An author’s minimalist home of the future

In 1952, Popular Mechanics magazine ran an article about science fiction author Robert Heinlein‘s then-new 1,150-square-foot minimalist home. Titled “A House To Make Life Easy,” the article written by Thomas E. Stimson, Jr., explores the “house that’s called extreme today but may become conventional before the 20th century has run its course.”

More than half a century later, it’s interesting to look back on this article and see which of the futuristic ideas caught on and which ones didn’t. One of the more interesting items that didn’t become a mainstream feature in American homes is the “commuting” table on page 66:

The “commuting” table allows you to set the table in the kitchen and then push it through the wall into the bookshelf-lined dining area. As full-time housekeepers were becoming more rare in the 1950s, I’m sure this was seen as a luxury for Heinlein’s wife. Nowadays, most new homes simply have open kitchen and dining floor plans where no walls exist between the two areas.

Check out the article (be sure to catch the jump from page 69 to 228, and then again to page 230) and learn about Heinlein’s minimalist home that supposedly only took “about an hour” to clean. Then, come back here and tell us your thoughts on this house that was supposed to make life easy.

Thanks to reader Robert R. for leading us to the article.

22 Comments for “An author’s minimalist home of the future”

  1. posted by Robbin on

    oh my gosh! “This cigarette lighter could save your life!” How times change (and how they stay the same :-)

    Love the article. So many things ahead of his time. I’ve been thinking about replacing my carpets and linoleum with cork tiles (or bamboo) as the times comes. I’m not keen on the built in furniture, but furniture raised off the floor enough for my roomba to get under works just as well for me ;-)

  2. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    I love open floor plans instead of the sort that need a commuting table–the borrowed visual space, the light,etc., but you just highlighted the biggest problem with them–few walls to store books on or display art or build in cabinets to store things.
    I’m pretty minimal in a lot of things, but I’ve largely given up on seasonal decorating that doesn’t perish eventually–nowhere to store it….

  3. posted by Morfydd on

    I like it a lot. I really like having the dining room be a separate room from the kitchen, and the table passthrough is neat!

    The idea of not having lots of surfaces to clean under/around/behind is echoed in the SpeedCleaning books, which impressed me a great deal. I’m too afraid of commitment for so many builtins, but my furniture tends to either be a solid block against the floor or to have plenty of space for a broom or Roomba to clean under. And I own the modern version of that bed.

    (As an aside, I grew up reading Heinlein, and those pictures look nothing like my mental image of him…)

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    posted by OogieM on

    Loved the bookcases, looks a lot like our own house.

  5. posted by Rebecca on

    I love this house. I can’t help but think the tumbleweed tiny houses must have been inspired by this home (the built-ins are to-die-for, and I love all that wood).

  6. posted by chris on

    I love how the “oversized” bed, and its measurements: 6 by 7 feet, were noted several times. That’s smaller than a king, which is so standard now!!

    Also the cork tiling, heated bathroom floors, etc. We’re actually moving towards widespread adaptation of a lot of the hyper-efficient “green” innovations he built in: skylights, super-insulation, recirculated heat/cooling, roof overhangs to collect/protect from sunshine, etc…

    I love the idea of a kitchen-office for cookbooks, bill-paying; having outlets higher up to avoid stooping, etc. And those super-light-proof blinds sound heavenly!!

  7. posted by maryann on

    I love the garbage chute leading to a bin outside.

  8. posted by Red Coyote Hunter on

    Flat roof? Sooner or later, it will leak. Water always wins.

    Built-ins? Very Frank Lloyd Wright.

    Cork floors? Do you scrub them or vacuum them? How clean are they?

    Green paint inside and out? Must have left a medicinal feeling.

    But the article is a hoot.

  9. posted by Erin on

    I don’t like the idea of builtins myself. I like to move the furniture around in my house to get a different look. Also the windows that don’t open wouldn’t appeal to me, because on nice days I like to open the windows and let in the fresh air. But the skylights and the indoor garden would be wonderful!

  10. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    Haven’t read the article yet, but the problem with built in furniture is in the mechanics of it. What happens if your easy chair gets stuck in the hidden position, or half way in between hidden and usable? Just like water always wins, mechanical things fail.

    And like Erin, I like variety and fresh air when possible.

    Will read more later today.

    Ruth

  11. posted by Bet on

    The whole thing reminds me Mad Men. ;-) I find the house unappealing and too sterile. And I could not stand to not be able to open windows!

