This story was originally published by Curbed before it joined New York Magazine. You can visit the Curbed archive at archive.curbed.com to read all stories published before October 2020.
Since the 1950s, single living, for men, has been dominated by the cultural fantasy of the bachelor pad. No equivalent space, devoted to hedonism, seduction, and style, exists for women. (Attempt to Google it, and the plaintive question “what is a female bachelor pad called?” shows up as an early autocomplete option. Sorry, ladies. You don’t get to be that groovy.) Rooted in midcentury aesthetics and midcentury attitudes, the swinging bachelor pad eclipsed all later efforts to create space for single men in the world of design. Today, increasing numbers of men live alone, and they certainly aren’t all channeling Hugh Hefner in penthouses with sunken living rooms and circular beds. Why, then, are there still so few visions of comfortable, livable interiors for men?
Men in the home have always been a problem. From the beginning of the industrial era, as the home ceased to be a workplace and instead became a site of leisure and consumption, the notion of “separate spheres” for the sexes dominated home design. Men were generally assumed not to have much interest, nor any say, in how their own homes looked. They were supposed to provide the means to support a home and family, but had to go out of that home to do so. Inside its walls, they were out of place. Women — wives, mothers, sisters, female servants — managed the space, perhaps leaving a few designated rooms as masculine retreats: a study, a smoking room, or a library, decorated with leather and wood, where men could take refuge in whiskey and cigars. When the profession of interior decorator developed in the early 20th century, it was molded by a handful of aristocratic women, like Dorothy Draper and Elsie de Wolfe, while architecture remained dominated by men. How a building looked and functioned was a man’s business; how it felt was a woman’s.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, however, the rapid growth of American cities, and their demand for young workers of both sexes, shifted the relationship between men and domestic space. The bachelor, as a visible cultural phenomenon, tended to be white, white-collar, and upper-middle-class — partly because the kinds of professional roles these bachelors held were rarely accessible to men of color — but the shift to urban living occurred across class and racial boundaries. In 1890, the number of young men living alone in cities, as well as their average age at first marriage, hit peaks they would not see again for another century. By 1900, fully half of all U.S.-born white men between 25 and 34 in New York were single. As cities swelled with single men, social and domestic spaces evolved to accommodate them, their money, and their leisure time. Often these spaces excluded women (or, at least, respectable women) entirely. Even though the ideal of masculinity lay in the role of breadwinner, rather than leisure consumer, businesses sprang up to profit from the presence and spending power of the bachelor, including barber shops, tailors, restaurants, bars, and theaters. It took the emergence of modern urban capitalism to create the bachelor, and the bachelor pad.
Most of these men still lived in some kind of shared setting, renting a room from a family, in a boarding house or hotel, or in one of a growing number of furnished apartments for “men-about-town.” In central London, the Albany was (and remains) a stylish apartment complex in Piccadilly, home over the years to politicians, artists, and writers including Lord Byron and the opium-smoking decadent Edward Bulwer-Lytton — as well as the central character of Jack/Ernest in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. In an 1848 novel, The Bachelor of the Albany, by an Irish satirical writer named Marmion Wilard Savage, it was described as “the haunt of bachelors, or of married men who try to lead bachelors’ lives […] the place for the fashionable thrifty, the luxurious lonely and the modish morose.”
The bachelor was a fundamentally contradictory figure: sad and lonely, but with his unhappiness always balanced by a measure of style. In an essay written a few years later, Walt Whitman described the dangers of the bachelor’s boarding house life: he put himself at risk of “listlessness; emptiness; sloth; nerves; dyspepsia” but also “flirtations; prodigality; vain show; perhaps — often, might we not say? — immorality, nay, infamy.” Those contradictory anxieties continue to swirl around men (and women) living alone today: firstly that they will be miserable and lonely — and then, worse, that they won’t be.
