Simple 70s-inspired storage solutions

Back in the spring, Cane and I signed up for an online design class.

I wanted to figure out how to design our family room so that it would work and look better. You know, so that the family would actually use the space and keep “family room” from being a misnomer.

Although I became a dropout and never finished the course, I did enough to figure out some important things about how to better use the space.

This (sorta) Old Life: Family room plan

In true Undesign fashion, it was finding a few key pieces at a favorite salvage store that helped us make some big design decisions.

This (sorta) Old LIfe:  family room desk

We loved this old-school (literally) desk with the kind of cubbies we remembered having as kids. It gave us the idea for a double-desk (a work space on each side of the cubbies) in the nook.

This (sorta) Old LIfe: family room storage

This helped us decide to go with the desk idea. Originally I wanted some kind of big work table in the family room, but I let go of that idea when I found this. I’d like to say it was all a practical matter, but the truth is I just loved that orange laminate top. I realized that if we used this for storage in place of a work table, we could have less storage in the nook. The two desk areas aren’t the kind of work space we originally envisioned, but we decided to go with it.

This still left us with the design challenges of figuring out how what to do with the TV and how to create storage above the desk areas.

Once we figured out how we wanted the spaces to work, we had to figure out what could work in terms of three big factors:

  • Materials:  What can we easily find that looks good (to us)?
  • Cost: What’s economical? (We didn’t want to spend a whole lot of money or rape the environment.)
  • Skills: What do we have the skills to execute fairly easily.

As we wrote way back in the early days of this blog, we think it’s great to work with what a house is (rather than fighting it). And our house is a 70s split-entry, raised ranch. I began Googling “70s rec room” to see what design inspiration I might find, and eventually I found my way to The Practical Encyclopedia of Good Decorating and Home Improvement on Flickr–which you have got to check out if you’re a 70s aficionado.

I was particularly inspired by these:

This (sorta) Old Life: Family room storage

I loved the mix of open shelving and closed cabinets in this wall, but making shelves exactly like these wouldn’t be easy.

This (sorta) Old Life:  family room storage

We knew we wanted a double-desk work space like this one, and the shelving above it–EXACTLY the same kind my dad put in my bedroom back in 1973–is very easy to install. However, I wasn’t sure I wanted shelving in my grown-up house to be just like the shelving in my little-kid bedroom.

This (sorta) Old Life: 70's shelving

This one helped me see that, perhaps, I could take the basic bracket shelves of my childhood and do something a little more sophisticated with them.

Cane was sold on the idea of using simple metal tracks and brackets right away. They are (relatively) inexpensive and easy to install.

I wasn’t so sure. Would they look cheap? Is such shelving really more appropriate for places like kid bedrooms and craft rooms? Would I be able to look at them without always thinking of my childhood bedroom?

Then I saw things like this:

This (sorta) Old Life: bracket shelves family room

From Dana at House Tweaking (clicking on the image will take you to its post). Pretty stylish, no?

And this!

This (sorta) Old Life:  Olive Green Window shelving unit

From Minna and Pekka at Olive Green Window. (Again, click the image to go visit.)

(If you haven’t discovered Olive Green Window and you are a fan of mid-century design, you’ve got to see their blog/house. AMAZING stuff! And they have a super-cute weiner dog, just like us. Sadly, that’s about all our homes really have in common. :-))

The more I looked and pondered, and the more Cane considered the bracket-shelving decision a done deal, the more it seemed like the only choice to me, too: Easy-to-get materials, affordable, and super-easy.

And so we’ve now got this:

This (sorta) Old Life: 70's style shelving

I don’t know if we’ve yet clearly established that Cane is a design genius, but just in case we haven’t, I think this project is proof. I really wanted some of the storage to be covered. I wanted storage that could contain a bunch of clutter, and I didn’t want visible clutter. He wanted to use a system of simple brackets and rails.

I showed Cane some of my inspiration images and told him how I wanted the shelves to function, and this is the ingenious solution he came up with:

This (sorta) Old Life: 70's style shelving

How did he made those boxes–which look a lot like those closed cabinets I was coveting–float? They’re resting on the same brackets that hold the shelves:

This (sorta) Old Life: 70's style shelving

The How-To

These boxes were incredible easy to make. We figured out the depth we wanted for each box (after seeing what lengths standard brackets come in), then headed to Home Depot to buy a sheet of thin birch plywood. A helpful Home Depot guy ripped the sheet into the widths we needed.

All Cane had to do at home was cut them to length. He cut out two pieces of the same length for the top/bottom, and two other pieces of the same length for the sides. You can make them however long/tall you’d like.

Then, he simply nailed the pieces together to make an open box–no front (yet) or back.

joint detail

He cut another piece to make a front door (again, using one of the pre-ripped pieces from our original sheet), which he attached with hinges.

Before attaching the door, he drilled a hole in the front to make for easy opening. (I think they add a little style, too.)

He stained the whole thing, then hung the box on the brackets. BAM!

This (sorta) Old Life: 70's style shelving

As for how we figured out the design for the boxes/shelves, we did that in pretty typical UnDesign fashion. (That’s shorthand for: We were too lazy/busy (you choose) to deal with substantially changing a big, inconvenient issue.)

