In October 1972, the “women’s editor” of a local paper trumpeted the first ASID Showcase House. “Imagine if you can,” she wrote, “a dozen outstanding interior designers [combining] their talents to redecorate a single home.”
People had to imagine it, since they’d never seen anything like it before. It was a novel concept to invite the public into a private home for a fee; housewalks and kitchen tours hadn’t occurred to fundraisers yet. The 1972 Showcase House marked the first time in the western suburbs that a group of decorators got together to do up a home for charity.
“I offered to do a room for that house; it was the beginning of 35 years of craziness,” says interior designer M.J. Kamin. She estimates that scores of decorators have done about 500 rooms in the annual showcase houses organized here by the Oak Park-River Forest Infant Welfare Society to raise money for the Infant Welfare Clinic on Lake Street. Kamin is responsible for 19 of those rooms, and has also served as design chair.
The idea to do a showcase house here came from another local designer, Jean Guy, who owned a business in Oak Park and was also a member of an Infant Welfare Society circle. She and associate Ralph Hayden approached the American Society of Interior Designers with a proposal for the fundraiser, and they went for it, according to Kamin.
The motivation for owners to lend their homes for the event was different in the early days than it is today, she recalls. “Those houses were being unloaded, and owners were looking for the project to save them from doing any painting.”
That was true for the first Showcase House, at 1044 Forest Ave. in River Forest, so the design crew invented “an imaginary client for whom the home is being decorated. He is a French symphony conductor who had just come to the United States. The French Normandy house will reflect the family’s continental taste and living, with emphasis on family life and music,” according to the 1972 article.
These days, owners are likely to stay put and even purchase at least some of the decorators’ handiwork.
In conjunction with this year’s 34th Annual Showcase House, open at 620 N. Euclid Ave. until Oct. 2, Kamin put together a collection of slides and photos from the 33 houses that preceded it. The result is like time travel through decades of colors”remember the mauve/teal combo that ruled the 1980s?”tastes and styles.
“It’s the same as everything else.” says Kamin diplomatically. “Some are good and some are bad.”
The early ones were definitely cheaper. A $2.50 ticket got you into the 1972 house; about 9,000 paid and entered. Attendance topped off around 13,000 for the 1986 showcase at Cheney Mansion (reportedly in the running again for 2007). Now tickets go for $25 and organizers are happy if they sell 5,000.
Kamin did the kitchen in the first house. It was a “paint-up, fix-up job,” she recalls, with the main elements, like an Armstrong Solarium floor, left as is. “Kitchens and bathrooms have strong emphasis now but that wasn’t true then. Appliances were harvest gold or green. Those rooms were utilitarian; people didn’t spend a lot of money [on them].”
And while the urge to “modernize” might have ruled 30 years ago, that’s changed too, says Kamin. Not only do we “value things that used to be torn out,” but designers feel compelled to add back moldings or trim that used to be there.
“People expect to see these things in old houses,” she explains, “even if they were ripped out years before.”
Because the upscale housing stock here is largely Prairie or Victorian, the majority of designers have stayed with traditional styles. Some step out and do contemporary rooms. Kamin is all in favor of designers taking a more risky, less conservative approach, even if they’re criticized for going over the top.
“These rooms are overload, like going into a candy store,” she says. “But it’s supposed to be fantasy. If it looked like your house, you wouldn’t bother to come.”
On these pages are a few of the rooms that have entertained, inspired or amused Showcase House visitors for the last 34 years. And if some make you chuckle, remember how you”or your parents”looked in the 1970s and ’80s.
Like there’s any excuse for that hair.