When Jen Cooper and her husband, John, were looking for a new house, they found one that was more than what they wanted. It was bigger and costlier, and had suffered an abundance of design abuse. Their desire was for a midcentury modern house — one of the single-story, flat-roof homes with lots of built-ins that had a brief run of popularity in the 1950s and ’60s.
What they found was a 6,000-square-foot house that was built in 1975. True, it was a one-story, flat-roofed home, but it was so large. There were only the two of them, and the house boasted five bedrooms, five full bathrooms, and multiple living and dining areas, plus three wet bars, a pool and a Japanese soaking room.
When it was new, it was quite a showplace for late midcentury style. Forty years later, a string of owners had left their marks of disregard. Stark black moldings on white walls that originally created a Mondrian-like grid were painted white, leaving viewers to wonder why the ghostly moldings crisscrossed the walls. Shiny, scraped hardwood floors and dark granite counters — current HGTV overkills — were added, and pleated flounces had been swagged over the floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room. Grass-cloth wall coverings had been partially ripped down or painted over. One of the most egregious additions was a French wedding cake of a fountain centered in the front yard.
Jen and John, both 34, were undaunted. They bought the house, eventually. It was such an anomaly in size and style for the Bedford area that it took ages to find appropriate comparables.
The first thing they did was rip down the drapery flounces. Threads indicating their previous existence still dangle from high above. Walls were moved, and a family room that’s suitable for corralling the Coopers’ three large dogs was carved out of the old dining room.
Jen had been avidly collecting midcentury modern home accessories since she was in college, and this house would become a showcase for her collections. For years, her disposable income has gone to purchase artworks and period furniture. As she moved to San Antonio to attend law school, then Lubbock post-graduation, she continued her collecting habits, adding furniture as she could afford it and find it. Still, once she and her husband moved into the large house in Bedford, they were furniture-light.
Her family came to their rescue, handing off many pieces of age-appropriate furniture. Her mother had a house full of mid mod, and it all came Jen’s way. More heirlooms from other family members found their way onto the shelves and into the rooms. As she itemizes the pieces from her family, it would appear she is the only grandchild of four pairs of doting grandparents. Not so. She says she cleaned up after her siblings had their pick. As the oldest of the generation of grandchildren, she figures she ended up with many pieces purely because she had heard the stories or knew their background. Plus, she says her family is more inclined toward minimalism.
Vintage is Jen’s specialty. She’s been attracted to antique clothing since she was in high school, saying she’s always been inclined to visit the thrift stores instead of a mall. Even with a law degree, something she thought would aid her in business, Jen eschewed a traditional track and opened Vintage Tex, a clothing store on Grapevine’s Main Street that specializes in pre-1990s clothing. Her favorite finds are pieces from the ’40s and ’50s; with each passing year they get harder to find, a problem she encounters in locating pieces for her house. Many of the things in her home can be carbon-dated to the ’70s or early ’80s, later than the traditional midcentury modern purists are wont to go. But here is a trove of collectibles that haven’t hit the mainstream eBay buyers, pieces that aren’t slapped with the overused and often erroneous descriptive “Eames Style.”
For example, she is fond of furniture from American manufacturers such as United Furniture and pieces designed by Kent Coffey for his Perspecta line. She has complete bedroom suites in both; her greatest find was a king-sized Perspecta headboard, not something that was common in the 1960s. This furniture is more ornate than, say, Danish modern from the same era. United’s cabinet fronts are crenelated, and Coffey’s have vertical wood cabinet pulls that are more like architectural features than hardware.
She finds this furniture at local estate sales; online; at Retro Revival in the Antique Gallery of Lewisville, a good resource for midcentury modern; and at The Vintage Freak in Bedford. “It’s a record store with a fair-sized showroom,” she says. Her education in all things retro comes primarily from the buy-sell-trade groups on Facebook, or collector sites dedicated to a specific designer or era.
While she has numerous acquisitions, it’s the finds she is most likely to crow about. Just in the formal living room is an Eames lounge chair and ottoman she landed for $40 because the woods don’t quite match. A set of Bitossi ceramics in the Seta pattern was found at a recent First Monday in Canton for $10. “I think at retail they would be over $500,” she says. They now have pride of place on her dining room table. The long curved sofa in an olive-colored silk was several times a hand-me-down till Jen got it for $200, “a steal,” she says.
Many of her pieces have been brought back to life with paint stripper and sandpaper. A chest that was painted purple and white was reclaimed and is now in her entry under a Japanese cocktail table top that has become wall art.
Artworks are dominating her most recent online searches, as there are plenty of blank wall spaces in the house. But once online, Jen confesses, it’s like going down a rabbit hole, one where she has found a community willing to share its knowledge. And while other collectors are willing to buy, sell or trade, she’d rather find her treasures “in the wild,” as the collectors call estate sales and junk shops that have underpriced collectibles.
Furnishing this expansive house will take time and many, many expeditions into the wild. Which is fine with the Coopers, as outings are often the way they celebrate special occasions. A Curtis Jere wall sculpture was found on Valentine’s Day, and that rare Bitossi group commemorates their first trip to Canton.
Oh, yes, for collectors, first trips to major collection centers are celebrated anniversaries.