IIf you read these pages, chances are you love nothing more than snooping around other people’s homes. Below is a selection of five of the world’s best house museums – inspiring, creative, but ultimately delightfully domestic spaces that have been preserved as they were when the owners lived there.
Casa Luis Barragán, Mexico City, Mexico
Casa Luis Barragán is the home of the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, who built his home in this former working-class neighborhood of Tacubaya in Mexico City. Completed in 1948 and inhabited by Barragán until his death in 1988, it is widely regarded as the purist expression of Barragán’s “emotional architecture” and is the only Unesco World Heritage site of its kind.
From the outside, the vast concrete facade – barred and austere – hides the extraordinary beauty inside. As they exit the street, visitors gather in a sparse hallway lit by yellow-tinted windows. Described as a “decompression lock”, it creates a state of sensory expectation: what then?
Visitors will find the rest of the house as Barragán left it – sparsely furnished with chairs purchased from local flea markets and devotional items (crosses, angels, skulls) collected on his travels. Natural light is carefully calibrated: a golden diamond sits deliberately on the desk in a room designed specifically for Barragán to make and receive phone calls. (The phone, desk, and chair haven’t moved for over half a century.)
Weightless staircases connect the three levels, and a sober palette of wood, stone and thick adobe makes up the sometimes monastic space, which Barragán brightened up with paint colors that could rival the Mexican sun. Burnt orange, Calpol pink, egg yolk and a sort of institutional lilac coat the vertiginous walls of this extraordinary house which will undoubtedly remain a place of pilgrimage for architects, designers and artists for decades to come.
Kawai Kanjirō Memorial Museum, Kyoto, Japan
Crouching on the tatami mat in the home of Japanese poet, writer, sculptor and ceramist, Kawai Kanjirō, is a sculpture of a hollow dog. Kawai made the item from recycled wood when the house was first built in 1937. Shiny like a conker, it was used by Kawai throughout his life as an armrest and filled with dried persimmons – his favorite snack. This is just one of the pieces that bring the home of this extraordinary artist to life.
Kawai was one of the leading figures of the mingei (“Folk art”) which developed in Japan in the 1920s and argued that beauty was found in everyday utilitarian objects made by anonymous artisans as opposed to “high art”. By exploring the rooms of Kawai’s humble home and studio, the argument is articulated.
Kawai believed that “the way of life is a job, the job is a way of life”. It follows that his house is a total expression of his art – hand-built according to his own design and filled only with his favorite possessions. In addition to the fruit-stuffed dog, there are disarmingly simple displays of everyday objects on each weathered surface.
In the garden, visitors can explore the wood-fired oven that Kawai used to bake his pieces – some of which are now in the V&A. Visitors will also spot a perfectly round stone on the outside. It was a housewarming gift that Kawai – always curious, always playful – regularly rolled around the gravel, enjoying it from different positions before moving it.
Farley House, East Sussex
Farley’s House has become an unlikely meeting place for writers and artists after photographer Lee Miller moved here with artist Roland Penrose in 1949. From the outside, this beautiful red brick farmhouse leaves nothing to be desired: you can imagine Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Man Ray and Leonora Carrington completely missed it before they got lost completely on the single track country roads that surround Muddles Green.
Behind the traditional exterior, visitors are quickly immersed in the intimate and colorful universe of the surrealists. Much like nearby Charleston (Bloomsbury Group headquarters in London), almost every surface has been marked by the creative imaginations of those who have passed through here – from the spectacular Penrose wall fireplace to the tiling created by Picasso and incorporated into the credenza behind the Aga.
The works of many who have visited Farley hang on the blue, yellow and pink walls while the extensive collection of Miller and Penrose sculptures can be explored in the garden. (The house also holds the Lee Miller archives of 60,000 negatives, manuscripts and ephemera.) The exhibits have been left exactly as they were: there are cigarette butts in the ashtray and the house bar is well stocked. . It is as if the owners have just run to find another friend at the station.
Villa d’Eileen Gray E-1027, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France
Built on stilts on a vertiginous hillside terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Villa E-1027 is Eileen Gray’s first architectural creation. An all-white Modernist masterpiece with a colorful past, it was designed as a ship-like seaside house for pioneering Irish designer and architect and her partner, Jean Badovici. (The name is derived from the interweaving of their initials: E for Eileen, 10 for J for Jean, 2 for B for Badovici, 7 for G for Gray.) The couple worked on the design for three years between 1926 and 1929 and only lived there for two, before going their separate ways.
The interior was as meticulously planned as the main structure. Gray designed every piece of furniture, including the adjustable and circular chrome nightstands, which are now widely considered a design classic of the 20th century. Swivel screens, shelves and labeled storage devices have been designed to give each guest their own space and a place to store their pillows (pillows).
But the clarity of Gray’s vision was lost soon after he left. In the 1930s, Le Corbusier – a friend of Badovici’s – painted several controversial murals on Gray’s all-white walls in a seemingly deliberate act of desecration. During World War II, the outer walls were used for target practice by German soldiers.
The villa was in a state of total disrepair before being bought by the Conservatoire du Littoral in 1999. In 2014, the Cap Moderne association embarked on a six-year program to bring the building up to Gray’s exacting standards. It reopens to the public this summer.
JB Blunk House, Inverness, California
The American sculptor and “master of the chainsaw”, JB Blunk made this cabin in redwood between 1958 and 1962. It is a living and breathing work of art. Even the bathroom sink – carved from a single piece of cypress and chisel-textured – remains a functional work of art. In a 1977 interview, Blunk said, “I consider this whole place – house, workshop, fruit trees, vegetable patch and chickens – a great sculpture.”
The cabin is surrounded by nature on a southern slope of the Inverness Ridge with views across the valley to Tomales Bay. Large carved river and beach stones collected by Blunk line the driveway and path to the house. As visitors approach, they pass Entry Arch, a massive sculpture carved from a single piece of ancient redwood in 1976.
Inside, Blunk’s paintings, pottery, objects and sculptures merge. “My father designed everything from the doorknob to the plates we ate on,” recalls Mariah Nielson, Blunk’s daughter, who lives with her family in the house and uses her workshop.
Before his death in 2002, Blunk made it clear that he wanted to share this regenerating refuge with others. Over the years, Nielson has invited friends, artists and designers to visit and work there.
“Sharing this place with others and watching the creative energy continue to move from artist to artist is an especially rewarding way to maintain Blunk’s legacy,” says Nielson.
The house will open to the public for monthly visits in 2022.