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This Horny ’70s Design Book Is the Key to a Sick 2021 House

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Maybe you’ve felt what I’ve felt. Maybe you’ve looked around your home in the past year and thought: Is this space really working for me? Does it make me happy? Is it time to replace the inherited vinyl blinds? Maybe you “know what you like” but can’t help but look around every once in a while, to see what ideas you can steal from Other People. With nary an indoor gathering in sight, you’ve had no choice but to scroll. Maybe you’ve been doing this a lot and, one too many impulsive online orders later, you’ve started to fear that passively ingesting so much design inspiration has skewed your sense of self. (Maybe that last one’s just me. But maybe not!)

To counter the effects of this subliminal messaging, more and more, I’ve found myself craving analog, often dated sources of information. So I took note last year, when, during an interview with Meghan Lavery and Daniel King, the couple behind Brooklyn vintage furniture store Home Union, they casually mentioned The House Book, Terence Conran’s iconic 1970s interior design guide, as a favorite reference. I bought a copy on eBay for less than 20 dollars. I learned that Conran, who died this past year, was a designer and entrepreneur credited with bringing European zest to a drab postwar Britain, and eventually, the world. The House Book was so popular when it was released in England 1974 that American stores started importing copies before it was published stateside two years later. Today, it’s relatively unknown outside the design world. And that’s a shame. We all have some kind of space to call our own, and figuring how to make it more personal shouldn’t be something you feel unqualified to do. The House Book can help.

Conran in 1985. Put the vase on a pedestal, why not!

Steve Wood

Lavery and King first came across The House Book on one of their “furniture journeys,” either shopping the estate or visiting the home of a downsizing architect in search of inventory for their store. They were struck by how modern Conran’s vibe was — vintage Ikea alongside Le Corbusier — and his accessible advice, which breaks down the what, how, and why of the book’s thousand-plus images. “We have so many different design books, divided by decade or the country it’s based on,” says Lavery, but with The House Book, “it’s such a wide variety, you can see so much. It’s not just like pigeon-holed to Italian design or Scandivanian. It’s everything, and everything put together so nicely.”

Assembling a home is like building a wardrobe—it’s best if you can do it slowly, and choose what works for you instead of everyone else on the internet. Of course, design books are not removed from the Mobius strip of visual content available online. With accounts like The 80s Interior, once-obscure tomes have themselves become Instagram fodder. But cool images of old books only go so far when you’re trying to shape a liveable space. Enter The House Book, which sits firmly on the narrow vertex between practicality and style. Think of this book as a cheat sheet, or a no-recipe cookbook for your house. The vibe is very do-what-you-feel—because, Conran says, that’s how you develop your taste. The images are endlessly appealing, with lots of plants and people, and the occasional naked butt. The homes look lived in rather than styled.

There’s also a lot of text. Trust me: this is a good thing. You can only learn so much about putting together a home by collecting pictures from various corners of the internet. At some point, you’ll probably want to learn why these things go together, what certain materials are called, which ones are best for particular uses, the designer of those vintage chairs you keep seeing online. Conran’s got you covered.

One of Conran’s Habitat furniture stores in London, 1973.

Evening Standard

You may be thinking, “Ok, but why would I want style advice from fifty years ago?” To which I’d say: Why limit yourself to the advice of right now? Timelessness often comes from borrowing from the past. “I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing octogenerians and also like, browsing their libraries,” says Kelsey Keith, director of brand editorial at Herman Miller and former editor-in-chief of Curbed. She thinks that’s probably how she first came across The House Book. “The format is incredibly practical,” Keith says. “I have yet to find a digital format where you can look at a floorplan at the same time as a sidebar that gives you really practical info on how to replicate or think about a space, that’s also near a photo with a caption.” If you’ve ever spent Criterion Collection movie night instead scrolling through Etsy for a vintage lamp, you’ll understand that knowing what you’re looking for is especially helpful when it comes to home design. But knowing what you’re not looking for? That’s a skill you can only develop by looking offline. Fabric roller blinds may not be on your radar, but maybe they’re just the thing for your cluttered bookshelves. Marble countertops are nice, but have you ever thought about ever-so-customizable (and usually, very affordable) tile?

For Shannon Maldonado, founder of Philadelphia interior design studio and store Yowie, the book’s playful, almost conspiratorial voice is as much of a draw as the visuals. She cites one of the opening lines: “Do you know how you want to furnish your home? If you do, don’t read on. That’s so cool! He’s like, “Do you need me or not? If you do, I’m here. And if not, good luck.” Maldonado, who worked in fashion design before opening her store in 2016, then broadening the brand to include consulting, appreciates Conran’s egalitarian approach to knowledge-sharing. “As someone who’s newly getting into the field of interior design,” Maldonado says, “there is a little bit of gatekeeping of information and resources that does not exist in this book. If I was new and starting out and read this book, I would feel so empowered.” She likes how Conran borrows from many different kinds of styles, breaks rules and emboldens readers to do the same. If the second floor of your house has a better view than the first, why not put a living room up there and sleep downstairs? Why not buy floor cushions you love instead of a couch you don’t really like? Have you considered building a platform instead of a wall to break up a room?

This photo doesn’t appear in The House Book, but gives off the same vibe: there is nothing wrong, Conran will tell you, with a seaside astroturf firepit.

Slim Aarons / Getty Images

What I like about The House Book is that it can be read at different levels (renter, homeowner, home builder), and teaches you how to think about making the most of what you have instead of focusing on what you don’t. It’s only aspirational in the sense that it makes you want to be more creative. While Lavery and King have sold a handful of House Book copies alongside their vintage housewares and furniture, each time they come across a new title in the Conran library of books (of which there are many; The House Book is just the first), they keep it. “The only time we’ve parted with a Conran book is when we have a double,” says King. Conran’s books may be out of print, but they’re still in demand—and style.

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