Page 1

Inside Prefab The Ready-made Interior Deborah Schneiderman

Princeton Architectural Press, New York

Published by Princeton Architectural Press 37 East Seventh Street New York, New York 10003 For a free catalog of books, call 1.800.722.6657. Visit our website at © 2012 Princeton Architectural Press All rights reserved Printed and bound in China 15 14 13 12 4 3 2 1 First edition No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the publisher, except in the context of reviews. Every reasonable attempt has been made to identify owners of copyright. Errors or omissions will be corrected in subsequent editions. An earlier version of the Introduction, written by Deborah Schneiderman, appeared as “The Prefabricated Interior: Defining the Topic” in Interiors: Design, Architecture, Culture 2, no. 2 (2011). Editor: Nicola Bednarek Brower Designer: Jan Haux Special thanks to: Bree Anne Apperley, Sara Bader, Janet Behning, Fannie Bushin, Megan Carey, Carina Cha, Tom Cho, Penny (Yuen Pik) Chu, Russell Fernandez, Felipe Hoyos, Linda Lee, Jennifer Lippert, John Myers, Katharine Myers, Margaret Rogalski, Dan Simon, Andrew Stepanian, Paul Wagner, Joseph Weston, and Deb Wood of Princeton Architectural Press —Kevin C. Lippert, publisher Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Schneiderman, Deborah, 1968– Inside prefab / Deborah Schneiderman. — 1st ed. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-56898-987-7 (alk. paper) 1. Prefabricated interior architecture. I. Title. NA2850.S34 2012 729—dc23 2011021974


Interior Walls





Active Phytoremediation Wall System

by Stanley Abercrombie




S3 Sustainable Slotted System



Table of Contents 6






Closet #1, Parsons Kitchen


A Very Brief History of Prefabrication


Oma’s Rache

A Brief History of Prefabricated Interior Design








Cirrus MVR


The Flo


Kullman Bathroom PODS






After Words


90° Furniture




Playground for Leif





Clipper CS-1


Office POD


Dilbert’s Ultimate Cubicle




Prefabricated House Interiors


Furniture House


A–Z Cellular Compartment Units


Composite House


Cell Brick House






Select Bibliography


Image Credits



Foreword By Stanley Abercrombie

I have a shelf full of books on prefabricated buildings and a whole wall of titles on interiors, but, seeing this manuscript, I realized with surprise that I had never before seen a book on prefabricated interiors. The reason, of course, is not because the subject is so obscure, but because it is so obvious. Throughout the industrial age, building components have been turned out by the hundreds and thousands in factories and shipped ready-made to building sites, including dimension lumber, windows and doors, sheets of plywood, metal flues, cylinder-printed fabrics and wallpapers, baseboards and cornices, tiles and drawer pulls, and light switches. This construction reality is so familiar and so quotidian as to be virtually invisible. But the more important point this book makes is that prefabrication, while often focused on structural elements, has had its most profound effect on our interiors. Indeed, some prefabricated exteriors go to great lengths to appear as if they had never been near a factory, while inside we have come to welcome the order, modularity, efficiency, and precision that prefabrication can bring. Interior prefabrication has a long and intriguing history, as this book’s introduction shows, but it also has a bright and even more intriguing future. The book’s two dozen case studies demonstrate the new looks, new materials, and new potential functions of interior prefabrication, not the least interesting of which are those dealing with our increasingly urgent environmental issues.


Acknowledgments Nicola Bednarek Brower, my editor, for her dedication. Princeton Architectural Press for its support in realizing this project. The designers and photographers of included work. The faculty and administration of the Interior Design department and the School of Art and Design at Pratt Institute for their belief in this project. The students of the Arizona State University Interior Design program and Master of Science in Design Program 2007– 2010 for their work on the topic “Prefabricated Interior Environment.” The faculty, administration, and students of Parsons The New School for Design Master of Fine Arts Interior Design thesis class of 2011 for their inspiration. The faculty and administration of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University for their encouragement. Renata Hejduk for her sage advice and wisdom. Deborah Koshinsky and Alexa Griffith Winton for reading drafts of the manuscript. Jennifer Siegal for inspiring my research and for connecting me with Princeton Architectural Press. Stanley Abercrombie for his contribution to the field and to this project. My family—Scott, Chloe, and Eli Lizama; and Gerald, Reeta, and Jonathan Schneiderman—for their love and encouragement. Dedicated in memory of Norma Lizama for her strength, will, love, and support. Without her I would not have been in a place to write this book.



