K+BB Collective | The Designers' Corner

May 08 2016

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Saving the Wilson House

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It was 1959, and Ralph Wilson Sr., the founder of Temple, Texas-based Wilsonart, was emerging at the top of the design world with his laminate business. In the 1950s, laminate was the luxury material, because it was both durable and decorative for tabletops and counters. This past week I traveled to Temple for a closer look at the home that pioneered this material that’s now coming back in style.

Wilson built his private residence as both a model home for his company and a testing ground for the quality and durability of his own products. About 10 years ago, when laminate and mid-century design was not in favor, the house was up for sale. Wilson’s widow and fourth wife, Sunny, was told she needed to gut the home and totally remodel to make it at all sellable.

That’s where design historian Grace Jeffers stepped in. She guided us on our tour of the home and told us exactly what happened that day.

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As an expert on the 1950s and particularly in surface materials, Jeffers was brought over to the house on the first day of her job at Wilsonart a decade ago. The trip was meant to just be an introduction to the company, but she was shocked at the sight of these cabinets being carried out of the home in renovations. She immediately called up her managers at Wilsonart and asked them to give her time to get a plan together and prove that the house was worth saving.

With a tub of wallpaper remover and a razor in hand (she recommended not using a razor in most cases, but this was an exception) she started taking down the heavy blue damask wallpaper Sunny had covered the laminate walls in. She found the original still intact underneath, complete with a graphic design by Wilson’s daughter – arguably the first of its kind made of laminate.

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Through her research and weeks of digging through archives, she proved that the kitchen showcases some of the earliest work in post-forming, a process where laminate is bent and wrapped to form continuous curves from the top to the side edge of the counter. Other applications of laminate that had never been done before included built-in laminate cabinetry in the kitchen, the laundry and bathroom – including a very overwhelming pink shower. The house also had some of the earliest under-mount sinks in laminate tops.

While these installations are common now, they were unheard of in the late 1950s. Jeffers worked for months restoring the home to its original laminate glamour, bringing back in the cabinets and countertops (Wilsonart had held them in storage for her) and ridding the home of structural damage to the roof and mold problems. She took her research and her photos to the National Register.

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“They had just shot down an important structure in New York, so I was beginning to think I had very little chance,” said Jeffers. “And of course, when I put up the pictures of the pink bath and those turquoise counters in the kitchen, they just laughed at me.”

But her findings proved worthwhile. In July 1998, the Wilson House was awarded National Landmark status by the Texas Historical Commission and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a significant architectural structure.

Although of course the pastel cabinetry and countertops is ghastly, and layout of the bathrooms strange and definitely unsafe, walking into that home felt like walking back into 1960. The years of Wilson showing off his product to his guests and testing his laminate (including putting it in the garage and never ordering a garage door – he wanted to see if it could stand the elements) were felt in here. Or that might have been the ghost of his estranged brother, Ben – but that’s a story for another time.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, May 8th, 2016 at 2:39 PM and is filed under Creativity, Inspiration, Kitchen Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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