This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.
The burgeoning postwar residential construction sector helped to rapidly expand the country’s home-ownership base and firmly established its middle class—with related policies and de facto behaviors favoring white families almost exclusively. That was met with (and, in part, was facilitated by) a rise in consumerism and marketing related to home construction and interior design, specifically the kitchen and bath sectors. The BTHL offers plenty of source material on this period, from catalogs of midcentury home plans to advertisements for cabinets and novel “electric” appliances. (Traditional-style houses were also popular during this period, and the BTHL has plenty of resources for fans of Colonial Revival ranch houses and the like—but that’s a topic for another day.) Below are some of the best midcentury plan books, brochures, and ephemera from the BTHL that spotlight an aesthetic that remains popular to this day.
Today’s Woman: Low-Cost Homes, 1954, Fawcett Books
Plan books remain one of the most important outlets for showcasing home designs. This publication features houses designed by Egil P. Hermanovski, an architect who practiced in New York and Connecticut. His Modern designs take up the first half of the book, with more traditional options in the latter half.
Research Designed Homes: Living Units, 1951, Small Homes Council at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)
The Small Homes Council, which was affiliated with UIUC's architecture program, was one of several organizations to focus on the need for more housing in post-WWII America. This book features a mix of Modern and traditional ranch-style houses, and also offers advice for planning room layouts. The cover included a space to print the name of a local lumberyard or homebuilder, another common practice of this era, helping architects and clients find materials and labor.
Gold Seal Floors and Walls, 1955, Congoleum-Nairn
Tile and sheet flooring afforded many design opportunities, particularly for kitchens and the newly branded “family,” or leisure, room. This catalog from 1955 showcases modern- and traditional-style floor coverings in materials like cork, linoleum, rubber, and vinyl.
The Total Electric Home: New and Wonderful Living for You and Your Family Today, 1959, Westinghouse Electric Total Electric Home Department
The “smart house” of today has its origins in the “electric house” of the 1950s. Appliance manufacturers and utility companies produced glossy publications to promote the use of an ever-expanding array of household appliances that brought a new level of convenience to the home.
Exquisite, Popular-Priced Bathroom Vanities, 1960, National Vanity
Designs for both new and renovated bathrooms required cabinetry, plumbing fixtures, and surfaces, all of which were heavily promoted to current and prospective homeowners, as well as building trades. The cover of this catalog of bathroom vanities could have very well been for a flooring or plumbing fixture brochure.
Sears 1958 Kitchen Book, 1958, Sears Roebuck & Co, Chicago
Kitchen design and renovation has long been its own industry. This Sears Roebuck volume features wood and metal cabinetry. Sears also sold kitchen plumbing fixtures, fittings, and appliances—a one-stop shopping experience for DIYers and contractors.
Curtis Kitchens: Designed and Styled by Women for Women, 1952, Curtis Cos., Clinton, Iowa
The Curtis Cos. of Clinton, Iowa, was a major fabricator of millwork, doors, windows, and kitchen interiors. By the mid-1950s, the company was making wood unit cabinetry in a variety of styles. The flush doors and modern styles and drawer pulls were all features of the company’s advertised ultra-modern aesthetic.
The Light Idea: Virden Lighting, 1959, John C. Virden, Cleveland
Luminaire designers struggled to replicate traditional fixture design motifs while using new lighting technology. The examples in this catalog range from Sputnik-inspired modernism to chandeliers and—rather unsuccessfully—try to meld Modern and traditional styles.
Weldwood Prefinished Paneling for Fine Interiors, 1957, United States Plywood, New York
Pre-finished, wood-veneer panels were popular in new construction and renovations during the mid-20th century. These thin panels, often just ¼ inch thick, could be applied over existing walls or framing to provide what this booklet calls an “instant modernization.”
Furniture Forum: A Handbook of Contemporary Design, 1949, Hollis Christensen
The BTHL also includes furniture and furnishings catalogs. This is the first issue of the Furniture Forum, a showcase of Modern furniture from some of the leading architects and furniture designers of the day, including Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, Herman Miller, and Knoll Associates. The furniture, luminaires, fabrics, and accessories shown offer a comprehensive portrait of midcentury Modern interior design.