I have recently been fetishizing the "Muji House," a two-story, open-plan unadorned box designed by Kazuhiko Namba. Like the company itself — the "no-brand" company that even logo-allergic Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition could love — it seems to celebrate "absolute flexibility," the Japanese concept of "kenketsu" (roughly, simplicity) and "utilitarian materials and rationalised production methods" — oh, how those words set my heart atwitter! I've not seen it in person of course, as it, like most of the company's other objects, from unbleached paper on up, are widely unavailable in the U.S. (save for their contradictory appearance at MOMA).
The Muji house that has been shown in their Japanese outlets and at various housing fairs apparently comes fully decked out with a full suite of Muji gear, from cylindrical ice cube trays to cool swivel armchairs. Rampantly consumerist perhaps, but there is something immeasurably appealing to me about the idea of buying this virtual live-in catalog of good design, this self-contained Muji universe, this giant box of Muji stuff.
This is not the first time this impulse has been felt. There was a similar dream at work in the 1960s, I have recently learned from an entertaining, informative documentary called Leisurama, directed by Jake Gorst. "Leisurama" was the name of a model second-home community, in Long Island's Montauk region, designed by members of the Raymond Loewy Corporation. The model house was sold by Macy's, which exhibited it in the basement of its flagship New York City store. Buyers of the house, which ran around $12,000, got not only a house, but all the trappings — right down to the toothbrushes.
Leisurama is that too-rare creature: A documentary about architecture and design. It was shown as part of a salutary series at New York's Center for Architecture, and will have future showings in other venues. See here for details.
As the film tells it, the Leisurama concept was born out of a model home, with interiors by Raymond Loewy, shown at the American National Exhibit in Moscow in 1959 — site of the famous "kitchen debate" between Krushchev and Nixon. The model house shown there was an incipient Cold War symbol, a testament of the quality of life enjoyed by the average American.
A developer subsequently had the idea to build an entire colony of affordable vacation homes on Montauk, designed by Andrew Geller, who designed banks and stores for Loewy but on his own gained acclaim for his fantastic, angular beach houses. As Geller describes in the film, he gave the developer many different ideas for the home designs of what would become the "Leisurama" community, but they went with essentially the one most similar to existing suburban "ranchburgers," as Alastair Gordon puts it.
With its swinging, atomic 1960s font and groovy "ama" suffix, the homes seem now like the ultimate in space age bachelor pad simplicity — a beach house kit of parts, "fully equipped for modern living." "The greatest advance in housing since the invention of bricks!" trumpeted one ad. Around 250 of the homes were built, of which only a number remain, none without subsequent retrofitting. Like an anthropologist, the filmmaker finds Leisurama "originals" in their native setting, flipping down their original Murphy Beds and proudly pointing out indigenous dinette sets; one Leisuramanian notes that if she left her Leisurama house now she couldn't afford to live anywhere else in Montauk (adding that the original house would fit in a garage bay of a new Montauk construction). The dream of an affordable second-home for the average American might exist somewhere, but not near the beaches of Long Island.
What makes the Leisurama houses interesting, apart from their novel marketing, is that they seemed to have briefly stood as some kind of symbol of national superiority over the Soviets. If Levittown represented the good life for returning G.I.s, Leisurama was the maturation, or multiplication (as Gordon puts it) of that dream: A weekend Levittown by the sea (or design within reach of the beach). Remarkably, a model house of the "leisure-living plan" appeared at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, the fair that resounded most with twinned Cold War anxieties and promise (rockets and missiles rounded out many a motif that year in Queens). Between two massive corporate pavilions stood a lone Leisurama, filled with its full domestic retinue. Like many developments, Leisurama soon ran aground, the victim of poor planning decisions. One still feels its echoes in the prefab movement, with its corrugated shipping containers helicoptered onto hillsides, but as far as I know, none of them has yet to offer a toothbrush. And what better container for a design-minded enterprise to show off its wares: One can envision little Conran Cape Cods, replete with Philippe Starck; or low-cost Target tracthouses, with floor-to-ceiling Michael Graves; or why not Jonathan Ive-designed WePods, little swoopingly organic igloos with scroll-wheel lighting and heating controls, built-in iTunes libraries, and nice desks with neatly arranged folders. But no Windows.