The literary associations of male-dominated apartment complexes like the Albany (where women were not openly admitted until the late 19th century) and their louche reputations—all that opium—created an image of the bachelor apartment as a dimly lit den of vice. The writer and editor George Jean Nathan, founder of The Smart Set magazine and a quintessential man-about-town in early 20th-century New York, attacked that decadent stereotype in his 1941 book The Bachelor Life. He blamed the Albany and its ilk for the idea that a bachelor pad had to be “an amalgam of white slave den with everybody in evening clothes and a French boulevard farce with all the doors stuck.” A modern, stylish single man didn’t want to live among Turkish rugs, beaded lamps, and leopard print, but needed something more elegant and subtle.
By the mid-20th century, the mysterious, unconquerable bachelor had become a cultural fixture, embodied in literature through figures like Jay Gatsby and Sherlock Holmes. But too much mystery could be risky for single men. As one chronicler of bachelor living puts it, “It had long been a queer thing to be a bachelor. The unmarried adult male struck society as an oddity, something of an Other.” A “confirmed bachelor” might resist marriage for many reasons, but over the years the phrase acquired a stronger connotation of homosexuality. An interest in home design or fashion, both coded as feminine, increased a bachelor’s “oddity.” When Esquire magazine launched in the early 1930s, its subject matter was carefully calibrated to, as its first editor wrote, dispel the “lavender whiff” of the fashion pages with features on such manly pursuits as boxing and bullfighting, along with risqué drawings and cartoons. The magazine also featured plenty of fantasy design illustrations by the Russian emigré and sports-car designer Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, featuring streamlined, futuristic automobiles, aircraft, and occasionally living spaces. Highlighting the connection between men and technology that persists today as an acceptable masculine area of home-design interest, one design featured a coffee table with an inlaid panel from which an apartment’s temperature, light, and music could be remotely controlled. The masculinizing of domestic space would continue to rely on this combination of, as one design historian puts it, “liquor and technology.”
The fully realized modern bachelor pad — high-end, high-tech, and high style — wouldn’t emerge until after the end of World War II: paradoxically, at a moment of intense cultural pressure on Americans to marry young and embrace suburban domesticity. When Playboy magazine launched in 1953, it reflected the predilections of its founder, Hugh Hefner, but also embodied a vision of solitary urban living for straight, single, well-off men that was all the more powerful for its rarity. “We like our apartment,” Hefner proclaimed in the first issue, rejecting the “outdoorsy” content that Esquire, which he admired, used to shore up its masculinity. “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” The apartment was still a stage set, but instead of a French farce, this was a scene of flawless intellectual, cultural, and physical seduction.
In September 1956, in one of its most popular articles ever (according to Hef), the magazine invited readers to explore blueprints for “Playboy’s Penthouse Apartment.” The ultimate aspirational urban space, the full-floor apartment, crowning a skyscraper, allowed its occupant to gaze down through his glass walls at the city below, feeling himself master of all he surveyed. Some design historians have suggested that penthouse apartments were an urban answer to (or “dream double” of) the midcentury modern ranch house, with its flowing space, abundance of glass, and blend of inside and outside — the penthouse terrace being the ultimate entertaining perk. The association between this style of apartment and Playboy was sufficiently entrenched by the mid-1960s that Britain’s glossy, soft-pornographic answer to the American magazine was called Penthouse.
The clean lines, stark geometry, and unfussy open spaces of midcentury modern design were essential to the bachelor pad-as-stage set. Playboy celebrated this architectural openness as a refreshing contrast to the “cell-like rooms” of older houses — an openness that, in more conservative quarters, was excoriated for undermining traditional domestic values. In 1953, the same year Playboy debuted, Elizabeth Gordon, the editor of House Beautiful, labeled Mies van der Rohe and his fellow modernist architects “The Threat to America” for undermining the traditional look and function of the family home.
In 1962 the magazine went further, creating spreads based on Hefner’s Playboy Town House in Chicago, the prototype for the later Playboy Mansion in California — the blueprint fantasy coming to life. The house was designed to accommodate Hef’s personal quirks, like his habit of working from his bed in his pajamas. The Playboy bed was a monstrous eight-foot circular creation, kitted out with electronics in the headboard so the bachelor could control the whole houseful of gadgets without getting up, and (in theory) switch seamlessly between work and seduction. Unusually for the time, the spreads were interspersed with images of objects to buy — if a swimming pool in the atrium was out of reach, a sleek chair or side table might not be. In a 1961 spread captioned “Designs for Living,” Playboy spotlighted designers including George Nelson, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, and Charles (but not Ray) Eames, perched on furniture they created. These iconic pieces of furniture — Noguchi coffee tables, Eames lounge chairs, the creations of Knoll and Herman Miller — were signals that a man aligned himself with the image of the Playboy bachelor. But in case things got too high-minded and European, traditional masculine design elements also found their way in: dark wood, leather, even the occasional faux-medieval suit of armor.