constructed end product. Building off site in a controlled environment limits waste in materials

Prefabrication in the field of architecture is by no

and inefficiencies in labor, while the fabrication of

means a novel concept and has enjoyed continued

modular elements that can easily be transported

attention by prominent architects and designers,

allows for adaptability of installation, extending

owing much of its popularity to its efficiency and

the lifespan of building elements.

affordability. Recent prefabricated designs also

The term prefabrication, used to describe a

emphasize the inherently sustainable qualities of

building typology, was not coined until the 1930s,

this production technique. While the investigation

when the business of making building compo-

into modern prefabrication has attracted much

nents that could be assembled on a remote site

interest in the architecture community for over

developed into a substantial industry, although

a century, the literature documenting the sig-

the process of prefabrication has existed for

nificance of interior design and interior elements

thousands of years.1 The earliest known example

using this technology contains a notable gap.

of prefabrication in the built environment can be

Although there has been virtually no pointed dis-

dated back to the Sweet Track—a raised walkway

cussion of the influence of prefabricated interiors,

in Somerset County in England built around 3807

the techniques and applications of prefabricated

BCE and made of prefabricated timber sections

interior design have been around for thousands

that were quickly assembled on site.2 Another

of years, and prefabrication in the built environ-

important instance of prefabricated architecture

ment in fact owes much of its advancement to

was the panelized wood houses that were shipped

concepts first investigated for use in the interior.

from England to the United States in the mid-sev-

Innovations in prefabricated interior design have

enteenth century to be used for the quick con-

ranged from individual elements, such as wall

struction of homes in a Cape Ann, Massachusetts,

panels, staircases, or pieces of furniture, to com-

fishing fleet community.3

plete assemblages, such as kitchens, bathrooms, or

The first documented mass-produced

utility pods. These components are often more than

prefabricated house was the Manning Portable

simple objects, defining and programming space,

Cottage, introduced in 1830 and transported from

either as complete prefabricated assemblies or

England to Australia for the construction of its

through the fabrication and repetition of a module.

new settlements.4 [Fig. 1] These houses resembled

Prefabricated interiors thus become place-makers

cabins, with the interior not differing much from

within the built environment.

the exterior. A prefabricated building can also be a unique, site-specific structure, such as the Crystal

A Very Brief History of Prefabrication

Palace (1851) in London, which was built of pre-

Prefabrication, or off-site fabrication, refers to parts

fabricated iron modules. [Fig. 2]

of a building, interior or exterior, that are produced

The twentieth century saw a rise of mass-

and assembled in a place other than the building

produced prefabricated houses, and many of the

site (typically a controlled factory environment).

great modernist architects, including Le Corbusier,

Ideally, components are fabricated simultaneously

Marcel Breuer, R. Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd

in various locations and fully assembled into the

Wright, Walter Gropius, and Konrad Wachsmann,

whole at the building site, reducing total construc-

explored the idea of prefabrication as a building

tion time and costs and creating a more precisely

technique. [Fig. 3] [Fig. 4] While their houses did not



sell to the public in large quantities, vernacular prefabricated designs have achieved the goal of mass production, from the Sears, Roebuck and Company’s catalog kit homes of the first half of the twentieth century to mass-produced modular homes, such as the Lustron House, of the midtwentieth century to prefabricated trailers beginning in the latter part of the twentieth century and continuing to the present. The Lustron House, introduced by Carl Strandlund, president of the Lustron Corporation, in 1946, in particular demonstrates the significance of the interior in the history of prefabrication. The house’s built-in elements consisted of a system of prefabricated modular units that functioned not only as dividing elements, but also as programmed space, such as shelving, cabinetry, closets, and vanities. [Fig. 5] The interior panels were manufactured of the same porcelainenameled steel panels that covered the facade 9

[Fig. 1] Manning Portable Cottage, ca. 1833

[Fig. 2] The Last Promenade at the Crystal Palace, The Illustrated London News, May 1852


[Fig. 3] R. Buckminster Fuller’s Wichita (Dymaxion) House, interior view, 1946 [Fig. 4] Wichita (Dymaxion) House, exterior view

[Fig. 5] Lustron House, advertisement, Life, October 11, 1948


[Fig. 6] Sears Modern Home 115, Sears Catalog, 1908


and roof, establishing a clear visual connection

A Brief History of Prefabricated Interior Design

between the interior and exterior.5 Although the

The articulation of the prefabricated interior

Lustron House did not achieve its goal of true

has been critical in the development of modern

mass production, the integration and significant

prefabrication techniques. The design of interior

placement of its interior components informed the

partitions or walls; of whole spaces, including

evolution of the prefabricated interior.

