Wednesday, January 2, 2019

1980s RETRO HOME STYLES: Modernism, Take That

Busy rooflines, "sandwich grid" divided lite windows, and lots of
plywood siding: The beginning of 80s Retro Revival.
Author's note: After a week's vacation, I'm back with another in my occasional essays on architectural styles. Happy 2019 to all.

Somewhere, somehow, the members of my Baby Boom generation learned to hate Modernism. Maybe we got sick of bland white walls, moldings the size of popsicle sticks, and hollow doors you could put your fist through. Maybe we fell in love with the old Victorians or Bungalows of our grandparents, just as Millennials have fallen head over heels for Mid-Century Modern houses. At any rate, by the mid-70s there was already a growing disaffection with the kind of tract homes so many of us were growing up in.  

The first sign of a rebellion against
Modernism: Molded door trim
replacing the earlier, plain profiles.
“When I get big,” we’d tell ourselves, “I won’t live in some stupid tract house.  I’ll have a cool old house like Grandma’s.”

Well, we all grew up, and guess what? Most of us still live in stupid tract houses. But in some sense, we did get our way. By voting with our wallets, we got developers to change the way those stupid tract houses looked.  

The 1980s also brought us the molded 6-panel door,
along with a host of other patterns. They've been with us
ever since.
In the late 1970s, Boomers were seeing the beginning of a revolution in tract home design. The first sign was humble enough: door trim, which for forty years had been plain and narrow, began to widen out and exhibit the most tentative molded shapes. Developers quickly took note that new houses with this trim seemed to attract more buyer interest and, since developers are no dummies, they added more trim. Soon we were also seeing paneled doors—albeit molded ones molded from fiberboard—in place of the hated slab doors of the postwar generation.

In 1978, California’s Title 24 energy efficiency standards mandated the use of double-pane windows, so manufacturers took the opportunity to sandwich fake “divided lites” between the two layers of glass. Such retro-look windows were a natural complement to the new, more traditional doors and moldings, and they quickly became a hallmark of 80s-era tract homes.

"Sandwich Grid" windows: Another 80's-era hallmark.
And alas, still with us.
(Image courtesy of
By the end of the 1980s, the retro movement was in full swing. The demand for moldings in turn led to more products becoming available, which in turn encouraged builders to use even more of them, which in turn made for even more sales. This snowball effect resulted in a Victorian-like orgy of ornament that, to this day, still shows no signs of abating. Inside and out, new homes continue to feature ever more moldings, columns, and related frou-frou. The 80s-Retro style was the wellspring of this second molding-mad era.  

Today's mania for crown moldings—
whether or not they're appropriate
to the style of the house—also
dates back to the 80's.
Homes of the 1980s do have many advantages over their predecessors, including superior energy efficiency, better electrical and mechanical systems, and a more earthquake-resistant structure. Unfortunately, they also presage a number of depressing trends in American housing. One is a continuing decline in finish quality, due both to ever-flimsier materials, as well as to the iffy profit margins of developers, which fairly ensures hurried and careless work.  

These houses also kicked off the ever-increasing bloat in home sizes, best evidenced in today's absurdly pompous master suites as compared to those of the mid-century era.
Home styles of the 80s are also culpable for the ever more haphazard way in which ornament is being used in architecture today—a longstanding trend for which baby boomers have only themselves to blame.

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