The pornographic pinups in the pages of Playboy were not simply there to sell more magazines, though they certainly did that. Rather, they offered a way to offset the potential effeminacy of the design and fashion content less subtly than features about baseball. According to design historian Bill Osgerby, Playboy allowed men to embrace the pleasures of consumption through objects like stereos and other home electronics, alcohol, clothes, and furniture — and the naked women made it safe to do so. It was a formula imitated by the many cheap Playboy knockoffs in the late 1950s, which also featured interiors, fashion, and nudity, with titles like Gent, The Dude, Rogue, and Hi Life — not to mention Gay Blade.
By the 1960s, the vision of the swinging bachelor pad had expanded beyond Playboy into other mass-market fantasies of masculinity, like the James Bond films (in which a male viewer’s admiration for Connery’s style and physique could always be masked by the presence of a girl in a bikini). The 1962 film Pillow Talk used interior design to play out an old script of the battle of the sexes, juxtaposing Rock Hudson’s minimalist pad with Doris Day’s frilled and feminine space. Hudson’s apartment is full of “masculine” design cues still popular today: dark colors, wood, exposed brick, leather, artwork featuring hunting scenes… and a button that secretly controls the locks on the doors. The notion of the bachelor pad as a “lair” for the heterosexual hunter was a popular, if chilling, undertone in the hedonistic design; in this light, the all-important focal point of the bar was a way not just to entertain guests but to keep an eye on them, allowing “the canny bachelor to remain in the room while mixing a cool one for his intended quarry.”
The irony of the ubiquitous Playboy model of bachelor life in the 1950s and early ’60s was how rare it was in reality. According to Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo, just 4 million Americans lived alone in 1950, comprising some 9 percent of households, and the average age of men at first marriage dropped to its lowest point in the 20th century, at 22.9 (their wives were barely 20). Only half a million of those living alone were young adults between 18 and 34, and most of them were in decidedly temporary situations—like the men who’d gone to the sparsely populated Western states of Montana, Nevada, and Alaska for work. Presumably, they weren’t exactly in the market for fancy record players and cocktail shakers, despite Hefner’s claim that “The notion of the single man began in the 1950’s.” At the very least, the notion of the bachelor as a footloose, autonomous, stylish icon was a powerful cultural fantasy, as Playboy’s circulation figures bear out. By the end of the ’50s, nearly a million people were reading the magazine each month.
Anxiety over what the conformity of corporate life was doing to men was rampant in the era of the “man in the grey flannel suit.” Writing in Esquire in 1958 about “The Crisis of American Masculinity,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued that men needed to “recover a sense of individual spontaneity.” The same year in Playboy, the journalist and science-fiction writer Philip Wylie (famous for his luridly misogynistic essay collection Generation of Vipers) saw the bachelor pad as a form of self-defense against the women who were taking over public and professional spaces, wanting “to invade everything masculine, emasculate it, cover it with dimity [a kind of delicate cotton fabric], occupy it forever.” The home, Wylie complained, recalling the Victorian separate-spheres ideology, had become “a boudoir-kitchen-nursery, dreamed up by women, for women, and as if males did not exist as males.” Playboy’s gospel of narcissism, hedonism, and self-indulgent fun was directly opposed to the cultural value system that measured a man’s worth by his ability to provide for those invading women. A bachelor pad made it possible for a man to be himself, not just a corporate drone. It was “the outward reflection of [the bachelor’s] inner self — a comfortable, livable, and yet exciting expression of the person he is and the life he leads.”
