How to Update a Midcentury Modern Gem
George Marrone was helping a friend look at houses when he stumbled upon a rare find: an obsessively maintained, well-loved midcentury gem that needed some work. Not a heavy lift, not a project that would require an architect or major contractors, just a new vision and some effort.
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"Every window had massive coverings and valances. Every surface you can see that was white now was brown," George recalls, standing in the spacious living room of the Wilmington, Delaware, house he shares with his partner, Michael Nocera. "It was all cosmetic, if you could just see past it."
George and Michael spent a full year of weekends tearing up carpet, ripping down curtains, painting, and hanging wall-paper—sometimes upside down—while Michael applied his handyman skills to a fairly extensive kitchen renovation and some electrical work. Ultimately, the pair transformed the trilevel house into a stripped-down, brightened version of its former self.
"I grew up in the ’70s and was drawn to The Brady Bunch. This is like my grown-up Brady Bunch house." George Marrone, resident
Wilmington artist Carolyn Blish had built the house with her husband, a DuPont executive, in 1959. She sold it in the 1970s to the couple who sold it to George and Michael in 2010. George says city records don’t list an architect, but it’s clear it was more than an ordinary slap-and-dash suburban house of its time, with careful details including built-in external planters around the master bedroom, a three-sided fireplace, a curved, floating staircase, a suspended walnut buffet in the dining room, and entertaining areas that intentionally flow from one to the next.
"I grew up in the ’70s and was drawn to The Brady Bunch," George says, recalling the sitcom’s midcentury aesthetic, with lots of built-ins and lofty spaces. "This is like my grown-up Brady Bunch house."
At 4,300 square feet, the residence is also a gallery for his personal, quirky collection of midcentury furniture, which he’s gathered over 20 years, picking through estate sales and learning to navigate online auctions. George uses the word "luck" often when he describes how he’s amassed his enviable lineup, but admits that a little bit of endurance helps. "I love the hunt," he says.
He started collecting in the 1990s, just after getting out of college. His first pieces were two Paul McCobb Planner Group stools that he found at a flea market for $50. "I didn’t even know who Paul McCobb was," he says. But after years of plying auctions and estate sales, he now owns a list of classics, some bought at prices that would make any design lover insanely jealous: an original Warren Platner armchair, spotted at an estate sale, for $500; a Finn Juhl Japan chair, purchased at auction for $1,250; a rosewood Mies van der Rohe Barcelona daybed, also bought at auction and usually occupied by bulldogs Sasha and Sophie, for $2,000.
George, a healthcare professional, and Michael, who works in finance, met in Rehoboth Beach and eventually settled in Wilmington, George’s hometown, just a couple of hours north of Michael’s native Washington, D.C. They first lived in a traditional town house, with most of George’s midcentury finds stuffed in the attic or on a kind of museum-like rotation in the living spaces. "In the old house, if I wanted to put something out, I had to put something else away," George remembers. "It was a running joke."
But the sprawl of their new house offers plenty of room for his design treasures and for the couple’s art collection, which includes a Damien Hirst "Valium" print and lithographs by Karel Appel and Andy Warhol. In some rooms, the art dictated the color palette, pushing George to venture back out to estate sales or onto auction sites to find just the right thing. "When you’re in a new space, and you have that desire, you have to work at it," he says.
George uses the word "luck" often when he describes how he’s amassed his enviable lineup, but he admits that a little bit of endurance helps.
Collecting midcentury classics was easier in the 1990s, before eBay and online auctions became mobbed by modern design–obsessed newcomers, George laments. "Things have exploded and so have the prices," he says. But he continues, successfully, to pore over the web for little stashes. A few years ago he found a Louis Poulsen PH 5 pendant lamp from an online dealer selling the fixtures from the University of Copenhagen.
But for all his attention to midcentury design, George isn’t a purist or afraid to combine classics with newer pieces in production today, from Jonathan Adler, Room & Board, or Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. "There are great things coming out," he observes. "I like mixing it up with a nod to the past."
When George is prompted to consider whether he’ll get bored with the "new" house now that the pair is settled in, he leaves that door just slightly ajar. "This felt like kismet. It felt right," he says. "Maybe there’s another midcentury house out there for me. But who knows?"