Debra Prinzing

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Elegant, Stylish . . . and Prefabricated

Friday, August 15th, 2008

“System 3,” designed by Oskar Leo Kaufmann and Albert Ruf, on display as part of MoMA’s Home Delivery show of prefabricated home design.

The Prefab architecture movement has not been lost on those of us who think we’re hip to design trends. Yet the 21st century prefab building-boom has a centuries-old foundation. Would it surprise you to know that such illustrious inventors, architects and designers as Thomas Alva Edison, R. Buckminster Fuller, Charles and Ray Eames, Jean Prouve and Frank Lloyd Wright dabbled in prefab?

It’s good to look to the context of the past as we study the present and predict for the future. Several years ago, I wrote a newspaper article about the “manufactured home” industry. The house my photographer and I toured and documented was Victorian-style; it was literally factory-built in Canada and shipped, in flat-paneled sections, to Washington state for on-site assembly. There was nothing in its exterior detailing, charming turret and wraparound porch, nor in its gracious interior parlour, dining and living rooms that smacked of a stereotypical “double-wide.” My assumptions about design were turned upside down – and to my and my editor’s surprise, our story was picked up by newspapers around the country. The interest in manufactured homes was due in large part to the affordable and sustainable solutions to costlier custom-built versions.

In recent years, I’ve been exposed to a clever collection of prefab sheds, smaller versions of the manufactured home of the last decade. My shed-seeking journeys have led me to discover innovative shelters with four walls, a floor, a roof and a variety of window-and-door amenities – created by today’s designers. You can read one such review from my visit to the Dwell on Design LA exhibit this past June.

The pages of Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways feature a chapter called “Rec Room,” in which one of Ryan Gray Smith’s sleek Modern Sheds grace a small LA landscape. I really love the way Ryan’s groovy, uncomplicated design solves a space problem for the person who wants to add a studio, atelier, guest room, office, party suite, etc., without building a full-blown addition to the house. And that’s just one architect’s interpretation.

Prefabricated architecture is the subject of “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan (on exhibit now through October 26th). If you find yourself in Manhattan, plan to visit it. Lucky for me, I had a last-minute trip to NYC last weekend and was able to spend a few hours at MoMA Saturday morning.