When one of my oldest friends bought his home, he was a bachelor, and he didn’t expect much from his house other than it keep the water out and have a working cable package. He managed to keep this attitude even when he got married and for several years afterward. With a brand new infant in the crib, though, it finally dawned on him that his house was dangerous. He needed to do something about the loose railings in his entryway and on his deck before his daughter became the crawling source of chaos that was her destiny.
His wife, for her part, gleefully took this as an opportunity to finally redecorate and bring some style and creature comforts into the home. A fan of the 60’s, she added tulip chairs and patterned carpets to the decor along with cabinet locks. My friend’s job became finding hardware that was child-safe but still complemented his wife’s tastes. His most recent undertaking was finding mid-century modern deck railings–or ones that would complement mid-century-style decor, anyway.
Choosing a Railing Style That Fits Your MCM Decor
My friend has three railings that he needs to replace. He has two exterior railings on the front and back patios, and one in the front entryway where you climb a half flight of stairs to the living areas of the house. The current railing outdoors and indoors is solid wrought iron painted a jarring navy blue. These are chipped, corroded, and don’t look very good. His wife’s decorating has mostly focused on bringing more wood and natural materials to the interior and exterior of the house and peeling up the old carpet to reveal a distressed, but salvageable, parquet wooden floor. The trick is finding a railing system that works with these natural materials and with the house’s new mid-century modern styling.
Mid-century modern is a loose, eclectic style. Beginning in the 1940s, it was a movement towards simple forms that emphasized function as much as style. In practice, this means clean lines and nothing too ornate. Think of a mid-century modern couch, which is low, wide, usually in a single bright color, and resting on simple round legs splayed at an angle. Now compare that to the typical high-back, claw-footed couch in patterned or velvet fabric that was popular during earlier periods and you get the idea. When it comes to railings, mid-century modern translates into simple straight lines and contrasting materials. In many ways, mid-century railings have qualities in common with farmhouse porch railings and rustic-style railings because they spring from the same convergence of modernity and nature.
There are a few options available for my friend to choose from, all of which suit or can be made to suit the mid-century aesthetic.
- Custom railings in either wood or metal are an obvious way to go. If you type ‘mid-century modern railings’ into a search engine you’ll get images of a succession of repeating vertical rectangles as balusters on a stair railing. These are based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous designs. They will, however, need to be placed in either a metal or a wooden frame by a welder or a skilled carpenter.
- Metal panel railings are prefabricated railing systems in steel or aluminum that are fabricated in a factory, given a layer of rust preventative coating, and a layer of powder coating for appearance. They are mass-produced and are simple in their design. However, they do offer customization options like the addition of wooden or decorative top rails that can make them stand out and give them a little oomph.
- Cable railings are very much an invention of the new millennium, making them something of an anachronism in a mid-century modern home. However, the futurists that pioneered the style would likely approve of them due to their innovative use of materials, and I’ve seen them installed on the decks of some beautiful mid-century homes with great success. Cable railings replace the usual balusters with stainless steel cable drawn taut. These are made by some manufacturers in pre-assembled panels, or they can be built from scratch by an enterprising DIYer.
Of these three options, my friend expressed a preference for the custom metal railing with geometric patterns. As a welder, I was able to carefully describe the process that would be needed to create the railings and give him a rundown of the costs involved. It isn’t as easy as replacing wooden balusters with metal ones. The price for materials alone was about the same as a prefabricated railing system, and when the labor needed to turn individual balusters into a completed railing was added in, they were far more expensive. I also explained that since these railings would have a paint job done with an air gun, they would need repainting every few years. In the end, although they did like the unique style, the cost and the need for maintenance made him opt for a complete railing system instead.
The Completely Modern Mid-Century Modern Deck Railing System
Even though my friend made the pragmatic choice, he still wanted something that would stand out, so he chose a cable railing system. It would have a unique look in their neighborhood, and stainless steel cables would provide more visibility from the deck (and of the home from the street). Using minimalist balcony or deck railings is a good way to open up the home and give it a more modern, updated look, which is what my friend’s wife was really going for. And while cable railings weren’t used in homes back in the middle of the century, early futurists would have loved the way they repurpose a common industrial material for the home.
Since he’s doing the installation himself, a complete cable railing system offers my friend a lot of advantages. Installation is easier, as instead of fabricating sections of railing, you simply cut each section to length. And if he chooses a system in which the cables are already run through a frame, installing and setting up the railing is much easier than it would be with your average cable railing. Mounting each segment is simply a matter of mounting a bracket to the post, inserting the railing section, and tightening screws. This means the time from receiving the railing to casually leaning against it is a matter of a few hours. However, choosing stainless steel cable railing brought up a new issue. Most cable railings are held taut by exterior tensioners, and these are exactly the sort of thing young children like to play with.
The solution was the cable railing system from Fortress Railing. This is a system with stainless steel cables stretched vertically from pre-galvanized, e-coated, and powder-coated steel top and bottom rails. The cables use internal tensioners which can’t be fiddled with, and which, once tightened, don’t require regular adjustments like other cable systems do. This is a definite plus for busy parents and homes with fidgety young children. Fortress Building Products offers lots of other unique, nearly maintenance-free outdoor solutions from composite deck boards to beautiful, high-quality steel fencing, and I have a feeling my friend will be checking out some of their other offerings once he finishes his railing project.