"Midcentury Modern" was a term without much meaning to Greg Steinberg, but then he started renovating his bachelor pad off Melrose Avenue with his fiancée, Alexandra Becket.
She was more than familiar with the phrase. Her grandfather helped to define it. Welton Becket designed some of Los Angeles' most iconic Midcentury architecture, including the Capitol Records building, the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, the Cinerama Dome movie theater and the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
"As I started to learn about what her grandfather accomplished, I got all wrapped up in the 1950s residential genre," Steinberg said.
At the time, though Steinberg couldn't yet articulate his taste and style the way he does today, he and Becket instantly connected through a mutual interest in design. Becket remembers feeling a bit anxious about seeing her boyfriend's home for the first time.
"When I just started dating Greg, I walked in thinking, 'What's this guy really like?' And then I saw the Heywood-Wakefield and thought, 'OK, this is good.' It was a huge relief," Becket says, referring to Steinberg's classic midcentury furniture. "I knew I liked his taste. And, by the way, the house was very clean."
Steinberg bought the house in April 1992. While it was in escrow, the Rodney King riots broke out, and with a recession in Southern California deepening, it wasn't long before Steinberg found himself upside down on his mortgage.
"L.A. looked like a war zone on CNN. Property values plummeted," he said, adding that the experience was "an instant lesson in real estate. And as we all know, lessons learned the hard way really stick."
Undaunted, Steinberg decided on a quick renovation, ripping out the 40-year-old shag carpeting and removing the grease stains on the kitchen counters. The house had been built in 1923 in a then-modest neighborhood near the intersection of Melrose and Fairfax avenues. Homes in the area lacked the archways and wrought-iron accents typical of other neighborhoods' Spanish homes, but Steinberg's house did have a fireplace by Arts and Crafts tile maker Ernest Batchelder.
"You'll find these all up and down the neighborhood in other Spanish homes," Steinberg said.
"It was painted white, but we uncovered the layers to its gorgeous original state," Becket said.
Though the tiling and facade had a Spanish look, take those elements away and the architecture essentially was the modern box the couple wanted.
After largely stripping the home down to the beams last year, Steinberg and Becket added a kitchen with the help of the Los Angeles firm Marmol Radziner. (Another family connection: Managing partner Leo Marmol also happens to be Becket's brother-in-law.)
Today the kitchen and living room are open, which creates a clear sightline from the front door to the back patio. The airiness of the communal rooms, however, is nicely complemented by the privacy of the master suite. The layout of the two-bedroom, 2.5-bath house — open in some parts and intimate in others — makes the 1,400 square feet seem much larger.
They decorated the spaces largely using pieces that Becket discovered at flea markets, estate sales or online auctions. Some pieces from Steinberg's bachelor days have been redeployed too, including a pendant lamp in the office and the 1940s Heywood-Wakefield dining table and credenza that secured the early approval of Becket.
"I think of it as a brand new house," Steinberg says. "I have no feelings of the house before the remodel."
Modern the house is, but cold and sterile it isn't. The warm blond and whiskey tones of the wood furniture mixed with the citrus hues of their kitchen accents and sunshine-flooded open floor plan make the home inviting.
The couple, whose wedding happens to be Saturday, discuss every architectural decision, every piece of art, every detail down to an ashtray. Either person can veto an element of the decor, but they're usually on the same page, in mutual pursuit of what Becket's grandfather always strove for: the elegant marriage of function and style.
The couple enjoyed remodeling their home so much that they have put their respective careers on hold to go into house flipping, though they intend to keep their personal residence. Becket, an artist and textile designer who has sold her work to Trina Turk, Anthropologie and Los Angeles-based clothing designer Rozae Nichols, has begun remodeling and reselling other homes in Silver Lake and Highland Park with Steinberg under the name ModOp Design, and the couple say they have enjoyed significant success.
They cited forces that prompted their plunge into real estate: low prices, low interest rates, government incentives that helped prospective buyers, and most important, readily available contractors and labor.
"In 2005, contractors were prima donnas. They wouldn't even look at a project unless it was a big one," Steinberg said. "But now you can get great contractors at good prices."
Becket styles all ModOp interiors with her designs plus furniture she buys and restores — all offered for sale along with the home. The first home the couple listed went on the market in May and sold for close to $100,000 above the asking price to a couple who made an all-cash offer.
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