Open House

Between 1949 and 1974, developer Joseph Eichler built around 11,000 minimalist, one-story homes in neat, Edward Scissorhands-style subdivisions in Northern and Southern California. The cheaply made, light-filled boxes were intended, like IKEA, to bring good design to the middle class. Buyers—mostly young nuclear families—paid from $10,000 to $20,000 for them (about $85,000 to $170,000 in today’s dollars). Now, thanks to their growing popularity among mainstream-eschewing creative types, the houses cost upwards of $1 million.

Kory Heinzen, 33, a visual-development artist at DreamWorks, landed his Bay Area Eichler about a year ago — shortly after losing out to a coworker on the first one he coveted; neither knew the other was bidding. “They’re popular with my art-director friends. I know a lot of the guys over at Pixar have them,” Heinzen says.

The appeal is twofold. The clean design, executed for Eichler by young architects and influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature aesthetic, satisfies an appetite for midcentury-modern austerity. And the philosophy behind the houses pleases leftists: Unlike many real-estate operations at the time, the company sold to blacks as well as whites and blue-collar as well as middle-class families. “As a liberal from California,” Heinzen says, “I appreciate that.”

Those who hock their worldly possessions to lock in a mortgage on an Eichler are signing up for two things. One is a mailbox full of bills. Most of the homes that haven’t yet been renovated by the sort of people who get into fistfights over Danish pottery and George Nelson clocks are in need of a face-lift. And living in such a distinctive piece of architectural history makes most new owners itch to do a meticulous restoration. They install vintage Thermadors, lay cork and linoleum floors, and restore mahogany wall paneling.

“I’ll spend everything I’ve got,” says Ian Hamilton, a 34 year-old industrial designer who bought his San Jose-area Eichler last August. He’s already outfitted it with an Arco lamp, two Eames loungers, and a pair of Wassily chairs. On his wish list: anything by Herman Miller.

Redecorators can expect to see a curious neighbor pop up on their lawn before the first eBay box hits the doorstep—which is the other part of the deal for an Eichler owner. In these communities, strangers stop by to see the flooring their neighbor installed. They recommend contractors and discuss additions to the sprawling Eichler Network Web site, which is chockablock with sale postings and articles about the art that owners should hang. In the Orange County subdivision Fairhaven, a pink flamingo on some lawns means come over for cocktails.

“People do come by,” Heinzen says. “But I grew up in a place where we didn’t talk to our neighbors. We lived next to them for 15 years and didn’t know their names. I think it’s nice to know the people you live near.”