Tom Vanderbilt | Essays

Leisurama: Design Within Reach

I have recently been fetishizing the "Muji House," a two-story, open-plan unadorned box designed by Kazuhiko Namba. Like the company itself — the "no-brand" company that even logo-allergic Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition could love — it seems to celebrate "absolute flexibility," the Japanese concept of "kenketsu" (roughly, simplicity) and "utilitarian materials and rationalised production methods" — oh, how those words set my heart atwitter! I've not seen it in person of course, as it, like most of the company's other objects, from unbleached paper on up, are widely unavailable in the U.S. (save for their contradictory appearance at MOMA).

The Muji house that has been shown in their Japanese outlets and at various housing fairs apparently comes fully decked out with a full suite of Muji gear, from cylindrical ice cube trays to cool swivel armchairs. Rampantly consumerist perhaps, but there is something immeasurably appealing to me about the idea of buying this virtual live-in catalog of good design, this self-contained Muji universe, this giant box of Muji stuff.

This is not the first time this impulse has been felt. There was a similar dream at work in the 1960s, I have recently learned from an entertaining, informative documentary called Leisurama, directed by Jake Gorst. "Leisurama" was the name of a model second-home community, in Long Island's Montauk region, designed by members of the Raymond Loewy Corporation. The model house was sold by Macy's, which exhibited it in the basement of its flagship New York City store. Buyers of the house, which ran around $12,000, got not only a house, but all the trappings — right down to the toothbrushes.

Leisurama is that too-rare creature: A documentary about architecture and design. It was shown as part of a salutary series at New York's Center for Architecture, and will have future showings in other venues. See here for details.

As the film tells it, the Leisurama concept was born out of a model home, with interiors by Raymond Loewy, shown at the American National Exhibit in Moscow in 1959 — site of the famous "kitchen debate" between Krushchev and Nixon. The model house shown there was an incipient Cold War symbol, a testament of the quality of life enjoyed by the average American.

A developer subsequently had the idea to build an entire colony of affordable vacation homes on Montauk, designed by Andrew Geller, who designed banks and stores for Loewy but on his own gained acclaim for his fantastic, angular beach houses. As Geller describes in the film, he gave the developer many different ideas for the home designs of what would become the "Leisurama" community, but they went with essentially the one most similar to existing suburban "ranchburgers," as Alastair Gordon puts it.

With its swinging, atomic 1960s font and groovy "ama" suffix, the homes seem now like the ultimate in space age bachelor pad simplicity — a beach house kit of parts, "fully equipped for modern living." "The greatest advance in housing since the invention of bricks!" trumpeted one ad. Around 250 of the homes were built, of which only a number remain, none without subsequent retrofitting. Like an anthropologist, the filmmaker finds Leisurama "originals" in their native setting, flipping down their original Murphy Beds and proudly pointing out indigenous dinette sets; one Leisuramanian notes that if she left her Leisurama house now she couldn't afford to live anywhere else in Montauk (adding that the original house would fit in a garage bay of a new Montauk construction). The dream of an affordable second-home for the average American might exist somewhere, but not near the beaches of Long Island.

What makes the Leisurama houses interesting, apart from their novel marketing, is that they seemed to have briefly stood as some kind of symbol of national superiority over the Soviets. If Levittown represented the good life for returning G.I.s, Leisurama was the maturation, or multiplication (as Gordon puts it) of that dream: A weekend Levittown by the sea (or design within reach of the beach). Remarkably, a model house of the "leisure-living plan" appeared at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, the fair that resounded most with twinned Cold War anxieties and promise (rockets and missiles rounded out many a motif that year in Queens). Between two massive corporate pavilions stood a lone Leisurama, filled with its full domestic retinue. Like many developments, Leisurama soon ran aground, the victim of poor planning decisions. One still feels its echoes in the prefab movement, with its corrugated shipping containers helicoptered onto hillsides, but as far as I know, none of them has yet to offer a toothbrush. And what better container for a design-minded enterprise to show off its wares: One can envision little Conran Cape Cods, replete with Philippe Starck; or low-cost Target tracthouses, with floor-to-ceiling Michael Graves; or why not Jonathan Ive-designed WePods, little swoopingly organic igloos with scroll-wheel lighting and heating controls, built-in iTunes libraries, and nice desks with neatly arranged folders. But no Windows.