the bathroom, the kitchen, and the office; and of

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first

furniture has both contributed to defining interior

century, many well-known designers turned to

space through placement and program and been

prefabrication, including those that pursue afford-

a critical step in the development of prefabricated

able, efficient, and environmentally sustainable

construction techniques on a greater scale, from

solutions, such as LOT-EK, Wes Jones, Michelle

the building to the city. Prefabricated interior

Kaufmann, Su11 architecture + design, Anderson

design includes both distinct elements and pre-

and Anderson, KieranTimberlake, Adam Kalkin,

fabricated wholes. Interior components, such as

and Jennifer Siegal, among others. Artist/architect

decorative elements, staircases, and mantles, have

Kalkin, for example, repurposes shipping contain-

a long tradition of prefabrication. Even gypsum

ers as dwellings, as in his 12 Container House

board, which was introduced in the early

(2003) and his Quik House (2003), which is cur-

twentieth-century Sears kit homes, serves as an

rently available to order. Siegal’s Office of Mobile

example of an interior element that is fabricated

Design (OMD) has also repurposed material, as

off site and brought to the house ready to install.6

demonstrated in the 2003 Seatrain Residence

[Fig. 6]

(Los Angeles), using shipping containers for the

nents follow three basic construction types, which

In general, prefabricated interior compo-

fabrication of living spaces and grain containers

are used singularly or combined. These include

for the construction of a lap pool and koi pond,

planar construction (utilizing the screen as a

as well as incorporating steel found on site. Based

planar element to divide space, either as a rela-

on the notions of new nomadism and mobility,

tively fixed or readily movable object), modular

many of Siegal’s projects explore architecture at

construction (using the module­—a standardized

the intersection of portability and sustainabil-

component of a system—as a building block of

ity. Siegal’s 2006 prefabricated ShowHouse, for

customizable prefabricated space), and unit con-

example, exhibits ideas of portability and flexibil-

struction (employing a singular unit element that

ity and incorporates environmentally sustainable

is designed as an all-inclusive piece).

design solutions, including solar panels, radiant heat panels, a tankless water heater, and a variety

Planar Construction: the Screen

of sustainable floor and wall materials.

The earliest example of a prefabricated interior element is the screen. Although most people associate the advent of the paper screen with Japan, the first paper folding screen appeared in China, with literary references dating its inception back to 300 or 400 BCE, far predating the first prefabricated houses. The relatively permanent Chinese screens evolved into the Japanese shoji, a system of screens dating to as early as 200 BCE.



These folding, fixed, or sliding screens could be

[Fig. 7]

used to create walls, doors, window coverings,

the topic of prefabrication, resulting in numer-

and standing partitions. In the West, the screen

ous works, including the iconic 1946 undulating

was first introduced in the mid-sixteenth century,

plywood folding screen.10 [Fig. 8]

but it did not gain popularity until the nineteenth

Charles and Ray Eames broadly investigated

Two significant sustainable twenty-first-

century, when, in 1853, the American government

century screens combine planar and modular

sponsored a trip by Commodore Matthew Perry

construction in their design. Nomad (2007) by

to Japan to inspire a trade relationship between

Jaime Salm and Roger Allen (of Mio) is a system of

the East and the West. From this visit began the

recycled, recyclable, and affordable two-dimen-

importation of Japanese and Chinese screens to

sional cardboard modular elements that assemble

European cities. Also increasing their popular-

without tools or hardware into customizable

ity was their display at the 1867 International

screens or partitions. [Fig. 9] [Fig. 10] Andrew Wilson

Exhibition for Industry and Art in Paris.

and Aza Raskin’s Bloxes (2008), designed by Jef


During the twentieth century the screen

Raskin, are also fabricated from two-dimensional

was most notably used as an architectonic

cardboard elements, which are folded into three-

domestic interior element in the works of Frank

dimensional modules and assembled into any

Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Gerrit Rietveld,

shape; the screen is only one of many possibili-

Eileen Gray, and Charles and Ray Eames. The

ties. [Fig. 11] [Fig. 12]

Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto with its movable

In the commercial environment, it was

exterior and interior walls, its interchangeability of

not until the 1950s that office design incorpo-

modular components, and its use of prefabrication

rated prefabricated screen-based wall systems

in particular inspired Gropius, who experimented

to divide space, as evidenced in the Skidmore,

with similar concepts and techniques in his living

Owings & Merrill (SOM)/Knoll–designed interiors

spaces. Rietveld created perhaps the most influ-

for the 1957 Connecticut General Life Insurance

ential translation of the Japanese-style screening

Company.11 The German Quickborner Team revo-

of interior space in his archetypal de Stijl mas-

lutionized the use of the screen in prefabricated

terpiece of 1924, the Schröder House (Utrecht,

office space in the 1950s with their concept of a

the Netherlands). In a remarkable manner, the

Bürolandschaft. This “office landscape” utilized

Schröder House defined interior space through

a system of lightweight screens that could easily

the implementation of sliding walls, much like

be reconfigured as individual and organizational

those of a traditional Japanese residence, result-

needs changed.12

ing in a highly flexible modernist living space.

The Herman Miller Company, in particu-

Similarly, Gray’s architectural projects, including

lar designers Robert Probst and George Nelson,

her seminal E. 1027 house (Roquebrune-Cap-

has been credited with the design of the cubicle.

Martin, 1925–29) and the apartment on rue

The company’s 1964 modular Action Office is

Chateaubriand (Paris, 1931), utilized the screen

considered by many as the first prefabricated

as a primary place-making element.8 While

office space. Through his rigorous research, Probst

throughout her career, Gray made screens from

developed the concept and plan for the flex-

an array of materials, she is best known for her

ible movable furniture system, which was given

1923 Lacquered Block Screen, whose finish and

three-dimensional form by Nelson.13 [Fig. 13] While

fabrication is reminiscent of Japanese screens.

the design for the original Action Office received




[Fig. 7] Black lacquer Brick screen, one of a small number of variants executed by Eileen Gray of the design first exhibited in 1923

[Fig. 8] Eames Molded Plywood Folding Screen, Charles and Ray Eames, 1946


[Fig. 9] Nomad Screen modules, Jaime Salm and Roger Allen (of Mio), 2007 [Fig. 10] Nomad Screen assembled


[Fig. 11] Bloxes modules, Jef Raskin, Bloxes, 2008 [Fig. 12] Bloxes assembled

[Fig. 13] Action Office I, Robert Probst and George Nelson for Herman Miller Company, 1964 [Fig. 14] Action Office II (when first released), Robert Probst for Herman Miller Company, 1968


[Fig. 15] Resolve system, Ayse Birsel for Herman Miller Company, 1999 [Fig. 16] Joyn, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Vitra, 2002


much critical acclaim, it did not sell well, and the

balloon or platform construction, with prebuilt inte-

Herman Miller Company proceeded to develop

rior and exterior panels trucked to the job site ready

Action Office II, a lightweight, interchangeable,

to assemble. Descended from the balloon frame,

and easily reconfigured office system.

structural insulated panels (SIPs) are made of insu-

14, 15


prefabricated partition screen of the Action Office

lating foam core that is sandwiched between two

II, introduced in 1968, was structural, freestand-

sheets of plywood or oriented strand board. SIPs

ing, and movable.16 [Fig. 14] A contemporary office

were first introduced in 1935 but did not become

system by Herman Miller Company, the Resolve

readily available until the 1960s. Advancing CAD/

system (1999), designed by Ayse Birsel, reestab-

CAMM technologies in the 1990s made their

lishes a critical element of the original cubicle,

implementation more practical. The planar screen-

Probst’s concept of using 120-degree angles

like elements, which are produced off site, are used

between screen panels.17 [Fig. 15] By incorporating

to fabricate both interior and exterior structural and

canopies in her workstations, Birsel has advanced

nonstructural walls.18

the notion of the prefabricated office space a step

The screen is completely exteriorized in

further, recognizing that the typically ignored

curtain wall constructions, which first appeared in

overhead plane is critical to the construction of

the late nineteenth century and were increasingly

three-dimensional space.

implemented after World War II. The introduction

Twenty-first-century screen-based prefab-

of skeletal framing systems released the require-

ricated office designs continue to pursue adapt-

ment for the exterior wall to be load bearing,

ability within office environments, as evidenced

enabling the nonstructural panels or screens of the

in notable diversions from the standard cubicle

curtain wall to—like their interior counterparts—

model. Examples include communal worktables,

programmatically function as dividers, separating

such as Vitra’s 2002 planar Joyn system designed

interior from exterior.19

by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec [Fig. 16], and the consciously sustainable mass-customizable 2004

