SHINE ON: In a new photo book, Charles Mintz documents Lustron Homes and the people who live in them
If you are not old enough to remember when pop culture visions of the future looked something like a Jetsons cartoon, you probably don’t know the meaning of the phrase “Lustron Home.” Lustron was a Columbus, Ohio-based company founded by Carl Strandlund which–between 1948 and its bankrupty in 1950–manufactured 2498 homes whose most distinguishing characteristic was the construction of their walls—in 2-foot-by-2-foot, interlocking metal panels which were glazed with enamel, like appliances.
If they get dirty, just like appliances, they easily wipe clean. Just as with your refrigerator, drilling holes or pounding nails to hang pictures would be a destructive pain: magnets are better. The houses’ lines and proportions, the angles in the roofs–reflect the mid-century modern style. In another bit of mid-century modern thinking, they were financed with government loans targeted at fostering home ownership for all Americans. They were built to need no other maintenance than wiping clean. As long as the enamel didn’t chip, they wouldn’t rust.
Lustron homes are a physical expression of the American belief that ingenuity applied to materials and manufacturing can make life more efficient, less expensive, and generally easier.
In a new book, Lustron Stories, [Trilium Books / Ohio State University Press, 208 pp., 68 color photographs, Cloth, $49.95, ISBN 978-0-8142-1305-6] , Cleveland photographer Charles Mintz not only documents some of the remaining Lustron homes, and the diverse people who live in them, but he also captures something of the relationship between people and houses.
The project began in 2011, when Mintz was meeting with the Ohio History Connection (then the Ohio Historical Society) to talk about an exhibit of his project on the foreclosure crisis. At the time the organization was planning programs that featured the Lustron Homes and Ohio in the ‘fifties. Like Lustron, Mintz was born in 1948, and his life has paralleled the lives of the structures. They were born into the same world. So Mintz did a remarkable thing scores of times over, by reaching out to his subjects and gaining access to their homes, and permission to shoot their portraits. He started with a database, sent letters, and set appointments. He shot all the images with a large, wooden film camera—an awkward and primitive thing which, by its unusual charm, helped him gain entry and put his subjects at ease. To sit for a portrait in your own home is to play a role on a set you’ve created yourself–not as artifice, but as the natural outcome of your day-to-day life. It’s a brave and vulnerable thing to do. Another effect from the camera is a way of capturing light somewhat muted from the vivid, digitized patina that has become familiar. The age of film photography — its availablity first to hobby-ists, and then generally and inexpensively to all consumers–was well underway. Nineteen forty-eight was also the year that Edwin Land showed the world his new Polaroid instant camera for the first time.
In the way that sonnets show off the poet’s skill at working within a form, these photos show off not only Mintz’ skill and diligence, but also the diversity of his subjects within a very narrow set of parameters. All 68 of these photos are portraits of people in their homes. And the nature of manufactured homes is such that all the homes themselves are very similar. Indeed, several photos feature people on couches or chairs in front of the homes’ standard, built-in bookshelves.
But these are portraits of Middle America, and any conception of who might live in these relics of the era is necessarily as mistaken as any stereotype of what Middle America is. The one thing they seem to have in common, as Mintz notes, is that the people who live in the houses are firmly in the working class, and style—the furnishings, the clothes—reflect that. The one thing that looks different now from when the homes were new, is the clothes worn by the people who live in them: the vernacular fashion of their age.
The people who live in these houses are of all ages and types. Young people, elderly people, families, people by themselves. One can’t help but wonder what the people in the pictures think about their homes—how they relate to them, why they have chosen to live there, what they feel about the decision as time between the modest yet distinctive walls goes by. By the manner of dress and décor, one might guess that to some of these home owners, their Lustron is just the place they live, a functoning appliance, while to others it is an art object, or at least a noteworthy expression of the time. In all of them, the images balance the cold efficiency of enameled steel walls with the warmth and personality of the people who live within them.
The book, Lustron Stories, is the latest incarnation of a project that has run across several years: Mintz has shown some of the photos in several gallery exhibits, including solo shows at the Ohio History Connection in Columbus and at PUBLIC Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky. He continues to develop the corresponding website, lustron-stories.com.
All together, he has made an important record of a specific intersection of mid-century values: Faith in American ingenuity intersected with faith the idea of home ownership for all—and even moreso in the government’s role as a supporter of that. In all these ways, Charles Mintz shows you what the mid-twentieth century, middle America looked like.