A Look Back to the Future | 372 | The Sustainable, High Tech Home of the Future from the 1950’s and Today

I’m Josh Cooperman and this is Convo By Design and we are going back to the 1950’s for a look back at the future… That’s right.

I recently came across a video that was made in the 1950s by Westinghouse called the Total Electric Home. It is a fascinating film hosted by Betty Furness. She was an actress, consumer advocate and special assistant in consumer affairs to the Johnson administration.  Furness past away in 1994 and she was really interesting. She turned a less than stellar acting career into a significant role as consumer advocate and saleswoman. Furness hosted this remarkable film that was created by and featuring the products made by Westinghouse Electric.

Westinghouse was founded in 1886 by George Westinghouse who years earlier, in 1865 patented the first rotary steam engine. In 1869, he patented an air braking system for use on the railroad. In 1888 Nikola Tesla patented the alternating current motor and goes to work for Westinghouse. In 1893, Westinghouse beats out Thomas Edison to win the contract to power the Chicago World’s Fair. Then in 1914, Westinghouse acquires Copeman  Electric Stove Company to enter the home appliance market. So in the 50’s, here they are with this fully integrated electric home. Why didn’t it take? The idea was genius. The reason it didn’t work was due to many factors not the least of which was the competition in the marketplace and to perhaps an even larger extent, the proliferation of other power sources.

Natural gas has been used in the United States since before 1836 when the City of Philadelphia created  the first municipal natural gas company. I don’t want to go too deep here and turn this into a history lesson. Rather, let’s look at this amazing piece of history as we look forward. Some of the same basic ideas incorporated into the Westinghouse Total Electric Home are relevant and even being reintroduced as of this writing. Just listen to Betty’s introduction: So the idea for the Ring doorbell can be traced back to the 50’s. While I don’t know what “Rayescent lighting” is, it sounds pretty cool. While the idea of seeing visitors is not novel to us now, imagine how this idea was received in the 50’s? A great idea right, but how about this?

What? The idea for a home that is organized in zones is not new, but to envision a home that works together as opposed to simply trying to seamlessly connect spaces is, to this day, a revolutionary idea. Keep in mind that at this time, formal dining rooms, formal living rooms and phone niches were all ‘must haves’. 

Now, I don’t want you think that this whole idea could be plucked from then and planted now… There’s this…

It appears only men are interested in the weather, but wait…

Integrated heating and watering. Not only novel, but amazing!

Not sure about multiple hampers, because let’s be honest, no kid I know is going to self-sort by material or color. Speaking of kids…

Okay, so we are getting off topic a little bit, but it’s okay because this Total Electric Home is a concept house, like many of the cars you go see at the auto show. It makes you wonder why there aren’t more experimental spaces from which to truly explore the elements that go into living well.  There is cost, of course, but I always thought that was a perfect role for the design house. Of which we are starting to see fewer organized by the media and more created by developers. 

I wanted to use this opportunity to share some ideas you have heard by architects on previous episodes and a few to come. We are talking about not just creating the home of the future, but the home for now, homes with spaces designed to suit the way we live now and  factor in the changes that come next. This is architect Anthony Poon referencing the Wallace Neff Bubble House in Pasadena and talking about Modern for the Masses.

That was Anthony Poon talking about concepts, this is architect Stephen Francis Jones and his use of shipping containers to build. A plentiful, relatively untapped resource for creation of dwellings. Stephen founder of SF Jones Architects talks about creating a dwelling from shipping containers.

From here we can jump to a conversation with noted LA architect Dan Brunn. Dan and I spoke at the WestEdge Design Fair ant we were talking about some of his truly transformative projects and it all started with his love for the Bauhaus style in which he grew up as a boy in Tel Aviv. Listen to Dan explain it.

Studio MLA’s Ben Feldman and I sat down to talk about his work on the LA River project and this is further proof that the modern home and the modern solution to housing truly is a multifaceted patchwork of ideas cobbled together to address many issues, changing times and conditions not to mention technologies, both coming and going. That Total Electric Home of the future wasn’t just a one off creation but ideas put into practice every day. Listen to Ben explain it from his perspective.

Quite a bit has been unpacked here. Adding another twist to the modern, technologically advanced home is a brief chat with Steven Ehrlich when we met at Modernism Week in 2018. He was giving me a tour of an amazing project in the desert using some uncommon materials for the terrain to make the house both lighter on the footprint and function better. Check this out.

Wrapping this up with architect Lorcan O’herlihy and a brief chat about LA and Detroit from an urban living perspective. Concepts, materials, style, technology, and compatibility are all crucial to the modern, livable home and one also needs to understand municipal policy, change it if you can work around it when you must and be creative stitching projects in whenever possible. Nobody understands this like O’herlihy.

This has been fun, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have. Here is Betty Furness one last time with the Westinghouse pitch. It’s compelling. Makes you wonder what we can do with the advancements we have some 70 years later.

What a fun look at past design and how it affects both today and tomorrow. Thank you to all of the creatives who added to this conversation; Anthony Poon, Stephen F Jones, Steven Ehrlich, Dann Brun, Ben Feldman and Lorcan O’herlihy. Thank you ThermaSol, Article, York Wallcoverings and Franz Viegener for your partnership and support. You are remarkable partners and amazing allies for the trade. And, thank you for listening, remember why you do what you do and that the business of design is about making better the lives of those we serve. Until next week, Be well and take today first.