Magazine Archives Spotlight Why Timeless Design Is Sustainable Design

A look at the Better Homes and Gardens archives turns up some wonders.

Family Room with view to Kitchen

Carlos Diniz Associates / Better Homes and Gardens

When I was a child, I loved to lie on the living room floor and look at my mother's design and architecture magazines. She was an interior decorator, as they were known at the time, and subscribed to Architectural Forum and the more mainstream House and Home, House Beautiful, and Better Homes and Gardens (BHG). I kept all of them, stealing ideas right into the '90s when I finally thought they were taking up too much space and dumped them. I have regretted that decision ever since. 

Most of those magazines are gone now, but BHG survives and thrives. It is now owned by the same company that publishes Treehugger, so I asked if I could troll through the archives, looking for the small houses and design ideas that I loved so much, decades earlier. 

Why is this relevant today and on Treehugger? I have often made the case that good design is almost by definition sustainable because, as the late Lance Hosey noted in The Shape of Green:

"We don't love something because it is non-toxic and biodegradable, we love it because it moves the head and heart. When we treasure something, we're less prone to kill it, so desire fuels preservation. Love it or lose it. In this sense, the old mantra could be replaced by a new one: If it's not beautiful, it's not sustainable. Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern, it's an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet."

The BHG issues have all been scanned, so I started digging. In 1968, BHG commissioned six designs from residential architects of the day, and all are interesting. But one, in particular, caught my eye.

The family room (image at top) had a classic Eames Lounge chair that is still in production—in fact, almost every piece of furniture shown is still in production—and a pair of Bertoia diamond chairs all perched on an orange shag rug, with a Josef Albers on the wall. I was intrigued by the kitchen, which was both open and separate, and the brick interior walls, and decided to dig further. 

I couldn't identify all of the furniture so I put the image up on Twitter and got a quick response from Emiliano Godoy, a Mexican designer working on environmental and social design projects who knows his midcentury furniture: "The chairs are the T Chair by Katavolos, Littell and Kelley for Laverne. The Petal side table by Schultz for Knoll and the Thonet coat rack are also in the all-star lineup!"

The Thonet coat rack seems out of place with all this modern furniture, but Thonet is beloved by architects. I am writing this while sitting on a Thonet No. 30 Bentwood chair that Le Corbusier used everywhere and that my family despises—kids fall through the back, it is uncomfortable, and you can't push it into the table so the dogs just jump up when you are not looking. But clearly, whoever chose the furniture for that rendering knew their stuff. So who did this?

The house plan is credited to an architect named Y.C. Wong, AIA. According to his obit in the Chicago Tribune, published in 2000, he was "an exacting Chicago architect noted for the atriums that characterized his designs." He worked for modernist greats like Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and CF Murphy (later Murphy Yahn).

"He was a pupil of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and carefully employed the precision and directness characterized by the second Chicago School. The homes he designed followed simple abstract forms and typically featured space for a garden in an inward-facing, glass-walled atrium."

You see all of that in this 1968 house and more. The wonderful thing about house plans designed for magazines is that architects don't have to worry about a particular client or site; they can design what they think is the best possible house. And there is a lot to love about this one.

Front facade of House

Carlos Diniz Associates / Better Homes and Gardens

The house has no windows facing the street; no need for drapes. You enter through the atrium/ entrance court, which has big windows to the living room. 

Atrium Entry

Carlos Diniz Associates / Better Homes and Gardens

The front door at the court could be operated with a remote-control latch. Today we would add a Ring TV doorbell and a code for couriers; no worries about porch pirates here.

Living Room

Carlos Diniz Associates / Better Homes and Gardens

The living room in the "Adult Living Zone" has some pretty marvelous furniture. I recognized the Mies van der Roe stools and the Arco floor lamp, the Albers on the wall, and the Thonet rocking chair which really doesn't fit here at all. Emiliano Godoy filled in the rest: 

"The lounge chairs are the New York by Laverne International (Katavolos, Littell and Kelley). The Saarinen side table, Bill Curry table lamp, Arco floor lamp by the Castiglionis, the Barcelona coffee table, not sure about the other seats. Also the Albers and Franz Klein paintings, but don't know the one with the circles."

Note how the walls are brick. Wong built a lot of his houses with commercial technology; here, we have a cavity wall with insulation in between two rows of brick. The ceiling/roof is made of precast concrete. Embodied carbon wasn't a thing in 1968, and it is certainly going to be solid and low-maintenance. According to BHG, the architect has built a few of these, and "he reports it results in substantial cost savings." Floors are sealed quarry tile.

Ground floor plan

Better Homes and Gardens

The house is a back split plan for a sloping lot, so you go down half a flight to the other living spaces. It is this service core that caught my attention: we have been arguing for years about the benefits of open versus closed kitchens; I prefer the latter but the majority of our readers prefer the former. This one is both! There is an efficient U-layout, still the best there is, a laundry and a bathroom, facing an eating counter, which can be shut off with sliding doors.

Upper Level

Better Homes and Gardens

The upper level is a straightforward 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom—the modern standard. But note how the toilet is separated from the sink area ... a much healthier arrangement. 

So then we have the question: Who picked the furniture? The drawings are credited to Carlos Diniz Associates, which turns out to be another very important firm. According to his biography, Diniz, who died in 2001, was stationed in Italy just after WWII and wrote, “It didn’t take long for the architectural splendors of Venice to work their magic on me and I took to sketching them in earnest.” He studied art and became an illustrator, and was hired by Victor Gruen, the inventor of the American shopping mall, in 1952; he may well have done all those fabulous drawings of shopping malls that are in Alexandra Lange's new book "Meet Me by the Fountain." He opened his own office in 1957.

"The studio was to focus on architectural presentation in the fullest sense, producing everything from drawings and paintings, logos, presentations, brochures and marketing tools. The client roster quickly filled with well-established and upcoming architects including Welton Becket, Minoru Yamasaki, SOM, Ladd & Kelsey and, naturally, Victor Gruen." Later, in the 80s, he worked with "the top urban development architecture firms and architects including SOM, Cesar Pelli, Lawrence Halprin, Norman Foster, Kohn Pederson Fox, Pei Cobb Freed and Barton Myers. His biography notes: "Carlos Diniz was considered an integral part of American architecture and architectural presentation by his many clients, associates and peers." 

It's no wonder this article is such an attention-getter. You have a talented architect who designed 45 houses in the Chicago area, paired with an illustrator who became a superstar in the industry, and who I suspect had the eye for classic modern furniture.

Things have certainly changed in half a century. The atrium entry might seem like a security issue to some, the living room might seem superfluous, the garage on the side requires a lot of real estate and I doubt the concrete and brick would be cost-efficient today. But I suspect it would still be a joy to live in, the furniture might be worth more than the house, and it will all last forever—that is sustainable design. And that kitchen plan is definitely worth looking at again.