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Ask McEnearney: Why Do Design Trends Become Popular?

This week’s Q&A column is sponsored and written by Kate Crawley of McEnearney Associates Realtors®, the leading real estate firm in Alexandria. To learn more about this article and relevant Alexandria market news, contact Kate at 703-888-8141 or email [email protected]. You may also submit your questions to McEnearney Associates via email for response in future columns.

Question: Why do design trends become popular?

Answer: As a realtor, I see a lot of the same features in the homes I visit. Sparkling white subway tile — check. Main level powder rooms — check. Ooh, a porch? Check, check! No, wallpaper really isn’t a feature that buyers are looking for — please remove it and paint your walls a light, soothing color. Walking through my community, I see more and more Adirondack chairs being planted in front yards and porches are dressed as outdoor rooms. So, how did these designs become so ubiquitous?

Disease did it.

Subway Tile

In the 19th century, as germ theory was developing amid deadly tuberculosis and influenza epidemics, the most effective way to stop the spread of a disease was through cleanliness. Wall paper and paneled wood absorbed moisture and odors and were made to hide the dirt. Hospitals and public buildings and shops installed the tiles as dirt was easy to see and material easy to clean. A butcher shop or fish market would have the tile to communicate how clean and fresh their product was.

In 1904, designers George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge created the 3″ x 6″ tile for the very first station of the brand new subway system in New York City. As often happens, the commercial design was transferred to the residential.

Plumbing and manufacturing advances meant the end of the coffin-like tub encased in wood and lined with tin and brought in shiny ceramic tubs, sinks and toilets that didn’t need to be placed in backyard privy. The new linoleum products replaced wood floors and were considered a modern, easy to clean esthetic. Tile was installed along the walls of kitchens and baths alike.

Have a seat

Upstate New York saw the construction of the sanitarium industry to house and treat the patients suffering from tuberculosis. At least by Victorian standards, there were large and unadorned buildings and cottages set out in the dry healthy air of the mountains. Sunlight and fresh air were the treatment, so daybeds and chairs that were light enough to be moved out onto open porches or glassed in sunrooms provided comfort. With tilting backs and seats, wide arm rests for belongings or a rest to elevate the feet, these were the forerunners of the Lay Z Boy and of course, the Adirondack chair.

The Pit Stop

Daily deliveries of coal, oil and ice were messier than the FedEx and Instacart deliveries we have today. These items weren’t dropped at the door with no contact, they were brought right into the kitchen or cellar and if the delivery man needed to use the bathroom, a conveniently located place, away from the family baths was safer. Having a sink by the front or back doors allowed hand washing by everyone — a critical part of safe hygiene back then and now.


Back to upstate New York where the sanitaria porches were used daily and in all kinds of weather — imagine being on the porch in Saranac Lake in deep February? Sleeping porches became a trend that is still seen in older homes. When a turn of the last century home has an odd little room or porch jutting out from the second or third floor, chances are this was a sleeping porch. An unheated room furnished with beds so the sleeper could be out in fresh air throughout the night — it was better than an open window!

Now What?

With coronavirus, it’s too early to tell what design changes we will see coming into public and residential spaces. Is this the end of the open concept floor plan, now that we’ve been working and taking meetings, making calls, homeschooling children, fostering animals?

Will the desire for a home office or “Zoom Room” outweigh walk-in closets or home theaters? Will furniture design for the masses include the Capsule Chair by Kateryna Sokolova for Casala? Shaped like a Tic Tac with sound insulating materials inside and out, you can work out loud in the middle of an office or home without disturbing others or being disturbed by their noise. Perfect for those Zoom meetings.

Current guidelines of masks, distancing and sanitation will create new designs and ways of living in and building our homes. Disease is once again redesigning our lives.

Kate Crawley is a real estate veteran with experience in residential sales and administration, high-end commercial management and property development, and finance. Her professional work is fused with her love for Alexandria and its residents. If you would like more information on selling or buying in today’s complex market, contact Kate today at 703-888-8141 or visit her website

If you would like a question answered in our weekly column or to set up an appointment with one of our Associates, please email: [email protected] or call 703-549-9292.

McEnearney Associates Realtors®, 109 S. Pitt Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. Equal Housing Opportunity. #WeAreAlexandria

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