Design Driven Column: Hip Heritage – Creating Modern in an Older Home

This article (edited) is published also in Salon, the Telegraph Journal – here


Given the age of our region, a significant percentage of us live in historic (or heritage) properties. If, for instance, you live in the uptown core of Saint John, or in downtown Fredericton, chances are good that you either rent or own a home older than the oldest of its living citizens.

Not surprisingly, therefore, a question I get asked a lot is  ‘How can – or should – I modernize my historic property?’  It’s quite common for homeowners to want to update and otherwise modernize their heritage space, a desire informed by the interests of function and design, both of which have evolved considerably since milk was delivered by horse wagon and coal was the primary domestic heating fuel.

Part of the apparent difficulty of implementing change in these homes is that the fact they possess architectural charms rarely found in modern homes, such as 11-foot ceilings, large crown moldings, elaborate plaster ceiling medallions, stained glass windows, and uniquely-carved fireplace mantels.  Although these features probably played a significant role in seducing the current owner to purchase, they inevitably impose décor dilemmas (or rather, opportunities) the resources of popular taste aren’t particularly suited to address.

The challenge begins with not wanting to destroy the historic features of the home in the interests of a quick ‘modern’ fix.  From a design perspective there are some highly effective and relatively inexpensive projects you can adopt to create a modern aesthetic feel without compromising its historic integrity.

·     Paint it all – the ceiling, molding (even the plaster ceiling medallions, if present) and  baseboards – a crisp gallery white. Often as not in heritage homes, the crown moldings has already been painted over in often unlikely colors in an attempt to draw the eye to its Victorian character.  You will find, however, that by painting out the moldings and reducing it all to a consistent white, the sense of space is not only increased but instantly modernized.  To add flair, create a feature wall with a modern wallpaper.



Photo:  Judith Mackin Caption:  This living room (one end of a double parlor) originally had over-painted colors on the ceiling trim along with a ceiling fan and blue walls.  By painting out all color and adding modern décor accents such as the wallpaper and pendant light, the room, although still Victorian, now boasts a modern, crisp aesthetic.  Wallpaper:  Moda Silver & Yellow Damask Lamp:  George Nelson Hanging Bubble Lamp by Modernica Couch:  Reupholstered mid-century couch handed down by client’s grandmother  Tables:  Eclipse Nesting Tables, Set of 3 Designed by Jon Gasca for Stua· White Shag Custom Fit Rug:  B&N Flooring

–       Contemporize the lighting in hallways or main living spaces with dramatic modern chandeliers or oversized pendant lighting.  In addition, consider the installation of pot lights in the ceiling as well as track lighting in key areas to accentuate artwork or furniture. Be sure to install dimmers on all lights.  In sum, generally rethink  the placement of light in your rooms, and consider placing recessed floor lighting in the hall or on the stairway to add drama.

·     An effective, highly modern aesthetic can be created through the use of architectural glass walls. Primarily in use today in offices, these walls allow natural light to flow through the dark spaces often found in historic properties.  Herman Miller walls, which require only a two-person set up, are freestanding and come in glass, vinyl, fabric, and a range of veneers.   These panel modules are available in a variety of standard heights and widths.

·     Modern Furnishing is key to complementing historic properties. Homeowners often believe, incorrectly, that the architecture of their home has to be modern in order to accommodate modern furniture.  Nothing could be further from the truth; some of the best examples of contemporary design depends upon a blend of historic architecture with modern décor and art.

I will leave you with another example (to go with the one above) of a recent home design makeover I did for a client living in a heritage home in Saint John’s south end.


Photo:  Judith Mackin – another example of use of white walls, trim and molding.  In the dining room we removed the historic brass lamp and replaced it with a modern one.  Painting a feature wall a granite color and adding a bright modern artwork helped modernize the space.  Artwork:  Cliff Turner’s  “High Average” (Handworks Gallery)  Light:  Patrick Townsend’s White Orbit Chandelier Dining table |chair set:  Mid-century table and reupholstered chairs (white velour) and client’s grandmother Chair (front): Pelican Chair Designed by Finn Juhl, produced by Onecollection Grey Rug:  B&N Flooring (New Zealand Wool)

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Judith Mackin is a freelance journalist in Saint John New Brunswick. She also runs her own design, marketing and public relations firm, PUNCH Productions, and punchinside, the interior design branch of PUNCH. You can follow her blog at, reach her at or follow her on twitter: judithmackin.


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