Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, the contemporary design curator at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, pointed to “High-Tech,” the 1984 book by Joan Kron and Suzanne Slesin, as an inspiration for her own homes — a series of stylish apartments that also accommodate young children. Subtitled “The Industrial Style and Source Book for the Home,” “High-Tech” cataloged the early appearances of hardware-store elements like pipe racks, Pirelli rubber flooring and track lighting in downtown lofts, and suggested an attitude toward the off-the-shelf that was in stark contrast to the sensual, upholstered, domesticated interiors of other books of the period.
“Our first changing table where we kept all the diapers and wipes and stuff was a 1920s tool chest,” Ms. Cunningham Cameron said. “It was really beautiful. It had been painted this woodsy green, which was peeling away and a little bit rusty.”
At a subsequent wide-open loft, her husband, Seth Cameron, the executive director of the Children’s Museum of the Arts, stapled dozens of white milk crates to the wall in lieu of closets. The book “inspires people in general to look at easily accessible, more industrial objects to fill their homes — try to think creatively, try to get a design flourish out of it,” she said.
Evan Collins, an architectural designer and co-founder of the digital Y2K Aesthetic Institute, is already on to the next thing — kind of. “I don’t think it is coming back, but there is a book called ‘You Deserve Beautiful Rooms,’ published in 2001, that I don’t even know what the style is called — McClectic?” he said. “Bronzy silks on the bed, a million pillows, ivy on the walls.”
The lesson is that there is a design manual for every taste, and your taste doesn’t have to change with the times. “I teach Eastlake in tandem with an author I really do like, Candace Wheeler,” said Professor Kaufmann-Buhler, from Purdue. “One of the things she makes clear is that every house should have its own character, and the family should define that character.”
Ms. Wheeler, the author of the 1903 book “Principles of Home Decoration,” even took on the early version of the McMansion, “builders houses,” built on spec and in quantity. “How do you make that your own? How do you fix the flaws?” Professor Kaufmann-Buhler asked. These are the reasons people continue to turn to advice books, and this is the advice they continue to dispense. The most beautiful house is the one that works for you.