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Home & Garden

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Interior design, like life and people, is trending toward a grand mix, which is more interesting and way more modern.
By Rebecca Sherman |

During the late 1960s, a store called The Contemporary House opened in the Knox-Henderson area. The owners, a gay couple, lived in a small ranch-style house across the street from us. As my mother tells it, the neighbors were afraid of the men, whose lifestyle they didn’t understand: It was one thing to be gay, another to live together on a street with the rest of us. My mother was fascinated. The Contemporary House sold modern furniture, naturally, and my mother loved the look. She had impromptu conversations with the men on the sidewalk at times. (My father, open-minded in so many ways except this one, forbade her to go inside their house.) Our own house had, inevitably, become a sinkhole of tired ’50s furniture and garage sale buys. We three kids kept things constantly in uproar, and so why bother? But my mother could dream. The exuberance of the emerging ’70s was hard to ignore—abroad, David Hicks was lacquering walls orange and covering floors in geometric carpets. Locally in Dallas, John Astin Perkins was mixing as many bright colors as possible in a room (even the antiques) and getting away with it. The era boasted canvas butterfly chairs, chrome and glass étagères, and acrylic coffee tables.

After my father died in 1972, my mother took some of the insurance money and bought furniture at The Contemporary House. Her cache included a pair of smoked Plexiglas pod chairs with chrome bases and a pair of boxy, modular sofas and chairs custom upholstered in beautiful yellow and white wool. The craftsmanship on everything was impeccable.

The other day I called Mark Millikan. In Dallas real estate circles, he is the go-to name for small, mid-century modern houses. “I love very small moderns, around 1,500 square feet,” he says, having bought one recently for himself a few blocks from where I grew up, near Marsh and Walnut Hill Lanes. Millikan describes himself as a former Pottery Barn type, with a few antiques thrown in. One day 10 years ago he tossed it all, including his traditional-looking house, and hasn’t looked back. The compact, mid-century modern houses in my former neighborhood are the newest thing going, if you don’t mind fixing them up. I’d have never guessed. Most have flat roofs, with narrow, high windows, that while designed to admit light, don’t. They’re dark. I can’t imagine living in one again, yet plenty of young buyers are clamoring to—25 percent of Millikan’s business comes from selling small moderns. Many newcomers in the neighborhood are gay, but then the area is so much more diverse than it was when I was young, when there was only one Hispanic family and no blacks. The blatant discrimination the owners of The Contemporary House experienced just doesn’t exist anymore.

Still, people are wary of the unfamiliar. This was driven home recently when I learned that a contemporary furniture showroom in Dallas had pulled its advertising from our magazine because we’d published an issue focusing on houses decorated in the most classic of Dallas looks, “preppy.” Some months before, an antiques showroom had pulled its advertising, declaring we’d become too modern. Neither one felt comfortable sharing space with the other. But look more closely at that preppy issue—one of the homeowners had included some cool acrylic chairs from Kartell in the mix with her inherited antiques. Interior design, like life and people, is trending toward a grand mix anyway. It’s more interesting, and frankly, way more modern. 

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