When John Smagner found out he would soon be given several pieces of midcentury furniture that would not fit into his Chicago condo, he went hunting for a bigger house. He ended up purchasing a row house built in 1892. Around that time, he was binge-watching the television series Mad Men. “So I’m watching this show and thinking about all of these things that my grandmother had,” Smagner says. “I’m thinking, ‘Gee, I’m going to be inheriting this furniture. Maybe I could create a home around it that reflects the time when this was new.'”
The house is on “a really great block in Roscoe Village in Chicago,” Smagner says. “I thought it would be big enough to fit all of these things I was going to soon inherit.”
“People talk about that moment when they knew this was the house,” Smagner says. For him, it was stepping into the entryway for the first time. It had bare walls and a plain wood floor when he walked in, but “I didn’t see what was there,” he says, “I saw what it could be.” He especially loved the dramatic banister.
Smagner ordered tile from Original Style in England for the entryway. He added the textured Lincrusta wallpaper, popular when the home was built.
Smagner felt a lot of freedom to add details that would have been true with the time the home was built, even as he was bringing much of the home into the mid-20th century.
“I will say that a very dear friend of mine’s husband is an architecture critic. He said anyone who has ever lived in this house before would be rolling in their graves because I’ve made this so decorative,” Smagner says. Because this row house is on the small side, its occupants likely would have been working-class, and the posh finishes seen here unlikely. “I don’t care,” Smagner says. He loves how everything has come together anyway.
Paint color: Eider White SW-7014, Sherwin-Williams
The dining room “is kind of where it all began,” he says. Smagner knew that his grandmother, June Craig, would be giving him her blond dining set when she moved out of her larger home. He also knew that her possessions would be in pristine condition. “My grandmother’s house was very important to her,” Smagner says. “She’s really the only person I knew growing up who regularly moved her furniture around and had paintings on the walls.” Craig always treated her home — and her guests — with respect, polishing silverware and setting out her fancy china for Thanksgiving meals. “The things she had were beautiful,” Smagner says.
His mother mentioned that his grandmother had had a pink dining room, so Smagner began to research the color’s midcentury history. “I read some more, and I learned that during the Eisenhower era, pink was really popular,” Smagner says. “Mamie Eisenhower made pink very popular, and people had pink dining rooms. I decided to do it.”
Smagner commissioned husband-wife artists Genna and Signe Grushovenko to create the painting at the left from a photo of his family celebrating Christmas in 1966 around the same dining table that is now in his home. He has many memories of dining at this table during holidays.
Paint color: Bridal Bouquet HDC-CT-09, Behr
Smagner’s grandmother, shown with him here on his second birthday, has been a constant presence in his life. “We ate dinner at her house every Sunday. She would make a beef roast and the best mashed potatoes and always a dessert,” he says. “I’ve always had a really close relationship with my grandmother,” Smagner says. “Growing up she never missed a piano recital or a choir concert. She came to everything.”
The painting above the buffet, also by the Grushovenkos, is based on a vintage photograph and inspired the shade of pink for the walls. Smagner purchased the art, his first by the couple, because it reminded him of family reunions held on the Fourth of July as he was growing up. Family has always been very important to his grandmother, Smagner says. “She had a lot of brothers and sisters, and we’d get together every year for a family reunion back in Pennsylvania.” The exact pink for the walls came from the frosting on a cake in the foreground, as well as a woman’s dress at the painting’s top right.
Smagner paid just over $500 for the sconces, which he discovered on eBay. He also found four armchairs by modernist furniture designer Edward Wormley on eBay for $299, and had them repainted and reupholstered. The large white bowl by Jonathan Adler is truly the only item in the house without sentimental value, Smagner says.
Tray displaying alcohol: Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams
The chandelier echoes the one in the painting of his family; he hunted it down on eBay. “That’s supposed to look like a flying saucer, and it goes up and down like a flying saucer,” Smagner says. When describing the details of his decor, he frequently points out elements that represent the Atomic Age, the period of history around the time the atomic bomb was first detonated in 1945.
“I think of that [midcentury] period as being a period of good design,” Smagner says. “Through my reading and research, I understand now that this was inspired by the Atomic Age.”
Cranes: Anthropoplogie; ceramic fruit bowl: Bauer Pottery
Smagner’s grandmother gave her grandson the blond dining room set, which included not only the table and chairs, but also a china cabinet and buffet. He does not know the brand, but the back of the china cabinet is stamped “April 1955.” Even the glass coffeepot topping the china cabinet in this image has sentimental value; Smagner’s grandparents received it as a gift for their 25th wedding anniversary.
A friend’s mother-in-law — a designer — provided the drapery fabric, which is new but inspired by midcentury designs.
