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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Home/Work – a brief history

Back in the office today after months of working from home? It’s been a novelty for most of us, but technology, interior design and architecture have been blurring the lines between the two for a century or more. Businessmen, architects and philanthropists – all pictured here in the home/offices they created – made WFH as easy as ABC much earlier than you might think, and in some style.

1898, Brussels – Victor Horta: Buying adjacent plots, the pioneering architect designed his own home on one and his studio on the other. Both were in his distinctive interpretation of Art Nouveau with stone, metal, wood and glass twisted into organic forms and carefully layered. Structural ironwork permitted wider openings in the façade where these were needed, for larger windows and so on. The two sides of the building were interconnected at multiple levels though had separate entrances, separating home from work in one way at least. His studio featured a waiting area, telephone box, electric light and radiators and comprised various rooms for a staff of more than a dozen.

1932, Lille – Paul Cavroix: This textile industrialist and his wife Lucie commissioned architect Robert Mallet-Stevens to build a Modern house in the suburb of Roubaix, where the family mills were located. Its geometric lines and yellow brick exterior concealed mechanical shutters, a network of speakers for broadcasting radio, music or voice, a telephone switchboard, multiple electric clocks and a lift. A suite of rooms to work, receive associates and conduct business was provided that comprised a waiting room, office and circular smoking room. A sophisticated system of indirect lighting was also installed throughout the house and Cavroix’s desk supported a box of switches controlling aspects of its functions.

1933, London – Stephen Courtauld: Though part of the textile and chemical family Stephen Courtauld preferred the arts and philanthropy. Seeking a quiet location still within an easy car journey of the capital’s centre, he and his wife Virginia leased and restored Edward IV’s derelict Great Hall in Eltham and connected it to a new house. Behind its traditional frontage, architects John Seely and Paul Paget placed a spectacular Art Deco entrance hall, lavish suites for Stephen and Virginia and extensive guestrooms all with bathrooms. Boasting similar facilities to the Villa Cavroix as well as a centralised vacuum cleaning system, Stephen’s office-cum-library benefitted from an electric fire and sliding screens on which to display his watercolours.

1938, Surrey – Patrick Gwynne: In contrast to Eltham young architect Patrick Gwynne built the Homewood as an explicitly Internationalist house for himself, his parents and his sister. Elevated on piloti or stilts, of rectilinear form and with floor to ceiling windows, it was largely open plan. Functions within were differentiated by furniture and finish and Gwynne incorporated a range of ingenious labour-saving devices. Gwynne’s practice was also based there and so his office featured elegantly concealed plan chests, cupboards with internal lighting and a desk that incorporated a drawing board, whilst a living room writing table changed form as needed. All demonstrated his skills as an architect to potential clients.

1955, Michigan – Harley Earl: After the war, General Motors hired Finnish architect Eero Saarinen to plan a vast research campus in Warren, Michigan. Within lay the office of legendary car design executive Earl, an outlier in this survey since firmly located ‘at work’ but included for owing much to residential interiors of the period. Serpentine walls were lined in vertical strips of cherrywood and back a continuous shelf of the same material containing planters, a globe and several banquettes. The massive, sculptural desk is formed from laminated cherrywood planks, sanded and lacquered like the car mock-ups made on site. Built in were a telephone, retractable desk lamp, radio and controls for room lighting, blinds and temperature.

1970, San Antonio – Jack Frassanito, J.Phillip Ray and Gus Roche: The Datapoint 2200 was the world’s first full-function desktop computer, created by two system engineers and an industrial designer from the Computer Terminal Corporation. It was initially developed as a data input device for mainframes that used a television display and silent keyboard, making it quieter and more effective than the existing electro-mechanical teleprinter units. But it was also a stand-alone computer in its own right for smaller offices and businesses. That, plus an innovative chipset (which was the basis for the much better known IBM PC that followed), makes the 2200 the progenitor of every home computer thereafter, including the laptop I’m typing this on.

1976, London – Michael Hopkins: With wife and partner Patty, Hopkins bought a vacant plot in Hampstead and erected a house that reflected the High-Tech ethos of their new architectural practice. Engineered by Tony Hunt, a two-storey structure of steel columns, trusses and floors was enveloped by insulated metal sandwich sidewalls and full-height glass front and rear façades. Apart from a shower and toilet enclosure on each floor there were no internal walls, with only venetian blinds demarcating areas. These included a studio on the upper floor as well as bedrooms and living spaces though functions changed over the years as family and business demanded. Amusingly the simple doorbell broke and was never replaced. 'I never worked out how to fix a doorbell through glass,' Michael has said.


A Lost Post… from 4 April 2020, updated and amended

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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