Ken Isaacs Wanted to Retool the Way We Live

A new book revisits the designer’s visionary work, which advanced everything from flexible, “living” structures to microhouses.

Ken Isaacs, Chicago Living Structure, c. 1961 Courtesy the Estate of Ken Isaacs

In his 1974 manual-as-manifesto How to Build Your Own Living Structures, Ken Isaacs outlines his radical design philosophy by questioning the state of postwar American home ownership: “I couldn’t help wondering why people had to shackle themselves to some kind of corporate clerkship for twenty years to get the money for a home in the country,” he writes in a wry, contemplative prose. “Why wasn’t it possible to apply your best consciousness and information to develop a new shelter?”

Isaacs’s attempts to cultivate a new way of living are the focus of Susan Snodgrass’ slim study, Inside the Matrix: The Radical Designs of Ken Isaacs (Half Letter Press), which traces the designer’s career from his early modular Modernism up through his experiments in eco-Minimalism and beyond. In charting these various phases, which spanned from the late 1940s through the new millennium, Snodgrass focuses not on any chronological progression but rather on the deeper philosophy that animated Isaacs’s work, a system of total design he called the Matrix. Over the course of his career, Isaacs would apply the Matrix as both structural blueprint and as a means to transform consciousness.

Snodgrass focuses first on Isaacs’s earliest realization of the Matrix, a modular three-dimensional unit called the Living Structure that he created in 1949 while studying at Bradley University, and later perfected in 1954 while a graduate student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. The Living Structure, with its integrated furniture and spindly, grid-like structure, was designed to liberate inhabitants from the postwar glut of expansion and consumption by recalibrating the way space was used, allowing for a bedroom, living room, and personal office to coexist in a single architectural frame. By making the design simple enough that it could be built by hand in an afternoon, Isaacs sought also to deliver the Living Structure inhabitant from the pressures of consumerism and rewire them for hardy self-sufficiency. “Every new acquisition just loads us down with more obligations and expenses in time and productive effort,” he would later write in 1974’s Living Structures. “It’s become evident that this is a crusher, leaving little time for inventive work and the individual search for peace of mind.”

Exterior view of The Knowledge Box, c. 1962 Courtesy of the University Archives and Special Collections, Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology

At the same time he was retooling the modern dwelling, Isaacs was also attempting to overhaul the modern classroom with his Matrix Drum design, which he devised while an instructor at Cranbrook from 1956–57. Where the Living Structure looked to affect changes in living habits, the Matrix Drum sought to change the way pupils processed information: Entering an 18-foot-wide circular chamber, students would be bombarded with a multimedia collage of projected images and sounds from exterior-mounted projectors on the chamber’s walls. The goal of this, according to Snodgrass, “was to heighten student cognizance of their own position and connectedness to the world,” as well as develop their ability to “extrapolate the essence of complex ideas.” The Matrix Drum would eventually evolve into parallel iterations such as the Knowledge Box or the Alpha Chamber, both of which more closely resembled the Living Structure with their cube-like designs, but their conceptual goals remained largely the same.

Throughout Inside the Matrix, Snodgrass underlines both the lineage and legacy of Isaacs’s designs. His Living Structures, though similar to mainstream Modernists like the Eameses or George Nelson in their emphasis on organizational grids, provided a more “radical rethinking of the postwar domestic interior” that would inform the work of later eco-Modernist groups like EarthLab 1; his multimedia environments, while indebted to Jean-Luc Godard’s film editing and Norbert Wiener’s work on cybernetics, were in many ways a precursor to “the Internet and today’s 24/7 data stream,” according to Snodgrass. But it’s Isaacs’s Microhouses that proved to be his most radical design, as well as his most prescient.

Ken Isaacs, Microhouses, c. 1972 Courtesy the Estate of Ken Isaacs

Isaacs came to the Microhouse concept as a form of personal and professional escape. After spending the late ’50s and early ’60s working in New York and Chicago, he began to feel constrained by the demands of city life, questioning whether “it’s better to attempt new actions from the center of the system or to work more on the outskirts.” When he received a Graham Foundation fellowship in 1962, he took the opportunity to relocate to Groveland, Illinois, where he would spend the next decade developing more environmentally conscious applications of his Matrix philosophy. The resulting Microhouses were his largest creations yet: freestanding grid-based structures that rejected what Snodgrass calls “modernism’s penchant for permanence and monumentality” in favor of mobility and flexibility. (Pointedly, Isaacs released his Microhouse blueprints in the Living Structures book rather than sell them as prefabricated units.) While anti-materialism and self-reliance had long been fixtures of Isaacs’s work, the Microhouse synthesized those aspects into a new form of environmental design, one that allowed for “concrete and inventive living responses, undistracted by cultural fantasies.”

In taking stock of Isaacs’s influence, Snodgrass avoids any easy mythologizing. She emphasizes throughout that while his work received plenty of media attention in its day, it was mostly left out of institutional canon-building. She writes that Isaacs himself felt disconnected from the design world, observing that he “rarely if ever mentioned other architects who influenced him,” and that design for him was a largely personal pursuit.

From a certain vantage, it’s easy to see Isaacs’s Matrix schema as a sort of mostly forgotten roadmap, his minimalist DIY ethos subsumed by a corporate minimalism that reduces self-reliance to a marketing tactic. But Snodgrass also points to a growing number of movements indebted to his insistence that comfortable, sustainable living can only be achieved through a radical reappraisal of values. From tiny houses and urban nomads to the degrowth movement, many thinkers and creatives are pushing for a different approach to living, and while these movements may not list Isaacs as a direct influence, his work is there, laying the grid for the future.

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