Comments [10]

Tom, the Leisureama "echoes" you hear in the current pre-fab movement are really echoes of the Sears, Roebuck and Company's Modern Home, which were the brainchild of Frank W. Kushel — who managed the company's china department before he got the idea to sell homes.
m. kingsley


Debbie Millman and Andrew Geller gave a panel discussion about Gellar's book after a screening of Gorst's documentary at that viewing at New York's Center for Architecture. You may be able to coax her out on the topic, as she was featured in the movie.

BTW, Jake Gorst is working on another great movie about architecture that is just underway now.

E. Tage Larsen

Leisurama soon ran aground, the victim of poor planning decisions

The logo couldn't have helped much, either.

(Though "contemporary" for that time, this logo suggests a house that's about to fall apart.)
Daniel Green

Leisurama is a wonderful film--Jake Gorst did an incredible job creating it. I actually think the logo is absolutely appropriate--swanky and swingy and just plain lucious. As much as the Leisurama era might have "seemed to have briefly stood as some kind of symbol of national superiority over the Soviets;" (and I do believe it did indeed represent that, for a brief moment) I also think it represented a time when the average suburban New Yorker could attain a multi-dimensional "American Dream" in the acquisition of a second home. The Leisurama lifestyle, if I might be so bold to suggest it was one, allowed middle income households to affordably attain something that had previously been out of reach, and allowed them to feel quite entitled to do so. The most heartbreaking moment in the film is when the young woman Tom refer's to in his post acknowledges that she couldn't afford to live anywhere else, as now purchasing Montauk real estate is no longer realistically attainable to the middle class. Seems we have our own little segregation going on way out there on the island. I wonder if there are any Tuscan-style houses being built out there...

Also, in case anyone is interested, this is a fun link to a Leisurama/Sims site.
debbie millman

There is something really appealing about a house that is fully furnished including the toothbrushes. Maybe that's because I have been remodeling a house to make it livable. I am looking forward to seeing the movie.

Thanks for your further thoughts, Debbie. At the risk of appearing overly contrary on an item of little importance, please let me clarify my reaction to the Leisurama logo.

The Leisurama logo uses a common 1960's typographic language that says "fun-lovin'," "good times" & "zany". That's certainly appropriate if you're selling a game of "Twister" or a sequel to "The Love Bug". I realize that the Leisurama folks were selling a particular lifestyle that was about fun, leisure and entitlement, so this approach could certainly be appropriate for a time-share or weekend resort, as well. But underneath selling a feel-good impulse purchase or lifestyle aspiration, Leisurama was selling a piece of real estate -- another mortgage payment, another insurance payment, and constant upkeep. For me, an important element missing from this logo is some sense of reassurance, permanence, or craftsmanship.
(Unless, of course, the idea was to just get people interested, and then let the qualities of the house sell itself.)

Anyway, it's an interesting post. I'm interested in seeing the film.
Daniel Green

I think the Leisurama model fits well within the typical range of forms I associate with the post-war internationalization of architectural styles. Everything in the Arts, Film and Music turned to California for answers. Architecturally, California is where Schindler, Neutra and many others were able to move beyond the bungalow to define a new style in a very American Mass-cultural way. Okay? The California Ranch was by no means a nationalist gesture of superiority than it was the infiltration of an international style into the soul of America's second home life style. StarWars and Ronnie come to mind; why? I do not know.

The open plan (like MUJI 2-story), outdoor-indoor life-style do indeed have their modern roots in Japan (stemming from Ancient Asia reaching Morocco by 700AD ) International aesthetics, being as diverse as they are, I think it is important to remember that the Ranch is very peculiar to North-America: It is iconic to the lumber-gypsum market monopoly. With the availablility of Lumber products, the convenience of wood-framing and it's inherent design flexibility, ease of transport and it's renewablity... No wonder this style is so common-place. As a matter of economy: the simple, elegant sufficiency of the "Leisurama" model may have an important role to play in planning future sustainable architecture and environmental productions. Cheers, Niccolo in Denver.

Pretty nice site, wants to see much more on it! :)
John Williams

Are there any plans or architectural drawings of the original Liesuramas? If so where can I get them.
Eileen Dominici


I recently stayed in a Leisurama house in Montauk, and the owners had this book (link above). It's a cool collection of interesting details about the houses and their contents - and includes floor plans. I recommend it if you're interested in seeing more about them.

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