Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Some Old-Fashioned Home-Design Manuals Are Worth Revisiting

In 1868, the designer Charles Eastlake published “Hints on Household Taste,” a popular guide to outfitting the home in good taste, from the street front to the china cupboard and all the rooms in between.

In his introduction, rather than taking a supportive tone, he chastises the reader. “When did people first adopt the monstrous notion that the ‘last pattern out’ must be the best? Is good taste so rapidly progressive that every mug which leaves the potter’s hands surpasses in shape the last which he moulded?”

“He blames it on the housewife,” said Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, the author of “Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office” and an associate professor at Purdue University. The message is, “Women have terrible taste, and we need to correct them,” Professor Kaufmann-Buhler said, adding that she does a “very lively reading” of the passage for her students, “annotating it in real-time in an over-the-top British accent.”

Despite Mr. Eastlake’s seeming disdain for the clutter-mad housewives of the Victorian era, his “Hints” did provide a template for 150 years of house books. Every season brings out more manuals of household taste, from glossy-page inspirational books suitable for coffee-table display to chart-heavy how-to guides, with diagrams of immaculate closets and formulas for D.I.Y. cleaning products.