Tour a Midcentury Home That Was Once the Worst House on the Block

Two teachers devoted every break from school to turning their house into a fresh, fun, modern family home.

For most of the year, Ken and Julie Balcom are unassuming middle-school teachers. Come summer, Christmas vacation, and spring break, they turn into an almost-fearless design-build duo. "Ken is just really handy," Julie says, "and I design it all, I help paint, and I help supervise."

entryway with black door and wood stripes
Edmund Barr

To impart the midcentury style they adore, the Balcoms amped up the architecture on the front entry of their Southern California home. The stucco post was wrapped in orange-hue lumber; modern house numbers were mounted on a black-painted plywood plaque; two statement doors in dramatic black replaced the standard doors; and the steps, risers, and landing were paved in small hexagonal tiles that Ken painstakingly laid over the existing concrete.

A gallery of ever-changing artwork fills Ken and Julie's living room wall. Etsy, Society 6, and Minted are their go-to sources for art. They scoop up frames at Target, IKEA, or thrift shops and spritz them with spray paint if the color isn't right.

family sitting around coffee table in living room
Edmund Barr

Julie (pictured with Hayden, 8, and Liam, 6) designed the coffee table, and Ken paired a marble scrap with dark-stained lumber and hairpin legs from eBay to craft a modern marvel so cool it belies its less-than-$200 price tag.

Julie Balcom, Homeowner

"I look around and see a table my husband made or pots my kids painted, and it's much more special. The house is a reflection of us as a family."

—Julie Balcom, Homeowner
kitchen with subway tile and white cabinets
Edmund Barr

Removing the old fluorescent box light left the kitchen with a recessed tray ceiling. For a fun touch, they painted it navy blue and put a modern fixture in the recessed space. Because all the old aluminum windows in the house were so rickety, Ken replaced them with new ones. He added a third window in the kitchen to coax more light into the room. To this day, replacing the windows is one of Ken's proudest accomplishments.

Julie raves about the IKEA cabinets, which she and Ken chose for their price tag and ease of installation. The pulls and knobs were a separate purchase from to elevate the stock cabinets.

kitchen with bar seating and tye-dye blue chairs
Edmund Barr

The former tile floor gave way to wood-look laminate, which they also used in every room throughout the house for a cohesive, space-stretching appearance.

When planning the new kitchen layout, Ken and Julie rejiggered it to include a short peninsula so Liam and Hayden have a spot to do homework. What looks like fancy tile on the peninsula is actually removable wallpaper (found on Etsy) that was a breeze to install.

bathroom with black and white tile and dark green tub
Edmund Barr

The graphic play of black and white—the most classic of all color combos—refreshed and brightened the guest bathroom. Each subway tile is defined by dark grout, a simple selection with major impact. High-contrast concrete tile invigorated the floor.

Rather than leave one corner empty, Julie hung a few plantings (cradled in macramé, a '70s decor mainstay that is making a rather glorious comeback) from the ceiling. They catch plenty of sunny rays from the window.

The claw-foot tub resided in the upper-level bathroom until Julie and Ken hauled it downstairs to the main level. For a colorful punch, Julie painted the outside with high-quality enamel. In a happy accident, she found a small can of this lovely dark teal in the remnant section of the home center. Another customer had returned it, and it was just the color she was looking for.

White shelf with cacti and décor
Edmund Barr

Four deep shelves were constructed of 1x lumber, painted white, and mounted on iron brackets for a few feet of display space.

Placing Liam's bed against the window—the only good spot for it in the compact room—gave the space much-needed symmetry. Short shelves crafted of stained lumber and metal brackets hoist beloved artwork and figurines (much of it dinosaur-related) into prominent positions.

Papering one wall in a whimsical animal print introduces "some visual interest in his room without taking up any space," Julie says. Even better? This wallpaper is removable, "so when Liam gets older and decides he wants something else, he's not stuck with it," she says.

child's room with floral wallpaper
Edmund Barr

The peacock rattan headboard in Hayden's room—a girl's-bedroom staple in the '70s—came from Craigslist.

Ken and Julie enclosed the once-wide-open closet with two mirrored doors. "I guess closet mirrors are seen as a design don't," Julie says, "but when you have a small space, they make the room look almost twice as big. Worth it for us!"

child's room with floral dresser
Edmund Barr

Shallow ledges are meant for photos or art, but they work just as well for displaying and storing Liam and Hayden's library of books. Julie bought black ledges but spray-painted them white to keep the look light and airy.

bedroom with blue wall and gray bedding
Edmund Barr

Julie gave up setting lamps on the nightstands in the primary bedroom because breezes through the open windows kept knocking them over. Instead, Ken hung a sconce on each side of the bed. Two IKEA dressers, which are sold unfinished, could pass for vintage treasures after the Balcoms worked their magic. They stained the tops and sides, painted the fronts white, and adorned the drawers with round brass pulls they found on eBay.

Julie Balcom, Homeowner

"Our goal was to buy in the best neighborhood we could, and to get a house we could fix up ourselves. We didn't want to pay for somebody else's updates."

—Julie Balcom, Homeowner
white vanity against dark blue wall
Edmund Barr

The upholstered bench is another Ken-and-Julie original, with Julie dreaming up the design and Ken bringing it to life with wood, fabric, and foam. This sleek vanity (actually a Campaign desk from World Market) is not just pretty, but practical too. It's where Julie does her hair and makeup in the mornings while the primary bathroom (not shown) is still under construction.

living room with blue and white elements
Edmund Barr

Placing the flat-screen TV above the firebox might not suit every family, "but it works for us," Julie says. Ken mounted it on white-painted plywood, and all of the cords are ingeniously routed through a hole in the plywood behind the mantel and into one of the cabinets (on the right) to a hidden power strip.

Some people claim that painting brick is sacrilege, but in this modest-size family room, it knit the fireplace into the rest of the room.

Julie Balcom, Homeowner

"Technology has made such a huge difference! We would've been too scared to do any of this work, but because of Pinterest and Blogs, we got the confidence to try things. YouTube opened a lot of doors."

—Julie Balcom, Homeowner
white shelving with decor in sitting area
Edmund Barr

Cabinets and shelves from IKEA were arranged on either side of the fireplace and climb nearly to the ceiling to maximize their storage capacity. Molding at the top and bottom of the assembly gave it the look of pricey built-ins.

"We put things we want to hide in the cabinets," Julie says. The shelves are for displaying decorative items, "and we change them out with the seasons," Julie says.

Updated by
Karen Reinecke

Karen Reinecke is a freelance writer, editor, location scout, floral designer, and interior stylist. She travels across the country searching for the best locations for well-known magazines. Her work can be seen in Magnolia Journal, Country Living Magazine, and Better Homes & Gardens.

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