Modular Construction

Dirtt (Doing It Right This Time) demountable wall,

The module plays an important role in Japanese

floor, electrical, and accessory system designed

interior design. Traditionally, the design of the

by Mogens Smed. Such systems challenge the

Japanese house relied on a regularized post and

permanence of the traditionally constructed wall,

beam system, allowing for the interior elements,

embracing instead the prefabrication of a system

including shoji, fusuma, and tatami, to be manu-

of parts that can be readily configured and recon-

factured by individual craftspeople and assembled

figured on site.

seamlessly on site.20 Proportional prefabricated

The use of screens has also informed exte-

building systems are recorded in Japan as early

rior elements, both structural and nonstructural.

as the Nara period (710–794 CE), though the

According to architectural historian Colin Davies,

measurements varied by region. The kiwari jutsu

prefabricated planar constructions were first evi-

system (dating to 1608) defines the modulariza-

denced in architecture in 1833. With the balloon

tion of space from the scale of the building itself

framing construction, walls can be assembled on or

to that of furniture elements, even including the

off site horizontally on the ground from studs and

proportions of the shoji screen. The tatami module

plates. Once assembled, the wall panels are lifted

has an overarching architectural significance in

into place. Tract houses today are still built using

the system, as the mats are utilized as units of



measure. Room dimensions are described by the number of tatami that fit inside.21 [Fig. 17] The module also has a prominent place in

Around the turn of the twentieth century, both Lillian Gilbreth, industrial engineer and designer, and Christine Frederick, home econo-

Western design. One of the most basic architec-

mist, lecturer, and author, recognized that in order

tural modules is the brick, while in interior design

for a kitchen to work efficiently, it must allow

systems of modules are used in any number of

for adaptability, which was achieved through a

elements, from furniture to kitchens to office envi-

modular design.26 With her 1926 Frankfurt kitchen

ronments. On its own, the module, like the brick,

design, Margarete (Grete) Schütte-Lihotzky is

typically does not serve its intended function.

credited as the designer of the modern kitchen.27

However, when repeated, it can create defined

The Frankfurt kitchen is a hybrid of the modular

spatial environments. Modules constitute the basis

and unit typologies. [Fig. 19] Its individual elements

for much of the prefabricated interior.

are modular by nature, but those elements were

Within the domestic interior the module

assembled into a complete kitchen off site, which

is most significantly represented in the design of

was then integrated into the larger structure.28 The

kitchens and furniture. The systematic design of

Frankfurt kitchen established the significance and

the kitchen was first pursued by home econo-

potential of modern interior prefabricated ele-

mists in the United States as an academic and

ments and foreshadowed contemporary prefabri-

scientific endeavor, incorporating a multitude of

cation techniques. Today developer firms such as

studies in efficiency and workspace organization.

First Penthouse, founded in 1992, expand on the

Later, architects also laid claim to kitchen design;

Frankfurt kitchen’s concept of installing a com-

their approach embraced rationalist-functionalist

plete environment into a site-fabricated building,

principles and machine aesthetics. It is not

constructing complete apartment modules off site

surprising then that the kitchen has been a vehicle

that, like the Frankfurt kitchen, are craned into

for exploration of the mechanics of prefabrica-

place on site, in the case of First Penthouse the

tion in architecture and interior design. Early

rooftop of a previously constructed building.29


investigations into the design of the kitchen by

In 1945 Helen E. McCullough, associ-

educator Catherine Beecher and writer Harriet

ate professor of home economics at Cornell

Beecher Stowe in the nineteenth century stemmed

University, differentiated the typology of the pack-

from the desire to professionalize the work of the

aged kitchen of the mid-twentieth century from

housewife.23 Their proposed kitchen, the “sink

the unit kitchen, defining the packaged kitchen as

and cooking form,” is credited as a predecessor

one in which the manufacturer sells all necessary

of the twentieth-century kitchen, driven in large

equipment in one package—typically a modular

part by the necessity for organized storage. The

system with its own structural frame—and the

sink and cooking form was not merely a piece of

unit kitchen as a cast element that includes all

furniture but foreshadows the prefabricated pack-

equipment and cabinetry.30 The modular and

aged kitchen of the mid-twentieth century with

unit versions of these prefabricated kitchens are

an integrated mechanical core, including water

capable of transforming any room into a modern

heating and ventilation systems. While it was

kitchen regardless of the given architectural condi-

not itself prefabricated nor did it really gain wide

tion, as neither relies on the existing structure.