  12. posted by gypsy packer on

    Treehugger.com featured mirrored tubular skylights last week, as something new.
    I’d love to have all interior walls as storage walls. Circulating air heat, though, is far inferior to water/boiler systems for holding heat in floors, as Scandinavians know. No doubt, he regretted those fixed windows, the first time the AC compressor died. Many other of these “new” features are now being sold as standard or optional items.
    Hey Popular Mechanics fan, do you have any of their old issues, from the 30′s thru 50′s, featuring Florida or AZ solar conversions? Many of us would love to view those.

  13. posted by chacha1 on

    This was really cool. I am also a Heinlein reader and am not at all surprised that he had so many green and efficient components designed into the home. Love the idea of heating duct under the tub! Of course, now we have the option of in-floor radiant heating, but if retrofitting, the duct idea could work well.

    The one thing I couldn’t stand is the “sealed” home aspect. Give me fresh air.

  14. posted by Roses on

    Actually, this entire issue of Popular Mechanics is fascinating–a time capsule. Check out the “one of the lightest and most compact hand radio transmitter-receivers ever made” on page 216.

  15. posted by infmom on

    I wonder if this house was built before or after his first wife gave him the heave-ho. :)

  16. posted by Ange on

    I’m going to have to disagree with the “commuting table” not becoming a mainstream feature of American homes. I believe we call them laptops now.

  17. posted by Malcolm on

    I like it. Of course in 50 years some things have changed – no-one would build a house now which relies entirely on an airconditioning system (windows not able to open) – would they? But what I like about the house is that its design is a rational response to how the owner wishes to live, rather than a traditional idea of “how a house should look”. That is an idea which will never be outdated.

  18. posted by Worried for Your Sanity on

    @infmom — I wonder if this house was built before or after his first wife gave him the heave-ho. :)

    I don’t think the phrase given the heave-ho means what you think it means… and this house was built for Ginny, the last wife, before they determined Ginny had altitude sickness which required them to relocate to higher pressure near sea level.

    — details from the pending biography, mostly paraphrased —

    He was married three times, the wife you are talking about would be the second wife, he divorced her to marry his last wife, Ginny, the one in the picture pushing the table through the pass through.

    The second wife was head of the Music Department at Columbia pictures, resigning to marry. Highly intelligent, highly educated, she had her BA from UCLA and Masters in Philosophy at USC. She had teaching credentials for academic subjects, but also taught fancy needlework and crocheting. Heinlein said many of his early stories were essentially collaborations with Leslyn as “silent partner” because she had good — really excellent — story sense but no interest in writing. Indeed, it is said that she was an informal “story doctor” when she worked at Columbia, though there is no documentation at all on this point. Before Heinlein took up writing, they were involved in the EPIC radical-liberal socialist political movement fronted initially by Upton Sinclair. EPIC took over the Democratic Party in California and made it as powerful as the Republican Party for the first time. After Sinclair left, EPIC continued to manage the Democratic Party, and gradually the Dems took control back from EPIC. The Heinleins worked their way up the Democratic party apparatus until Heinlein decided to get out of politics and into writing, with Leslyn essentially Robert’s “chief of Staff.” Although she worked at her own political projects, Leslyn apparently had no desire to be the front man. Gradually John Campbell replaced Leslyn as story doctor, starting from about 1940.

    From about 1936, an undefined personality instability — a vague sense of “something wrong” — began to be visible even to a few other people, though it was well-controlled until about the middle of World War II, when she was overworking herself and almost her entire remaining family died or were killed. She turned to alcoholism which increased in severity until Heinlein asked her to get a divorce in June 1947. After the divorce, she worked for a while at the newly established Pt. Mugu missile range and had a very messy and very unhappy life. After a short bigamous marriage, she married Jules Mocabee. She suffered a series of strokes in about 1950 and during the long two or three years she was essentially housebound recovering, she wrote wave after wave of “poison pen” letters to everyone Heinlein worked with professionally. This reached a climax in 1953, about which time she seems to have made a significant improvement in her heath, and the poison pen letters stopped. As this was the only contact Heinlein had with her, she thereafter falls out of his life. She died in 1981, still named Mocabee.

    Is that the way you remembered her giving him the heave-ho? Let’s not have any more half truths, lies and falsehoods spread.

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  20. posted by Belinda Gomez on

    I love cork floors. All the public libraries in Pasadena CA have them. You can seal or wax them, and they’re so much quieter.

    Dining tables on wheels–portable furniture–has been around since Jane Austen’s time. Furniture was considered to be multi-use then. I think shoving a fully set table from room to room, as shown above, takes more than one dainty hand.

  21. posted by Tezby on

    This is *exactly* how I imagined Heinlein would live, albeit in a castle on top of a mountain. The article doesn’t disappoint.

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