Some old-fashioned home-design manuals are worth revisiting
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Some old-fashioned home-design manuals are worth revisiting
“The House Book,” in which readers will find a section on choosing furniture for dining, whether they want a high-top table or a Roman-style recline, in New York, Aug. 22, 2023. The discussion of the bedroom includes “software,” i.e. bedding. There is even a chapter on one-room living, rare for a genre that tends to assume both big budgets and families with children. (Patricia Wall/The New York Times)

by Alexandra Lange

NEW YORK, NY.- In 1868, designer Charles Eastlake published “Hints on Household Taste,” a popular guide to outfitting the home in good taste, from the street front to the china cupboard and all the rooms in between.

In his introduction, rather than taking a supportive tone, he chastises the reader. “When did people first adopt the monstrous notion that the ‘last pattern out’ must be the best? Is good taste so rapidly progressive that every mug which leaves the potter’s hands surpasses in shape the last which he moulded?”

“He blames it on the housewife,” said Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, the author of “Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office” and an associate professor at Purdue University. The message is, “Women have terrible taste, and we need to correct them,” Kaufmann-Buhler said, adding that she does a “very lively reading” of the passage for her students, “annotating it in real-time in an over-the-top British accent.”

Despite Eastlake’s seeming disdain for the clutter-mad housewives of the Victorian era, his “Hints” did provide a template for 150 years of house books. Every season brings out more manuals of household taste, from glossy-page inspirational books suitable for coffee-table display to chart-heavy how-to guides, with diagrams of immaculate closets and formulas for DIY cleaning products.

But which, according to design experts, have stood the test of time? Eastlake may have had a bad attitude, but his simplified furniture, with its incised details, still looks sharp to the contemporary eye. And his basic question — is the latest always the greatest? — could as easily apply to books about domestic design as it does to the way we furnish those spaces.

Among the classics, Kaufmann-Buhler singled out Mary and Russel Wright’s “Guide to Easier Living” (1950) as “a landmark book.”

“It is trying to invite the American family to rethink what home is supposed to be, to let go of the Emily Post idea of the house and find something more relaxed, more comfortable and more suitable,” she said.

Russel Wright was a famous postwar industrial designer, and many of his products speak to that relaxing of norms; his American Modern dinnerware line is chunky and colorful, with lots of swoopy serving pieces that can move from kitchen to table. Wright’s home, Dragon Rock (1958), in Garrison, New York, was designed to blend indoors and outdoors, and natural materials and new plastics. It had an open kitchen and a Saarinen tulip table perched on a flagstone floor. The book’s illustrations reflect this new style, while also offering space-planning advice and closet diagrams worthy of the Home Edit.

Another beloved resource, Terence Conran’s “The House Book” (1974), offers an update on the Wrights’ guide, with more photographs and more 1970s swagger. As GQ noted in 2021, “Think of this book as a cheat sheet, or a no-recipe cookbook for your house. The vibe is very do-what-you-feel — because, Conran says, that’s how you develop your taste. The images are endlessly appealing, with lots of plants and people, and the occasional naked butt.”

In “The House Book,” readers will find a section on choosing furniture for dining, whether they want a high-top table or a Roman-style recline. The discussion of the bedroom includes “software,” i.e. bedding. There is even a chapter on one-room living, rare for a genre that tends to assume both big budgets and families with children.

A different kind of diverse housing is represented in “The Place of Houses,” written by architects Charles Moore, Gerald Allen and Donlyn Lyndon, and originally published in 1974.

That book “really takes a regional approach to thinking about residential types,” said Sean Canty, an assistant professor of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “It also delves into the programs of the home — the hearth, the room, the porch — the very simple vernaculars that have different meanings in different contexts in the United States. It makes a wonderful case for the value of home-ness and why that’s so important in our daily lives.” Chapter titles include “Assembling the Rooms,” “Including the Machines” and “Fitting the House to the Land.”

A native of Philadelphia, Canty said he was also partial to Rachel Simmons Schade’s “Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual: A Practical Guide for Homeowners” (2008). The book not only shows that city’s rich, varied precedents for attached housing but “also emphasizes strategies of care and keeping for homeowners,” he said.

Kyle O’Donnell and Christopher Sale, leaders of the interiors studio Gramercy Design, look back to the Italian Renaissance for timeless inspiration, recommending Andrea Palladio’s “Four Books of Architecture” (1570). “It discusses spatial organization and symmetry, axes, proportion, all the things we try to bring in when we are planning a project,” Sale said. Whatever your style, “axis, order and proportion make a space feel resolved and comfortable to be in.”