acceptance, its concept inspired the designers that

Charles C. White’s 1946 kitchen, called The White

followed.25 [Fig. 18]

Kitchen Compact, and the visionary 1953 Cornell




[Fig. 17] Tatami proportion [Fig. 18] Sink and cooking form, Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1869


[Fig. 19] Frankfurt kitchen, Margarete (Grete) Sch端tte-Lihotzky, 1926


[Fig. 20] Cornell Kitchen packaging and transportation concept, Glen Beyer, Mary Koll Heiner, and Cornell University students, 1953 [Fig. 21] Cornell Kitchen construction, 1953

[Fig. 22] Glenn Beyer standing in the Cornell Kitchen, 1953


[Fig. 23] Universal Kitchen Snack Station, faculty and students, Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Industrial Design departments, Rhode Island School of Design, 1998


Kitchen represent the modular packaged typol-

within the system, the Casier Standard was also

ogy. While the former was primarily concerned

designed to define space in the open plan house.

with efficiencies of construction, the design of the

Like Le Corbusier, Breuer had his roots in interior

latter also focused on user needs and ergonom-

and furniture design and experimented with the

ics. The Cornell Kitchen was executed through

module in his 33 design of 1925. The Breuer

Cornell University’s Housing Research Center

0system was based on a measure of thirty-three

as a collaborative effort among the students,

centimeters and comprised small modular cabi-

Home Economics Associate Professor Mary Koll

nets that could be placed against the wall, hung

Heiner, and Glenn Beyer, director of the center

from the wall, or supported on tubular steel legs.

and professor of housing and design. The basic

These modules appeared in virtually all of his

kitchen functions were grouped into five prefabri-

commissions going forward.34

cated movable “centers”—mix, serve, range, sink,

In the mid-twentieth century, Nelson,

refrigerator/oven—which could be arranged in any

the Eameses, and the Herman Miller Company

configuration and adjusted in height, and com-

devised several modular furniture systems. Nelson

prised a self-supporting structural system. With the

conceptualized his 1944 visionary Storagewall as

exception of the sink center, they had identical

a built-in element that would not only house all

base cabinets so that inner organizational compo-

storage necessary for the home within the typical

nents were interchangeable.31 [Fig. 20] [Fig. 21]

space of a wall but would also entirely replace

[Fig. 22] A

the wall with modular furniture-like elements.

contemporary example that similarly

addresses vertical dimension is the Rhode Island

The Storagewall is customizable by design, as

School of Design’s 1998 Universal Kitchen

the modules are selected by the user and can be

project, which resulted in the Min and the Max

assembled in any arrangement or direction, thus

kitchen, essentially kits of interchangeable

creating the opportunity to serve two rooms at

modular components. Each element is chosen by

once.35 The Storagewall is reminiscent of, yet more

the user and can be installed at varying heights

inclusive than, the prefabricated built-in ele-

and depths. [Fig. 23] Today’s standard kitchens are

ments of the Lustron House. It also foreshadowed

typically constructed from modularized pieces of

Shigeru Ban’s 1995 Furniture House, in which the

rational measurements constructed off site but are

prefabricated built-in elements become the actual

installed at a fixed standard height.

structure of the house.

The design of furniture also has a rich

The Eames Storage Units (ESUs) of 1950

history of modular construction. A 1909 Sears,

were the first mass-produced mass-customizable

Roebuck and Company catalog already adver-

storage elements. Their back and side panels

tised mass-produced sectional bookcases, but Le

were available in multiple materials, including

Corbusier (along with Breuer) has been cred-

Masonite and perforated aluminum, and were

ited as the first architect to conceive of modu-

available for order in an array of colors. ESUs can

lar furniture and thus of prefabricated interior

be combined as shelves or desks with open (or

space.32 Le Corbusier, with Pierre Jeanerette and

closed) storage in addition to drawers, creating an

later Charlotte Perriand, developed the Casier

infinite range of possible configurations.36 [Fig. 24]

Standard, a system of modular container elements,

[Fig. 25]

in 1925. Envisioned to serve all storage needs

sors, Joe Colombo’s 1969 Tube Chair and 1967

through various elements of storage available

Addition seating system are highly customizable,



In a marked departure from his predeces-


[Fig. 24] Eames Storage Units brochure, Charles and Ray Eames, 1950 [Fig. 25] Eames Storage Units, 1950

