December 3, 2007

It's My Hippie Kid In A Box! Ken Isaacs' Living Structures

Where are all the hippie visionaries when you need'em? In the 50's and 60's, designer Ken Isaacs' Home In A Cube designs were featured in Life magazine. [I first found out about them when I discovered Hennessey and Papanek's awesome DIY manuals, Nomadic Furniture.]


Isaacs' Matrix Idea of building sustainable, eco-friendly, modular, flexible, multi-functional Living Structures which reconfigured the entire volume of a room [and were bigger than furniture and smaller than architecture] is the subject of his way-too-hard-to-get 1974 book, How To Build Your Own Living Structures. [The book lodged in my brain because of the cover, which shows a happy hippie family--Isaacs' own, it turns out--playing on the veranda of a sweet-looking Microhouse, which Isaacs and friends built out of plywood and steel pipe in the Illinois woods.]

The joy he found in becoming a father was undiminished by the fact that he and his wife Carole were splitting time between the Microhouse and a studio apartment in Chicago. To motivate the anti-consumerist zealot to build a damn bed for their toddler son, Carole Isaacs first bought a crib at the mall.

Then she went ahead and designed the Josh Henry Living Structure herself. It consisted of two 36-inch cubes bolted together from 2x2 lumber. One was a play/work/socializing space, the other was "The Quiet Cube," a square crib/playpen with an open top and a crawlable porthole door.

ken_isaacs_kid_living3 ken_isaacs_kid_living2

As if that weren't enough cubic goodness, there was a 9-unit 16-inch Panel Matrix for storage and sorting: "There's much talk of storage, but not enough about 'sorting,'" Isaacs wrote. "The six lower cells are most accessible to Josh & no specific consistency is expected because it is the principle of sorting which is so important. As he grows he will lay on his own levels of patterning. Carole uses [sic] the top three cells for out-of-reach stuff. He doesn't seem frustrated."

Living Structures has plans, schematics, tool tips, and heaps and heaps of hippie dippie claptrap. It's pretty awesome and should be put right back into print, or made more available than it is somehow. Isaacs' ideas and operating principles are more relevant than ever, even if he apparently didn't "use" the kid's structures himself.

Copies of How To Build Your Own Living Structures are either expensive or rare or both. Right now, there are two on Amazon starting at $79. [amazon]
"Nice Quads": Dwell brought the Ken Isaacs story up to date a bit last May, complete with some vintage color photos []

After the jump, Isaacs' classic ruminations on fatherhood, and his trip to the suburbs for that crib:

because it felt like copy editing e.e. cummings, I kept Isaacs' original formatting from Living Structures, but added the occasional emphasis where sheer awesomeness dictated:

...supercool didn't prepare me for the wonder of the benign explosion which was the entry of joshua henry isaacs into our collective life. i tended to think of abstract reasons for rearing children making it worth the hassle. the awesome truth is that it's some experience. like having some exotic stranger come for a long visit. it's the one life experience i've found impossible to take for granted even after all this time. no ego trip like the old-fashioned world but more like watching a beautiful little peach tree grow. the only ego thing involved is watching reinterpreted echoes of your own behavior & attitudes appear in this midget like the reverb from some mighty speaker in the sky driven by the DNA spiral. sometimes this is OK but sometimes it makes you cringe & hope for the best.

CRISIS & THE SHOEMAKER'S CHILD/we were working pretty staedy at the university & in Groveland [i.e., the Microhouse site. -ed.] when josh henry was little so we couldn't seem to get centered on designing & fabricating a Structure for him. i think part of my holdout was rooted in the fact that i had never been around little kids & was uncertain of the parameters. most of my knowledge of babies was derived from watching old movies on television. we were also moving around a lot so he ended up in a simple, clean white, Shakeresque room in the Chicago apartment which carole fixed for him. his tools (toys) were nicely organized & he slept at first in a folding cloth thing with a metal frame. in the movies i'd watched they never grow much but in real life it's like God is blowing up a balloon, so he was soon too big for that thing. carole was already making drawings of a Living Structure for him but i still couldn't get focused on starting actual building. trouble in eden. one day i found myself in a suburban department store hallucinating carole asking the lady if she could buy a crib. this immediately induced hyperventilation in my system & i got ready to demonstrate new audio highs for the very proper audience of clerks & matrons. together we managed a fair Wagnerian racket.

RESOLUTION/carole is funny. at some human points she becomes a rock with the power of speech. she calmly said that the kid's head was going to be flat on top (or if we were lucky, slightly geodesic) unless he got a bigger place to sleep. she really undstands motivation technology. there was no other choice though, so we got the nifty crib & it hung there for quite a while like the albatross, a reminder of a monstrous negative act. it sure got us on for his Structure though.


If you would like to download a PDF of Isaac's wonderful book, I've hosted it here (along with other titles that might be of interest).

Here is a description that went with it:

"This high resolution scan was donated by the The Library of Radiant Optimism for Let’s Re-Make the World. They write: "This book is a beautiful guide about how to make a variety of flexible experimental indoor interiors, storage units, and a microhouse. The microhouse is a flexible creation of architect, Ken Isaacs. The modular design is based on stacked tetrahedrons, which can be moved in and around each other providing shelter and dividing living space in a creative way. The book gives you step-by-step instructions with plans for many different versions of Isaac’s original designs interspersed with ideas about simplicity, and getting rid of our personal possessions. The book is type written and spiral round in a nice Do-It-Yourself aesthetic, and Isaacs writes in a genial manner as if he were sitting across the table from you. He muses on the philosophical meanings of surplus and uses the designs as a means of addressing life as whole; a simple place to raise a family and house extended family that has a low impact on the surrounding natural environment." Thanks to Let's Remake, and Sarah Lewison who lent them her copy for scanning, for sharing this."

thanks for the link, I'd been meaning to add that.

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