While Palladian villas are beyond most of our means, the partners also like Sarah Susanka’s “The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live” (1998), which walks readers through design choices that allow them to create a house that is intimate and tailored to their needs, spending on materials rather than square footage.

“When you are creating a space, you don’t have to leave all of your past and belongings at the door and start with a tabula rasa,” Sale said. “It gives people permission to make space their own, to layer in pieces from different styles and different time periods.”

And different age brackets: In Grace Lees-Maffei’s “Design at Home: Domestic Advice Books in Britain and the USA since 1945” (2013), the final chapter is on the theme of living with teenagers — people who have a strong interest in establishing the boundaries of their space and their taste independent of their parents. One of the examples, “Teen Guide to Homemaking” (1977), “talks about zoning the teenage bedroom, with social spaces, space for sleep and dressing, a work space,” said Lees-Maffei, who is also a professor of design history at the University of Hertfordshire in England. “It presents the teen as designer.” The guide also has “a gorgeous layout, with textbook-y sidebars and photo annotations,” which seem both appropriate and contemporary, when websites like Dormify offer inspiration and endless products for Generation Zers to customize their dorm rooms.

Finally, just as contemporary décor has moved on from the spindly-legged styles of midcentury, so have the books that designers (and Instagrammers) use for guidance. While some people will never abandon the Eames lounge chair, others want more leather, more cushions, more low-slung, velvety, womblike comfort. For them, inspiration comes in “The Power Look at Home: Decorating for Men,” by Egon von Fürstenberg and Karen Fisher (1980), and “Sensuous Spaces: Designing Your Erotic Interiors,” by Sivon C. Reznikoff (1983), which (at long last!) suggest a shift from the woman as the only family member interested in home design.

Rock Herzog, an interior designer and creator of Cocaine Decor, a design company that started with a popular Twitter account, singles out the section in “Sensuous Spaces” on what the bachelor pad means, followed by one on “what to do when you move in with each other and you have to combine the pre-cottagecore stuff women had and the cocaine décor men had.”

Herzog warned that the book contains stereotypical “Asian” décor, and an outdated understanding of gender and who may constitute a “couple,” but still warms to its idea of the home as a fantasy space and its emphasis on creating bedrooms that are couples’ retreats.

Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, the contemporary design curator at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, pointed to “High-Tech,” the 1984 book by Joan Kron and Suzanne Slesin, as an inspiration for her own homes — a series of stylish apartments that also accommodate young children. Subtitled “The Industrial Style and Source Book for the Home,” “High-Tech” cataloged the early appearances of hardware-store elements like pipe racks, Pirelli rubber flooring and track lighting in downtown lofts, and suggested an attitude toward the off-the-shelf that was in stark contrast to the sensual, upholstered, domesticated interiors of other books of the period.

“Our first changing table where we kept all the diapers and wipes and stuff was a 1920s tool chest,” Cunningham Cameron said. “It was really beautiful. It had been painted this woodsy green, which was peeling away and a little bit rusty.”

At a subsequent wide-open loft, her husband, Seth Cameron, the executive director of the Children’s Museum of the Arts, stapled dozens of white milk crates to the wall in lieu of closets. The book “inspires people in general to look at easily accessible, more industrial objects to fill their homes — try to think creatively, try to get a design flourish out of it,” she said.

Evan Collins, an architectural designer and co-founder of the digital Y2K Aesthetic Institute, is already on to the next thing — kind of. “I don’t think it is coming back, but there is a book called ‘You Deserve Beautiful Rooms,’ published in 2001, that I don’t even know what the style is called — McClectic?” he said. “Bronzy silks on the bed, a million pillows, ivy on the walls.”

The lesson is that there is a design manual for every taste, and your taste doesn’t have to change with the times. “I teach Eastlake in tandem with an author I really do like, Candace Wheeler,” said Kaufmann-Buhler, from Purdue. “One of the things she makes clear is that every house should have its own character, and the family should define that character.”

Wheeler, the author of the 1903 book “Principles of Home Decoration,” even took on the early version of the McMansion, “builders houses,” built on spec and in quantity. “How do you make that your own? How do you fix the flaws?” Kaufmann-Buhler asked. These are the reasons people continue to turn to advice books, and this is the advice they continue to dispense. The most beautiful house is the one that works for you.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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