The idea that good design—and by this I mean design as a holistic practice, not just making things look a certain way—should be accessible to as many people as possible was one of the principle missions of the modern movement. The industrial process made this concept practical. The Bauhaus recognized it, but although their influence was profound, the actual output of products resulting from their designs was limited. During the postwar period in America, the potential for mass production of consumer goods lent renewed currency to the idea that well-designed products might be made widely accessible. America's premier industrial designer of the period, Charles Eames, and his wife and partner, Ray, understood that modernity could democratize improvements in everyday life when they declared that industrialization could "get the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least." A half century after Eames made that statement, and 70 years after the close of the Bauhaus, stores including Ikea, Crate and Barrel, and the Pottery Barn have realized the concept that good design can be made widely accessible to people of moderate income. However, the home itself, while also mass produced at prices accessible to middle-income consumers, has yet to receive the serious attention of designers. (Interestingly an architect was a principle founder of Crate and Barrel.)
Modernist architects have consistently tinkered with designs for mass-produced houses, and there have been some notable examples. Walter Gropius designed an all-steel house that was built as staff quarters at the Bauhaus. Le Corbusier also argued that the houses could be mass-produced, and he built a number of abstractly austere "houses for workers" that were intended to look machine-made. In the United States, Frank Lloyd Wright introduced a systematized construction method for middle-class homes in the 1930s, and then designed and built dozens of his so-called Usonians for individual clients.
Since then, numerous efforts by lesser-known designers and builders have periodically surfaced long enough to get mentioned in the news, and then quickly disappeared again. The potential for a sustained production of well-designed, mass-produced houses still remains unrealized. Eichler's developments, notable for their ingenuity and elegant design, remind us that it is possible to surpass the status quo.
I was motivated to write 'Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream' to find the reasons that, amid the expanding realm of sprawl of unimaginative and unsatisfying cheek-by-jowl tract home developments, the Eichlers remain the rarest of exceptions. Even today, despite the Eichlers' example and those of numerous similar, although smaller, efforts elsewhere, architects design only ten percent of American housing.
The chapters in our book outline a search for the answers to a number of questions surrounding this condition: Where did the ideas behind these exceptionally well-designed homes come from? Who was Joe Eichler, and who were the people he found to join him in his groundbreaking work? How were these elegant homes built, and how was their builder able to keep the building process, atypical in almost every respect, within the constraints of merchant-builder costs? What was the effect of the Eichlers on the housing market, and what did their builder have to do to sell them to a largely tradition-bound public? And finally, just how did Eichler's developments make a lasting difference to American middle-class residential life?. The legacy of Eichler Homes will likely endure and grow in importance as the largely unplanned suburban realm continues to be the residential context of choice for the majority of families, not just in the United States, but wherever middle-class populations are expanding around the globe.
It is my hope—and that of my collaborators, Marty Arbunich and Ernie Braun—that 'Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream' can inform and even inspire those who dare to imagine that everyday life, despite the pervasive pressures of expanding costs and shrinking resources, can be lived within an environment that is both practically manageable and aesthetically enriching.
Order your copy of 'Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream' today.