[Fig. 26] Tube Chair, Joe Colombo, 1967 [Fig. 27] Cell Brick House, interior, Yasuhiro Yamashita/Atelier Tekuto, 2004


[Fig. 28] Hoosier Manufacturing Company advertisement for the Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet, 1919


composed of modular upholstered elements that

the rational principles of domestic reformers

are nonfunctional and nonrecognizable as single

Christine Frederick and Erna Meyer. When closed,

elements.37 [Fig. 26] Yasuhiro Yamashita’s (of Atelier

the unit appeared to be an ordinary wardrobe,

Tekuto) 2004 Cell Brick House is a culminating

but when opened, it revealed a working kitchen.

investigation of prefabricated modular furniture

In his 1963 Minikitchen, Colombo reconceived

as place-maker. The typologies of the module as

the Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet typology of the late

programmatic interior element and as a building

nineteenth century as a prefabricated package that

block are fused in the house, as its construction

was even more compact, mobile, and utilitar-

relies on the modular furniture, which becomes its

ian. Melanie Olle and Ilja Oelschlägel’s twenty-

structure. [Fig. 27]

first-century kitchen, Oma’s Rache (“Grandma’s Revenge” in German), is a contemporary variation

The Unit

of the unit kitchen, which provides opportunities

The unit is often confused with the module as a

for cooking, dishwashing, dining, refrigeration,

building block. As a primary defining element

food preparation, and storage (see pages 50–53).

of prefabricated interior design, however, the

Predating and informing the unit kitchens

term describes elements that are created in their

were the office secretaries of the late nineteenth

entirety as single all-inclusive pieces. For example,

century, such as the Wooton Patent Cabinet

the unit kitchens of the 1950s consisted of a single

Office Secretary, which contained an entire office

object housing all elements necessary for the

environment for the individual user.39 [Fig. 29] In

kitchen, including cabinetry and appliances.

Wright’s 1906 Larkin Building clerical worksta-

As early as the 1890s, the United States

tion, the chair is cantilevered off the desk, forming

witnessed the first unit-based prefabricated

an integrated work environment delivered in

kitchen furniture elements in the form of factory-

a ready-to-use form.40 The 1951 design for the

produced freestanding “dressers” that were

Knoll Planning Unit’s own workspace premiered

designed to store kitchen equipment and dry

multifunctional furniture pieces that included a

goods. These dressers or wardrobes foreshadowed

tilting drafting surface, a built-in divider panel,

the prefabricated packaged unit kitchens of the

and storage.

mid-twentieth century in that they were originally

Notable contemporary unit workspaces

designed as large all-inclusive elements. Among

include prefabricated movable worker pods such

the manufacturers of this early kitchen furniture

as Planet 3 Studio’s 2009 Out-of-Box Workstation,

was the Hoosier Manufacturing Company, which,

which can be transformed from a portable

influenced by Beecher’s designs, produced a

luggage-shaped container into a home office, and

variety of kitchen cabinets. The Hoosier Kitchen

the 2009 OfficePOD by the eponymous company

Cabinets, which were often on wheels, included

that can be placed in a variety of environments

clearly defined areas of storage for all kitchen

(see pages 112–15). A less traditional workplace,

needs, as well as pull-out work areas, bins for

commissioned in 1994 by the architecture pro-

sugar and flour, and a rotating spice rack with

gram at Parsons The New School for Design, Allan

jars. [Fig. 28] At the 1931 German Building

Wexler’s Parsons Kitchen revisits the relationship

Exhibition in Berlin, modernist designer Lilly

between the unit kitchens and the office secretar-

Reich exhibited a fixed cabinet-type kitchen in her

ies. The cratelike element can be stored in a wall

Apartment for a Single Person that demonstrated

crevice in the department’s reception area (whose




form inspired its design) and unfolds to become

interiorized appliance. The unit was designed to

an in-house bar as well as a meeting place for

transform any room into a bathroom and included

public events and receptions (see pages 46–49).41

all fixtures, a toilet, bathtub, shower, and lavatory;