He stocked the china cabinet with JFK and Jackie O salt and pepper shakers, and glassware and china from his grandparents. His grandmother gave him the blown-glass ball years ago.
The gold-rimmed china references the Atomic Age. “The gold rings — those are inspired by the rings around Saturn,” Smagner says.
When he bought the house, this display niche was under a wall, which Smagner noticed was a bit bumpy. On his evening walks, he observed that several neighbors’ homes had wall niches, which made him suspect that one was buried underneath his bumpy wall. Sure enough, it was. The contractor created all the wooden elements seen here, echoing the shape of the opening between the living room and dining room.
Smagner’s late graduate school advisers, a married couple, gave him the black-and-white plates and the silver menorah. The yellow teapot belonged to his great-grandmother. “Nearly everything in my house once belonged to someone else,” Smagner says. “Almost everything in my house has a story.”
The 18-by-10-foot living room abuts the dining room, so he deliberately carried the pink over via the artwork above the sofa. The painting, another by the Grushovenkos, depicts a pregnant woman smoking a cigarette and drinking a Coke. She has Coca-Cola can curlers in her hair. It never fails to elicit a reaction from visitors, Smagner says.
He bought the sofa at Walter E. Smithe Furniture + Design in Chicago. “I love it because I can just sit and look at this couch like a work of art,” the homeowner says. “I love the shape of it, the fabric, how everything just came together, the buttons on the back.” Smagner had the dining room chairs he received from his grandmother reupholstered in the same fabric. The long throw pillow on the sofa was custom-made.
Smagner stores his sheet music in the side table, by Edward Wormley; the lamp topping it belonged to his grandmother. He inherited the candleholders from his graduate school advisers. The ashtray belonged to his grandmother, and Smagner says it is purely decorative — no one smokes here.
Paint color: Colonnade Gray SW-7641, Sherwin-Williams; vase on coffee table: Still House; tray: 1stdibs; coffee table and sconces: eBay
Armchair and throw pillow: Walter E. Smithe; round side table: Constellation by Edward Wormley, 1stdibs
The lamp belonged to Smagner’s grandmother.
Photo by Palo Dobrik Photography
BEFORE: The living room fireplace was a vivid green, and the space lacked bookshelves.
AFTER: Smagner’s contractor, Jonathan Hill of Artistic Construction, worked with his designer, Taylor Littrel, also of Artistic Construction, who found a mantel for the new fireplace at a local salvage store. Smagner chose the soapstone for the fireplace surround. Together he and the designer came up with the bookshelf design. The contractor used chicken wire to recreate the existing cove ceiling above the shelving, then plastered over the area. The curves echo the shape of the opening between the living room and dining room.
The picture rail in both the living room and dining room was in bad condition when Smagner bought the house, so his contractor made new molding in the style of the original molding upstairs.
The piano is a Kawai, the brand that Smagner grew up playing. He took lessons for 10 years.
Smagner plans to renovate his kitchen in October. His goal is to create an Art Deco-inspired space centered on the home’s 1950 Universal stove. He plans to install a Big Chill fridge and inset cabinets. (Smagner requested that we not photograph his kitchen in its “before” state.)
Another Grushovenko work hangs along the staircase.
The bedroom set, including the bed, nightstands and dresser, is by Bassett Furniture and was a gift from Smagner’s grandmother. She would have bought it about 1950. “My grandparents had this bedroom set for almost their entire married life,” Smagner says.
Paint color: Harbor Haze 2136-60, Benjamin Moore; chenille bedspread: Etsy; sunburst mirror: Rejuvenation; wall lamp; 1stdibs; curtains: custom
Smagner’s grandmother was a stickler for taking good care of things, and as a result, the furniture pieces are in perfect condition.
Photo by Palo Dobrik Photography
BEFORE: When Smagner bought the house, the upstairs bathroom’s floor had burgundy tile. Smagner had his contractor rip everything out and start over. But he saved the pink fixtures.
AFTER: Smagner ordered the pink and gray tiles from B&W Tile in Gardena, California, which produces midcentury colors.
Smagner scored some original midcentury pieces on eBay, still in their original packing: the soap dish, toilet paper holder, glass cup holder and towel racks.
Medicine cabinet: Restoration Hardware; sconces: Rejuvenation
Smagner converted his second bedroom into a TV and sitting room. No midcentury style here; instead, this room represents the mix of furniture he collected over the years.
Paint color: Gauntlet Gray SW-7019, Sherwin-Williams
Even the chairs in the backyard, new by Brown Jordan, are in a style from the 1960s.
“My grandmother did not have a lot of money, but she took care of her things, and she kept everything looking very nice and neat,” Smagner says.
Here is Smagner with his grandmother last Christmas at her assisted-living facility.