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Standing Out: What We Can Learn from the Age of Kit Houses

Updated: Nov 20, 2018

In the early 1900s, upon opening a Sears catalog, you could browse for a house – pre-cut, numbered, and ready for assembly. The kit house, also called mail-order or ready-cut home, represented the America of mass production. Today, seeing an advertisement for a house built à la IKEA may seem novel, but this culture largely remains, whether it’s cookie-cutter homes or a subway car of Adidas Superstars. Kit houses of the 1900s put a magnifying glass to our desire to stand out in an age of reproducibility. What can these pre-formed homes teach us about personalizing interiors?

This winter, Dwell magazine spotlighted a Bay Area 1991 Japanese-inspired kit from Haiku Houses that underwent a major transformation. The designer tasked with the project, Prentis Hale, was blown away by the characterful details of the home, modeled from Japanese farmhouses. The structure, although catalog-ordered, provided a jumping off point for some exciting innovation. Rather than demolishing the structure, he decided to incorporate its unique history. Reflecting on the project, Hale says, “I would never have come up with that house if I was doing it from scratch. It would probably be a lot less interesting.”

Dwell Kit House, Barbara Vail Design
Photo: Joe Fletcher, Dwell

Initially, kit homes seem antithetical to the individuality needed for interior design. But, just as the Bay Area renovation revitalized a kit, interior designers can utilize vintage pieces and parts of the client’s history.

The mix of old and new generates a client narrative that involves the story of the house itself.

What characterizes Barbara Vail Design is this focus on your story. The goal is to understand your life’s twists and turns and how that might reflect in your space. This can mean combining elements of your existing home with new pieces or bringing in older ones. In a recent project, BVD decided to keep the stunning cabinets of a Victorian Brookline home. This history was preserved and modernized for a completely new feel.

Before and After, Barbara Vail Design
Check out the progress on this before and after, and stay tuned for a photoshoot coming up this winter.

The story of your home is shared – it’s a story of your life, the life of your house, and the lives of all the others that might inspire yours. Kit homes have a certain novelty in their replicability, and our fascination with the commodity can spark the creative search. Interior designers help make spaces yours. And sometimes the mix of older structures and newer trends lets your home’s history become part of your own. #kithouse #interiors #transformation


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