Modern Living

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the Michigan Historic Preservation Network’s annual conference in Midland where in each session, I heard references to Cranbrook-related art, architecture and/or design. Naturally, I had to investigate some of these referrals when I got in to the office today! (Curiosity killed the archivist.) One of the sessions I went to, Ideal/Idea Houses: Modern Living in the 1950s sparked my interest since all of the homes were built in the metro-Detroit area and many of them are still standing today.

What exactly was an Ideal/Idea House? In late 1940, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis planned to exhibit a fully functional, completely furnished exhibition house called the Idea House in conjunction with an exhibition entitled “American Living.” The house was intended to showcase new ideas about home architecture and design. The exhibition opened in June 1941.

Fast forward to 1950 when the Builders Association of Detroit took this idea and turned it into an annual competition – first for practicing architects and by 1953, for Michigan architecture students. Originally called the Ideal Home, in 1956, the Builders Association changed the name to Idea Home. This was the same year that the winning entry of Academy of Art architecture student, George Zonars, was built and featured in the Detroit Builders Home Show held at the Michigan State fairground from February to April, 1956. Zonars turned over his preliminary drawings to the architectural firm of Palmquist & Wright, who prepared detailed working plans and specifications, and supervised the construction of the home.

Zonar's rendering of the 1956 Idea Home

Zonars’ rendering of the 1956 Idea Home. Royal Oak Daily Tribune.

Zonars’ Idea Home, like the ones that preceded his, was one of the earliest ranch-style homes in the area and accentuated modern outdoor living by featuring walls of glass windows and outdoor terraces. The exterior featured copper flashing and gutters, pierced brick screen walls, and a wide roof overhang. The interior was completely air-conditioned, had a built-in fire alarm system, and featured an “electronic precipitator” which filtered dust, pollen, bacteria, and germs from the air.

Exterior view of Idea Home

Exterior view of the large glass panel windows and the overhanging roof. Detroti Free Press.

Informality was stressed in the open floor plan of the interior which was decorated by Bette Wilson, assistant home furnishings coordinator for J. L. Hudson. The living room featured a mahogany plywood wall (stained with a walnut finish) and a copper fireplace and hearth. The color scheme was “soothing” with beige walls and carpet, accentuated by furniture in beige, green, rust and copper while accent cushions added splashes of bright turquoise and copper. The master bathroom featured wallpaper from Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Taliesin” line.

Snack Bar

The “snack bar” served as a room divider. The vinyl floor was turquoise with accent tiles in white and avocado. Detroit News.

The concept behind the Idea Home was to provide construction ideas and the use of new materials for builders, ideas for architects when designing future projects, and ideas for the “housewife” to decorate her current home. And perhaps the best part? Visitors to the home show could win the home by guessing the number of nails inside a large plastic model of the house! No idea who eventually won, but the house still exists at 29060 Lone Elm Lane in Southfield. I know what I’m doing this week-end. . .

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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