight of the warehouse itself, packed from end to end with refrigerators and ovens dating from the 1920s to 1970s, in all states of repair, some painted mint, yellow, red and blue like hard candy, others bearing college mascot logos, bound for brownstones and retro diners in Baltimore, New York, Honolulu and Dubai.

John gave us a tour and told us about how his father had opened the shop to repair radios, branched out to appliances, and then found a niche specialty in vintage stoves and fridges. Clayton borders Lake Rabun, where wealthy Atlantans built summer retreats in the 1920s and where they still host a vintage wooden boat parade every Independence Day. The region is a retro tourist’s dream.

Wary of driving the windy roads of the ever-higher mountains before us in the dark, we decided to stay in Clayton overnight. We’d seen a few chain hotels on 441, but John recommended a B n B owned by a friend, the York House Inn, a two-story Victorian bordering farmland. He did more than recommend; he drove us there. It was right on his way home. As we checked into the beautifully landscaped B n B, full of antiques and serving a delicious hot breakfast, an octogenarian couple stopped in looking for supper. They had eaten a fine meal at the York House about 30 years earlier and had driven the two hours from Atlanta — without calling ahead, assuming dinner was still served nightly.

Somewhere amid this Southern hospitality, we upgraded from a basic mechanical restoration of our stove ($1,500 minus the $300 I’d already spent on the safety valve) to a $3,000-plus total rebuild. Niceness sells. Plus, we had come all this way after all … so why not?

In the ensuing weeks, John Jowers kept us apprised of every development in our stove’s restoration. When finding original handles to replace the ceramic knobs proved futile, he came up with a better solution: handles painted blue to match the clock on the range top. He painted the burner dials blue as well. Our entire kitchen renovation later played off this shade of blue. The shop documented the restoration and posted photos of the entire process to Facebook.

A few months later, a truck pulled up to our house in Florida and delivered a stove that looked like we had ordered it brand-new from Sears … in 1950.

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The stove: after restoration. (Photo by Antique Appliances)

We could hardly believe this was the old, trusty, rusted appliance we’d dropped off in Georgia that summer. This stove shone with new white enamel, slate blue accents and black cast-iron burners. On the oven window, cleared of grease, we could see the word “Permaview”. In 1950, being able to see your food cooking through a window in your stove was a new thing, worthy of a fancy marketing word. The oven had proper insulation, a working thermostat, and not one but two working lights. The interior oven light, long since burned out, now turned on. We discovered that the second push-button on the range top, which we assumed also went to the oven light, illuminated a second, rectangular light around the clock on the back of the range. It looked almost neon. The burners fired up hot blue, right away, without needing to be scraped or cajoled.

We stood in awe of our new old stove. It was undeniably cool. Its coolness outshone the inferior workmanship of the seventies-era kitchen around it. Renovation immediately became a need rather than a want. This stove needed a kitchen worthy of its coolness. We owed it to the stove. We were at the mercy of the stove.

No, we didn’t need to spend $3,000 on an appliance. Yes, we could have bought a perfectly functional stove retail for far less. Yes, we could have bought a commercial-grade Viking range for the same price. But that wasn’t the point. People who restore vintage cars could buy something up to date and reliable on a dealer’s lot. But why would they want to do that? What fun would that be? Heads would not turn on the street to admire a safe, sedate Corolla. Such a car would not reflect one’s personality like a 1940s Ford pickup or a 1970s El Camino, lovingly restored with a custom blue paint job. Their dollars won’t go toward saving an important piece of Americana, preserving good design and solid workmanship. That is why we spent our disposable income restoring a fine vintage appliance. You can justify it to yourself however you want; it’s an investment, it’s built like a tank, it will last longer, but really, the reason you’re doing it is purely cosmetic. And that’s OK. Once you admit this to yourself, you’ll enjoy the new addition to your kitchen family to its full potential. And maybe you’ll feel a little bit like James Bond every time you enter your kitchen.

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The stove: Restored, in its new home (Philip Marcel Photography)