The idea of the prefabricated unit as an interior element took hold not only in the design

it also incorporated storage and lighting.45 In his seminal 1966 investigation of the

of kitchens and workplaces but also of bath-

bathroom, Alexander Kira proposed his own pre-

rooms. Early plumbed interior bathrooms of the

fabricated designs. What separated Kira’s concept

nineteenth century were materially similar to

from those of his peers was his rigorous study of

traditional domestic spaces and included wood

anthropometry. His prefabricated proposal, the

furniture, rugs, and curtains. At the turn of the

“Experimental relaxing/washing facility,” provided

twentieth century, hygiene theories caused a shift

for the incorporation of “controls, support devices,

in bathroom design to an industrial aesthetic with

storage shelves, ventilation, lighting, etc.” To

nonporous equipment, priming bathrooms for the

ensure that all fixtures were properly located for

precision of prefabricated technologies.42

the best functionality, he held that the elements

Many architects and designers have

should be fabricated in a controlled environment,

explored the design of prefabricated bathrooms,

hence making prefabrication a pragmatic choice

including Le Corbusier and Perriand, but Fuller

to insure quality control.46 A notable contem-

is frequently credited with the design of the first

porary example, the 2008 Vertebrae Vertical

prefabricated bathroom. His Dymaxion Bathroom

Bathroom by Design Odyssey, is, in contrast to

unit of 1930 included a tub/shower module and

Kira’s bathroom, designed for efficiency rather

a lavatory/toilet module, all contained within

than ergonomics. Seven stacked elements rotate

five square feet of floor space and weighing only

around a central cylinder and include a sink, toi-

about as much as a conventional bathtub.43 [Fig.

let, container for storing water, two cabinets, and

30] The

two showers at different heights.

kinetic nature of Fuller’s bathroom pod,

often referred to as plug-in or pod-in architecture,

The ability of the unit to fabricate a com-

inspired a cross-cultural architectural move-

plete interior environment has its earliest roots

ment, with projects in Europe, Asia, and North

in furniture and is well represented by the boxed

America, including Peter Cook and Archigram’s

bed typology, in particular the lit clos (French for

1964 Plug-in City study, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat

“closed bed,” a seventeenth-century cabinetlike

Apartments (Montreal, 1967), Kisho Kurokawa’s

structure). When closed, the lit clos fully encap-

Nakagin Capsule Tower (Tokyo, 1972), and Zvi

sulates the bed, forming a room within a room.47

Hecker’s Ramot Housing (Jerusalem, 1975).

Colombo explored the inclusiveness of the unit


Early prefabricated bathrooms were typi-

with his 1969 Living Machines, which included

cally units designed for the assembly of a bath-

the Cabriolet Bed and the Roto-Living machine.

room in its entirety, incorporating the room’s

The Cabriolet Bed, inspired by both the lit clos

enclosure. In 1947 the magazine Architectural

and convertible automobiles, became an enclosed

Forum introduced a unique new concept, the

room within a room when its soft top was elec-

Standard Prefabricated Bathroom, an integrated

tronically closed. The Roto-Living unit was a

unit designed by Bertrand Goldberg that fit

kitchen and dining element with a central rotating

through a conventional door and incorporated

table. Colombo’s investigation into prefabricated

all bathroom functionality in a fully prefabricated

units culminated in the form of an entire house



with his Total Furniture Unit, exhibited in the 1972 show Italy: The New Domestic Landscape at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Total Furniture Unit housed everything necessary for the home in a single unit. [Fig. 31] [Fig. 32] In the same exhibition, Ettore Sottsass, Jr., introduced his visionary mobile multifunctional fiberglass furniture. In these designs individual furniture elements, including a kitchen and bathroom, are reduced to equipped containers, which can either be linked together or stand alone. The elements can continually be reconfigured to make up the most appropriate interior environment.48 The interior envelope is turned inside out in Wexler’s 1991 Crate House investigation. This conceptual study externalizes the interior into four programmed crates—living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom—which, when not in use, fit into an 8-foot interior cube. The crates are individually rolled into and out of the cube 23

[Fig. 29] Wooton’s Patent Cabinet Office Secretary, advertisement, The Popular Science Monthly 6, no. 4, 1875

[Fig. 30] Dymaxion Bathroom, lower quadrants, R. Buckminster Fuller, 1937


[Fig. 31] Total Furniture Unit, Joe Colombo, 1972 [Fig. 32] Total Furniture Unit, kitchen detail, 1972

[Fig. 33] Crate House, Allan Wexler, 1991 [Fig. 34] Crate House, office detail, 1991


[Fig. 35] Lit Clos, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, 2000

Inside Prefab  

As an inherently sustainable and affordable building method, prefabrication has enjoyed a revival in recent years, attracting clients and ar...