“Modern Homes”: Going Back in (Design) Time

photo 1On a shelf in my living room is a red cloth-bound book from 1947 called Modern Homes Illustrated. Out of print for five decades and published by the long-defunct Odhams Press in England, you can still pick it up through online used booksellers for about $10, so it’s not a collector’s book by any means.

Now and then, décor nerds visit me and I like to pull out the book. It’s nearly 70 years old, but you’d be amazed how much of it is still relevant today.

Think of it as “everything you wanted to know about decorating and designing a home but were afraid to ask.”

I thought some of you BuildDirect Blog fans might be intrigued by some of the passages and photos – some adorably behind-the-times, but also some surprisingly relevant after all these years.

And Then There Was Advertising

The book has a huge advertising section at the front, which is where I first chuckled.

Behold! The “Finishing touch to the Modern Home: Metal Windows”!

This ad is placed by the “Metal Window Information Bureau.” Can you imagine? 66 years ago, metal windows were so new, they needed an advocacy group to inform the public. Look! They’re permanently rigid and offer maximum light! Because, hey, those wood windows don’t give you all the light, you know.

Practical Advice is Ageless

On page 11, you’ll find “Choosing a Home: A House or a Flat?” It’s actually a great look at all the distinguishing points between a house and apartment even today. Costs, privacy, maintenance, freedom, communal aspects, all of these points are made. It goes on, page after page, demonstrating styles and layouts of various homes and flat types, including the pros and cons depending on the lifestyle you’re seeking.

The exterior paint section’s advice is still useful today – buy the best quality you can. Enamel and gloss finishes last long. Get a manufacturer guarantee against fading. Factor in extra paint for future touch-ups when you’re buying it at the shop.

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I love this wall decoration advice. “Avoid materials which by reason of their durability or expense commit you to permanent colour schemes.” Excellent tip! This could mean outlandish tiles, strange trim choices, and other permanent installations you’d have to complement for a decade or more. Styles change.

Page after page has information that you’d do well to adhere to even now. Lighting choices? They should look as good by the light of day as they do lit at night.photo 4

Pictures Worth A Thousand Words

I’m very fond of the kitchen nook seating this book has a soft spot for. I think it’s a splendid use of space even today, installing nooks, especially when you can put under-the-seat storage in your benches of choice to give you a ton of extra storage that you’d never get with chairs. In fact, I have to wonder why nook seating ever fell out of vogue. It’s so darn practical!

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Take a look at this stunning “prefabricated plumbing unit” for the kitchen. These things are genius! It comes ready-to-install, and means you have to have your kitchen and bathroom back-to-back, but how convenient is this?

And look at the genius wall organization offerings filled with smart “rail” systems, which IKEA tried to tell you is cutting-edge modernity. This was 1947, people! Wow. I’d like this even now, but of course we don’t have them today. You have to wonder, isn’t the market right for it in our ever-urban 21st-century lifestyle?

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Planning the kitchen, that section is pure gold, since most of it is actually pretty out of date. In 1947, you didn’t turn your range on and just go. Here, they list five units needed to serve your kitchen’s vital activities, including the kitchen, the larder, the pantry, the server, and, wait for it: the “fuel store room”. Times they have a-changed, my friends.

Timeless But Forgotten

They say those that don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, but I think books like teach us that sometimes repeating history seems like a good idea. Like a kitchen nook, not everything went out of style because it was a bad design — sometimes we just forgot what it was we were doing right and why it was so smart. Books like this serve to remind us that we didn’t always have it wrong, and getting a little inspiration from yesteryear might just be the smart way to go forward.

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