The White Stage
Want to remove unwanted paint to reveal and restore the original wood finish on furniture or wood in your home? Great idea, but a lesson comes with the stripping process—all it takes is one session of stripping to make one forever think twice (or ten times) about ever painting over natural wood grain surfaces to “brighten” or “update.”
Fortunately for us, no one had ever painted over the mahogany trim, or the multi-colored plaster walls in our 1933 log cabin house. No 1950s or Home Depot upgrades of lighting fixtures, no rehab of the kitchen—the original cabinets and white porcelain cast iron sink on white porcelain legs were still there. It was still 1930s through and through. We bought it in the days before houses had to be “staged” for selling so there was no one advising the seller on updating the “presentation” of the house. Of course they weren’t asking $2.5 million or more for it either!
Last weekend we happened on an open house in that price range and took a look-see. Every surface was white! Even the wood floors were painted white. Of course, there were the obligatory white couches and white stuffed chairs in the living room. Does no one ever have children who walk around with jelly sandwiches anymore? How do you live in these places? Look at the real estate ads—almost exclusively white interiors. And the trendy exteriors are white with black trim. My real estate friend tells me that’s because this look, popularized by Joanna Gaines’ design firm Magnolia of Waco, Texas, is now the popular style country-wide and that’s what the broadest range of buyers is looking for. But I wonder, with Laguna’s uniqueness being its selling point, why are we taking that uniqueness away and making houses conform to a standardized look inspired by this latest “Farmhouse” style from HGTV? Don’t we want new residents who appreciate the uniqueness, who in turn will appreciate the uniqueness of our city as a whole and will not expect our city to “upgrade” to the latest style too?
Or is no one actually going to live in these pricey houses? Will they sit empty for most of the year waiting for their owners to come and check in on them once in a while? In that case the white couches will only gather dust and not jelly sandwiches. And we will have a city of staged houses, one that ordinary people who work and have children and dogs and cats, who pull weeds and take out the trash, who come and go and chat with the neighbors, no longer occupy.
The white staging for sale takes us further in that direction.
This approach prevents houses from being themselves—and it prevents owners, neighbors and visitors from enjoying their differences. Since most houses in Laguna Beach were built one at a time, each one has its own heritage and personality. We have the early board and batten cottages, period revival—mostly Mediterranean and provincial (Aubrey St. Clair, Jean Egasse), art deco, mid-century modern and 1970s modern that has yet to be elevated to trendy with its exposed redwood and diagonal siding (Chris Abel, Lamont Langworthy, Fred Briggs), “Miami Vice” modern of the 1980s with its pink and turquoise vibe and all the contemporary architecture that has happened since—the Mark Singer houses and more. They all have their colors, their textures, their characteristic detailing. Exposed wood ceilings with wood trusswork in natural wood tones transcend many eras and are essential to many of those styles. Brick walls and stonework were intended to look like brick and stone. Now even those are sometimes painted white.
Once painted, those features are forever hidden unless someone cares enough to have the paint removed. Sandblasting will remove the paint but also damages the materials below, so it’s not recommended. The alternative—chemical stripping—is hard to do. The boyfriend of a friend of mine was auditioning to be her permanent sweetheart—at her request he stripped the paint off her brick fireplace, an agonizing process. She said, “I knew then he was a keeper!”
Those dedicated future suitors will have a lot to prove once the next new trend comes along and formulaic white is no longer the in-thing. Wouldn’t it be better to make removing paint unnecessary by not succumbing to trendiness? Let’s keep the integrity of our town and our houses and appreciate the architectural character—and the exposed wood, brick, stone as it was originally intended and designed to be. We’ll all be keepers.
Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She is also a long-time boardmember of Village Laguna, Inc.