By the early 1970s, the demographics of single living began to catch up to the bachelor fantasy. Despite Playboy’s suspicion of women’s takeover of public space, this shift was largely due to social changes pushed by the women’s movement, particularly easier divorce. The new generation of single dwellers was not necessarily delaying marriage and kids, but moving on and starting over after separation. Rates of solo living have steadily risen ever since, not just in American cities but around the world. In 2007, the Pew Research Center began collecting data on cohabitation as well as marriage, giving a clearer picture of who is actually living alone. In the decade since then, the share of unpartnered American adults has reached 42 percent, seeing the most dramatic rise among young people. Today, six in 10 adults younger than 35 live without a spouse or partner, and more than a third live alone, with the others sharing a home with children, parents, or roommates.
As more men live alone, the bachelor pad has lost much of its aspirational cachet, and the phrase has instead come to signify a space that’s bare and barely functional. Furnished with little more than a big television; a recliner, futon, or other ratty couch; and maybe a beer sign on the wall, it’s a frat house without the community. Even partnered men have, since the early ’90s, been assumed to want or need a space of their own that allows them to express their true nature as slobs. A resurgence of separate-spheres ideology, the cultural cliche of the “man cave” can be traced back (appropriately) to John Gray’s 1992 book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, which suggests that a man in trouble typically “goes to his private cave to think about his problem, mulling it over to find a solution.” Since then, the man cave evolved from contemplative retreat into a space for a man to play video games, relax, drink, watch sports, and hang out with his (male) friends. Somewhere along the way, the man cave and the bachelor pad merged into one stereotype: that, left to themselves, (straight) men will choose squalor over style.
This may be because men see even fewer representations of successful solo living than women do. Designer Orlando Soria’s HGTV show Unspouse My House is one of a tiny number of shows on the juggernaut home-design network ever to focus on single people, despite their increasing demographic dominance. The show aims to help homeowners move on emotionally after a divorce or breakup by removing the decorating stamp of a previous partner. Its six-episode run (it has been renewed for a second season) includes two episodes focused on men. One of these made over the Yorba Linda, California, home of Paul, divorced for eight years but still living with his ex-wife’s design choices, including patterned carpets and a French country-style kitchen. In an introductory scene, the camera pans around a living room Soria calls, unflatteringly, a “typical bachelor pad”: a gloomy space with only a beaten-up leather armchair, couch, and two huge flatscreen televisions. The resulting makeover works to balance “masculine” elements — clean lines, lots of blue and neutral shades — with “soft” touches like pillows and comfortable furniture. Paul comments approvingly that his new bedroom “looks like a resort,” implying that the only place a man can understand and embrace as aesthetically pleasing is one he pays to stay in on vacation.
The hugely successful 2018 reboot of Queer Eye no longer focuses exclusively on making over “the straight guy,” although they are often its subjects. Like Unspouse My House, the show continues the stereotype of design and aesthetics as the preserve of gay men (or ex-wives), but digs more deeply into issues of masculine identity and the reasons why men don’t make the effort to decorate for themselves. This interest in rethinking the limitations of traditional masculinity can be seen in some other media quarters as well. GQ magazine, a publication that traditionally followed the Playboy/Esquire formula of fashion and design offset by articles about daredevil pursuits and images of scantily clad women, recently released its “New Masculinity” issue. Editor Will Welch claimed the magazine was no longer “for or about men” at all, but would instead offer “an exploration of the ways that traditional notions of masculinity are being challenged, shifted, and overturned.”
Yet amid this rethinking of masculinity at the level of fashion and culture, there isn’t much attention paid to home design, where a cliched vision of what constitutes “masculine” style continues to dominate. While the trappings of the midcentury bachelor pad — with its centrally placed bar, open-plan layout, and modernist furniture — have become a ubiquitous, and unisex, aesthetic, today’s aspirational single-guy apartment seems to resemble a sterile, upscale hotel. Within the rise of solo living, for both men and women, as a long-term and fulfilling choice, men deserve better than the two poles of the bachelor pad, the basement hovel or Christian Grey’s vast, empty aerie: a home that is not just a stage set for seduction, or for the performance of success and power, but a place for living well, according to their own, individual design.
Joanna Scutts is a writer and curator, and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It (Liveright, 2017).