Once Britain had recovered from the First World War and the depression, there was a boom in house-building in the 1930s and the clearance of slums was a priority. Although the new homes were often smaller than those built before the war, an increase in flat-dwelling promised to bring exciting new developments in modern urban living. In the Victorian era living in a flat was looked down upon because of the association with working-class tenements. However, such prejudices broke down in the inter-war years, so much so that in 1934 the journal Building devoted its August issue to flat design.
Features of privately built flats in the 1930s included things like bay windows – regarded as important to distinguish privately owned flats from council flats, which at the time did not have bay windows. They also made rooms appear larger, gave residents better views and admitted more light to rooms, which was a very important consideration in modern architecture at the time. In the title How to Live in a Flat you will see that Heath Robinson draws his blocks of flats as lovely Art Deco buildings with clean lines and the large steel-framed windows that were popular at the time.
Flat design also took into account the radical transition from living in a house with servants to living without the support system that had been a feature of home life for everyone except the very poorest for centuries. Modern technology helped to make this easier with things like communal hot water systems. As Leslie Hoskins, curator of the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, told The Daily Telegraph in 2003:
There was still a notion that the most desirable way to live was in a house with servants. It was to counteract this idea that brochures for 1930s flats all talked up the modern comforts and amenities on offer. Great emphasis was placed on the fact that blocks of flats provided round-the-clock hot water – which was something you'd only get in a house if you had a maid who kept the boiler constantly stoked.
A communal hot water system was also designed to show that living in a flat could represent a move upmarket, something that developers were keen to emphasise to counter the prevailing prejudice against living in a flat.
Serviced flats were common too as a way of providing an alternative to a full coterie of servants. For example, The Isokon building in Hampstead, London, is a concrete block of 34 flats that was designed by architect Wells Coates for Molly and Jack Pritchard and which opened in 1934. The flats were an experiment in minimalist urban living. Most of the flats had very small kitchens as there was a large communal kitchen for the preparation of meals, connected to the residential floors via a dumb waiter. Services, including laundry and shoe-shining, were provided on site.
All of these developments are caricatured by William Heath Robinson and K. R. G. Browne in How to Live in a Flat. Indeed in the Introduction the authors specifically refer to the scarcity of servants, which they give as one reason why people feel they have to move into a flat. However, what Heath Robinson is best known for are his solutions to every-day problems and he is on top form in this book with his contraptions and devices designed to help with life in a very small space. Thus we have the Heath Robinson Dibedroom – a combined dining and bedroom achieved by moving a wall: