When Kelly Salchow MacArthur needed a curbside mailbox for the Midcentury Modern house she shares with her husband, Jay, and their two children, she looked locally, online, and in magazines. Mostly she found models that interpreted the ubiquitous 1915 U.S. Postal Service specs in boringly similar ways, with a rectangular interior and arched-tunnel roof, like a Quonset hut. The few original concepts she came across did not excite her.
So MacArthur, a professor of graphic design at MSU, decided to create a mailbox specifically for her home. That was a challenge: the house at 2600 Roseland Dr. was designed by the modernist architect Tivadar Balogh in an unusual trapezoid shape. Think of a ninety-degree roof angle, and then tip it fifteen degrees.
After months of exploring what was possible in terms of both form and function, she came up with a design that aligned with the home’s fifteen-degree roof tilt. That angle is carried through the form, including the void in the door that serves as a hand space to reach the mail. Wrapping the metal base around the post and overhanging the mailbox roof added to the look while ensuring protection against the weather. She worked with Ann Arbor’s Hosford & Co. to create the CAD files to fabricate it; by the time she was done, her one-of-a-kind mailbox cost about $750.
As MacArthur’s MSU sabbatical approached in 2014, she realized that her personal project could be expanded into the community. She decided to produce six mailboxes, “functional, yet sculptural pieces,” she says, custom-tailored to local Midcentury Modern houses.
To find the houses, she consulted Nancy Deromedi, the founder of a2Modern, a group that promotes the appreciation of noteworthy Modern architecture in Ann Arbor and discourages inappropriate renovation or demolition. The U-M architecture school championed the modernist style beginning in the 1930s, and many professors and graduates (Balogh was both) designed homes for appreciative clients–many of them academics themselves.
Drawing on a2Modern’s walking tour map, Deromedi chose homes by four local architects. George Brigham is credited with introducing the Modern style to Ann Arbor when he came from Caltech to join the U-M faculty in 1930, and Bob Metcalf and David Osler were its two leading practitioners here in the post-WWII era. Midland-based Alden Dow, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, also designed houses in Ann Arbor through family connections. Deromedi suggested houses by each architect where she knew the owners and believed that they might be interested.
The design process lasted about six months as MacArthur developed each box design, while also exploring hinge options and placement, box-to-post mounting possibilities, door handles, flags, and typography. The project placed her in new (and admittedly uncomfortable) territory, as she created to-scale isometric renderings of each mailbox.
She didn’t charge for her design work, but the homeowners paid for materials and fabrication, which ended up costing in the range of $650 to $1,250. Hosford once again created CAD files for laser cutting and fabrication of the metal parts–five of the six mailboxes are made of sixteen-gauge brushed stainless steel. Some metal parts were powder coated by Cramer Tech Coating, also in Ann Arbor. Powder coating adds durable color while allowing a change of color or recoating in the future. Acrylic Specialties & Plastics of Madison Heights laser cut acrylic pieces for the flags and some of the street numbers. Other numbers were fabricated in steel, copper, Plexiglas, or reflective vinyl.
Deromedi and her husband, Dave, were the first to sign on to the project. The mailbox MacArthur created for their home at 819 Avon mimics the long low structure and wide eaves of their 1950 Brigham house, which has the long side along the street. The mail is accessed by opening the long side of the box, which closes with the aid of gravity. “It’s like my own personal sculpture,” says Dave (Nancy died in 2014). The box is mounted asymmetrically to the trunk and arm of the T-shaped post, so depending on the viewing angle, cubes of wood and metal are hidden or exposed. A red Plexiglas flag rests underneath the roof as a square and pulls out to expose a double square in its engaged position.
Across the street, at Linda and Jim Elert’s 1954 Metcalf home at 830 Avon, MacArthur oriented the mailbox with the short side to the street, again mimicking the way the home is sited. A flat top longer than the body relates to the home’s overhanging eaves, and two sides near the front are powder coated in yellow-green to match the front door. The box dimension is based on a double cube, and the yellow-green corner references the two-sided glass cube area on the home’s second floor, which seems to float above the entrance. The flag hides behind the post and sits directly on top of it when raised.
As MacArthur worked with each of the owners, the designs turned out to be more collaborative than she had envisioned. For instance, Peter Hinman wanted a box big enough to allow his magazines to sit flat inside and a separate area for newspaper delivery. She seized the opportunity to reference the intersecting axes that run through Hinman’s 1961 Metcalf home at 1075 Chestnut by nestling the primary box and the secondary newspaper corridor around the post. He also asked that both the front and back of the box open and stay open unassisted. After extensive exploration, MacArthur developed a hidden channel hinge that hangs on a rod.
Hinman liked the way the relatively low and flat mailbox referenced the lines of his home but felt that using just stainless steel wouldn’t fit the stained and painted wood exterior. Together they settled on a dark red powder-coated door and flag to contrast with the brushed metal.
Howard Shapiro, owner of the Dow-designed home at 7 Regent Drive, essentially liked the mailbox that was original to his 1965 house–an uncommon design where the top stayed fixed while the box pulled down–but it was too small and also dilapidated. Unlike the other mailboxes MacArthur designed, this one was attached to the house.
MacArthur first determined the aspects that could be improved, starting with the overall proportion: her design now relates to the long bricks on the house’s facade. She also integrated the handle and improved the aesthetic relationship between the inner and outer box, using a forty-five-degree angle reminiscent of the home’s eaves.
The functional challenge was to get the parts pivoting and weighted correctly so the box would naturally close when released from the open position. “I like it because it is a more fluid and natural movement to pull the box open with one hand and pull the mail out horizontally towards you with the other hand, as opposed to opening a lid and reaching down to pull the mail out vertically,” Shapiro explains. He asked MacArthur to use aluminum, which is light and corrosion resistant and also matches the roof trim. The house number’s design plays off the eaves and is made of copper to match the brick color.
The user experience created by these mailboxes is quite different from the generic mailboxes they replaced. MacArthur’s designs won the sole Editor’s Choice Award in the 2014 International Institute for Information Design competition. She and the other owners have found that their new mailboxes have become conversation pieces, and she is keeping her eye out for future sites and collaborators.