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Channeling the funky ’50s in updating a Virginia house |

Channeling the funky ’50s in updating a Virginia house

Amissville, Virginia — The pink stucco house was a time capsule from the 1950s, with its original metal kitchen cabinets, aluminum bathroom tiles, wood paneling and parquet floors. But it was in the last place you’d expect to find it: on a woodsy 25-acre lot along the Rappahannock River nestled in Virginia’s Hunt Country.

Siobhan and Sander Mueller, a suburban Washington couple looking for a weekend getaway, were immediately hooked when they saw the listing in 2013, even though the property was a little rundown.

“We thought, ‘What could a house like this house be doing in the woods outside of Warrenton?’ ” Siobhan says. “This house wants to be in Palm Springs.” They realized the house would need some careful restoration and a small addition by an architect to accommodate their family. They were prepared to pay for that, but to stay on budget, they decided to take on the decorating themselves.

Using primarily online-shopping sites and blogs and sharing selections on Pinterest, the couple found the tools to create the mid-century vibe they wanted.

Sander, 50, chief strategy officer at Anybill, which provides accounts payable and payment services to businesses, and Siobhan, 46, a senior vice president at Widmeyer Communications, plunged into the project with a sense of adventure; the quirky property was so different from their traditional Colonial home. Their mission became to be good stewards of its unusual design legacy. They hired architect Dwight McNeill of McNeill Baker Design Associates.

The original owner, an artist and composer who traveled much of the year and whom the Muellers have come to refer to as Uncle Buddy, had this house custom-built. It has an open floor plan, the centerpiece a 40-by-28-foot great room paneled in red-gum plywood with 12-foot ceilings. The focal point is a large fireplace featuring exotic Chinese Chippendale motifs and trimmed with hand-carved dogwood blossoms. The wacky overscale blossoms also appear as a surround for sliding doors.

McNeill and the Muellers made contact with one of Uncle Buddy’s relatives who still lived in the area. They delighted in seeing photographs of how the house was furnished in the 1950s and 1960s. Although the look is mid-century, Warrenton architect Washington Reed, who designed the home with lots of input from Uncle Buddy, had been part of the restoration team at Colonial Williamsburg. This might explain the serpentine brick garden walls and Colonial-style brick shed.

The house had only two bedrooms, and the Muellers wanted a couple more; they have two children, Beck, 12, and Lulu, 9. They also needed a larger kitchen and had to fix burst pipes and buckling floors and replace the septic system.

Siobhan and Sander sourced most things from the Internet and soaked up inspiration from blogs such as Retro Renovation ( and Remodelista ( They found less expensive versions of classic mid-century-style dining chairs in molded plastic and leather and plywood loungers. They played with floor plans and picked out Ikea kitchen fittings. Siobhan sought out affordable touches: On HM Home (, she found cool accessories under $10, such as tea-light holders and vases.

Although their Colonial is stuffed to the brim with the things a family of four accumulates, here in the country they appreciated the spareness of the space and didn’t want to overfurnish it. Here’s the Muellers’ take, edited from conversations and emails, on how the house came together.

Q: How did you approach the furnishings?

Siobhan: I am all about the look for less. You can fall in love with everything at Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams, but unless money is no object, you get two chairs from them and then surround them with cheaper things you find online. Buying furniture gets really expensive really fast.

Q: This house is a bit of a mix of mid-century modern decorating elements. How did you decide which direction to go?

Siobhan: Everyone loves mid-century modern, but true mid-century modern is a little bland. It’s woody, tweedy and masculine. Uncle Buddy seems to have been influenced by Dorothy Draper [a prolific designer in the 1930s and 1940s, famous for her use of bright colors, bold prints and lacquered panel doors]. We wanted to connect to the hand-carved pagoda frame and dogwood blossoms. So we added a few unexpected things, such as a Kelly-green lacquered chest and some pillows with palm tree fabric, plus a few bursts of orange accessories.

Q: The house already had such a strong design identity. What attracted you to that particular house?

Sander: We had been looking in the area for several years. I didn’t want the type of weekend house with deer heads on the walls and pictures of fox hunts. We were intrigued by the history of the house and the design, and the more we got into it, you could feel the character of the man who lived there. We felt a connection to it.

Q: How did you two collaborate on so many decisions?

Sander: We would sit in bed with our laptops open and go through stuff. She would show me something, and I would say, “I hate it.” I would show her something, and she would say, “Maybe.” Anyway, in the end, we compromised pretty well. I love to cook so I picked out the appliances, but she laid out the kitchen.

Q: You replaced the small galley kitchen by expanding it into what was a porch area using Ikea components. How did that work?

Siobhan: I used the online Ikea tool, and it’s fairly intuitive. The goal was to have multiple work and prep areas, with Sander having his own cooking area. During the holidays, when the house is filled with family, we magnet recipes to the stainless-steel shelves. It’s like working the line in a diner.

Q: Did you install the kitchen yourselves?

Siobhan: No, the thought of install was terrifying. We called Expert Design Kitchen Cabinets Installation. They were awesome, and the counsel they gave me on the design was invaluable. There are little tricks, such as ordering extra filler panels to ensure spacing, extra parts needed to do a drawer microwave, pieces they include but you don’t actually need. It was the kind of inside advice that saves you money and saves them hassle.

Q: How did you deal with furnishing the great room?

Sander: It was a challenge to fill that space. We started out simply. Siobhan knew the center rug she wanted, a Moroccan shag. She said, “Let’s get the two longest couches possible and anchor the thing and build around it.” The dining room table was a splurge. I didn’t want a wood table, so I found a metal one from Italy. It can seat 12 people for dinner.

Siobhan: Uncle Buddy loved to entertain, and anybody who ever lives in a house leaves some of themselves there. We feel his spirit, and we have a picture of him on the bookcase, plus a photo of the family we bought the house from. We find these to be a real connection to the past, which is something important to us about this house. We love to cook and have people over, and our kids love having puppet shows here and game nights. Uncle Buddy often wore a red silk kimono when he hosted parties. Last year, his niece gave the kimono to us.

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