Because the nook was originally designed for a monstrous, wall-sized TV, outlets and cable connections were placed right in the middle of the dang wall.

This (sorta) Old Life: 70's style shelving

We didn’t want to move them, and we needed them for our router box/printer/computer, so we decided that a box had to cover them. We determined the dimensions we wanted for that box, and that–along with the placement of the outlets–determined where we would put the wall tracks and the brackets for the box.

We put the tracks on the walls (4, evenly spaced), built the box to cover the outlets, and then cut out some cardboard shelves. We learned all about making prototypes in the course we (sorta) took, and it’s a design tool that’s really useful. Instead of guessing at what might work and making expensive mistakes, we were able to really see what the shelves would look like using cardboard.

And this is the design we ended up with for the nook:

This (sorta) Old Life: 70's style shelving

The bottom line

These shelves weren’t free, but they were far less expensive than some kind of built-in system might have been. (You can see the story and costs of the desk here.)

We think we bought two sheets of 1/4″ birch plywood, which was about $30 a sheet.

We bought 21 brackets, which were about $3.50 a piece. (We used 9″ brackets for most of shelves, but 11″ for the box that the TV sits on.) We bought 7 tracks, which were about $7.00 a piece.

We bought one can of stain for the shelves and boxes, for about $5.00.

Less than $200.00 for sure. (Sorry we don’t have more exact figures; we did most of this back in August, so our memories are a little fuzzy.)

This (sorta) Old Life: 70s-inspired family room storage

Maybe more importantly, they didn’t cost us much in terms of time.

We figure it was about an hour for the install of each set of tracks. It was a good afternoon’s work to make the boxes and cut the shelves. Probably the most time-consuming part of the project was staining the boards.

This (sorta) Old Life: 70s-inspired family room storage

The real bottom line

Figuring out what we really need for who we really are now is the reason our basement room is finally a family room.

I previously stored much of our school/craft supplies in the garage. (You can see my first attempt at organizing that stuff by clicking here.)

This (sorta) Old Life: 70's style shelving

School supplies were behind the doors of this cabinet.

Problem is, those things were rarely accessed. There was too much of it, and having it all in the garage made it inconvenient to get to. Truth is, our kids wouldn’t go into the garage to look for the things they needed. Instead, they pilfered the common supplies and squirreled them away in their bedrooms so they wouldn’t have to return to the garage.

Now, when they’re working on homework, their school supplies are all in one easy-to-access place. The supplies haven’t disappeared.

This (sorta) Old Life: 70's style shelving

Even better, they’re now choosing to do more of their homework in this common space. Maybe that’s because it’s just a better-looking space, but I think it’s also because everything they need is right here within easy and comfortable reach.

Also? Our kids just aren’t in the doing-crafty-things-for-fun stage any more. It made me sad to acknowledge that when I was figuring out our storage needs, but it’s true. We just don’t need a lot of the stuff that used to be our free-time staples. (No, we really don’t need stickers and stamps and paints and crayons and googly eyes and all kinds of scrapbook paper.)

thissortaoldlife craft drawers

We just aren’t this crafty any more.

Making the decision to purge so that we could fit all things game/sewing/crafty into the family room has been a great one. Between the wall storage and the large storage cabinet, we’ve got it down to the things we actually need and want.

I purged a bunch of sewing/needlework supplies I know I’ll never use. I am still keeping my fabric stash in a covered cabinet in the garage (that’s something that only I access, and only rarely), but everything else is now in this room:

storage cabinet

Cane and I have long felt that home design matters because the spaces we live in shape how we live. Our redesigned room is, in subtle but important ways, redesigning how we spend time as a family. Last weekend, we all watched a movie together down here. While Will spent hours working on a school paper, and Grace took over the back corner with a massive poster-making project, I was hanging out right here with them, working on a sewing project.

We all spent a lot of hours in the same room. Sure, we weren’t doing the same thing, but we were talking. Snacking. Giving and taking advice. Just being together. That might not sound like much, but we’re realizing that when it comes to parenting teens who no longer want to spend much of their free time with us, it really is.

This (sorta) Old LIfe:  70s style shelving

So, we’re putting this UnDesigned re-design in our win column. Hope you can glean some wisdom from what we learned/did here that will help you put something in yours. :-)

Oh, and in case you spotted/are wondering about that little Incredible Hulk doll action figure hanging out on the shelves in our hoped-to-be-Pinned images, he’s there for two reasons:

1. The Hulk is Cane’s favorite super-hero, and Cane likes the action figure.

2. We’re committed to showing our home as it really is, Pinterest-be-damned. Like most of you, we’ve got unsightly cords and not-on-purpose mismatched chairs and the occasional action figure. (OK, maybe we’re the only ones with a decorative action figure outside of a kids’ playroom.)

And, yeah, we did tidy up for this photo shoot–but we didn’t stage the room. We think real homes and real life have real beauty, just like real people do. And it’s no more healthy to show staged, photo-shopped images of our homes than it is to show those kinds of images of people.