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Kenneth Dale Isaacs Papers

Identifier: 2021-01

Collection Scope

The Kenneth Dale Isaacs Papers were primarily created during his career as a designer and professor of architecture and design. The collection does include some records from Isaacs’ youth in Peoria, Illinois and from his college studies at Bradley University and Cranbrook Academy of Art (CAA), but mainly covers his work in design, in education, and as a writer from the time of completion of his master’s degree in 1954, through three decades as University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC) Architecture Department faculty (1970-2000). Especially in his early career, Isaacs documented his Matrix philosophy, in which designs are made up of modular components and design education focuses on experiential learning.

Materials cover Isaacs’ brief return to Cranbrook and his leadership of CAA’s Design Department. They also cover his freelance projects out of the Ken Isaacs, Ltd. Manhattan office, his experimental Microhouse building site called the Matrix Research Project at Groveland, Illinois, various teaching appointments including the Rhode Island School of Design and the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, publishing projects including two books and a contributing editorship at the DIY magazine Popular Science, and professional collaborations. Complementary creative relationships within his marriages are also well documented.

The collection includes presentation drawings and photographs from his design portfolios, as well as professional documents like resumes created between the 1950s and 2000s. The frequency of collaborations with professional contacts and students are documented in correspondence, drawings, prints, occasional maps of structures, and other student work, although creators are not always indicated, particularly for drawings, papers, works documented in photographic slides, 3-D sculptures, and models. Since many of Isaacs’ projects overlap, designs and concepts can often be found in multiple series. For instance, both Series 2: Early Career and Series 3: Mid to Late Career document Isaacs’ Microhouses, since he enlisted UIC students and others to build experimental Microhouses at Groveland, wrote about the structures for Popular Science Magazine (PSM) and in How To Build Your Own Living Structures, and funded the project through both UIC and PSM. They also appear in Isaacs’ books in Series 5 and are represented in visual formats in Series 7 and 8.

All three concepts for which Isaacs is best known (Living Structures, Microhouses, and Information Structures) have significant representation in his papers: in his journals and notes, in written and photographic documentation, in various drafts of his two books, and in files he kept of his press coverage. The collection also contains building plans and variations on Isaacs’ Living Structures; designs and faculty papers of his portable, affordable Microhouse; and designs of and materials used in his Information Structures, like the Knowledge Box, Matrix Drum, and Torus. AV materials in the collection include the 1962 Knowledge Box film by Isaacs’ then-wife Barbara Isaacs. A much smaller fraction of the collection are documents from Isaacs’ military service and subsequent work designing exhibits for the United States Information Agency in 1955. Some proposals and photographs of his ongoing interest and involvement in exhibition design and community planning are also present. From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s Isaacs saved correspondence, photographs, and other papers from the planned village Seaside, Florida, where his fourth wife Sarah Isaacs and he designed a vacation home.

Series 1: Personal (1910-1959, bulk 1942-1954) includes papers from his high school and undergraduate studies, identification cards, personal papers, and family letters. Series 2: Early career (circa 1954-1972) contains Isaacs’ early designs and promotional papers for Ken Isaacs Ltd, and records related to his temporally overlapping projects of building Microhouses at Groveland, Illinois, his tenure as contributing editor for Popular Science magazine (1967-1972), and the creation of his first book, Culture Breakers, Alternatives & Other Numbers (1970). The Groveland Subseries includes some press correspondence. The Popular Science Subseries includes article drafts and published copies, as well as internal magazine correspondence and letters from Isaacs' readers.

Series 3: Mid to Late Career (1970-2000) is the largest series in the collection and covers Isaacs’ years with the University of Illinois, Chicago. They contain both his independent writing and artwork; subject files; and university course readings, assignment handouts, student work, and administrative records.

Subseries 3.1 covers Isaacs' work as Director of Graduate Studies, including Stanley Tigerman's dismissal and supervision of the John Etenza scholarship. It also documents projects not tied to single semesters or classes and contains work by Isaacs’ students. Overlap of content amongst Sub-subseries occurs, because of how Isaacs himself filed the material.

Subseries 3.2 documents work by Ken Isaacs that was done independent of UIC but completed during his time there. It includes exhibit proposals, contest entries and correspondence.

Subseries 3.3 combines Isaacs' reference and reading files from both his UIC and home office.

Series 4: Retirement (2000-2016) includes correspondence with art historian Victor Margolin, with Wilma Keppel about grid beam construction, an oral history project conducted by Leslie Coburn, and correspondence regarding exhibits, including the rebuilding of the Knowledge Box for the Learning Modern show in 2009 and its inclusion in the Hippie Modernism show in 2015. Presentation binders collect thematic or retrospective materials put together by Isaacs and curatorial partners to represent different aspects of his work for completed and proposed projects such as exhibits and publications.

Series 5: Reference Material (1947-2007) comprises Isaacs’ personal reference library, used by him for in-house reference as well as in press kits. For business, he produced and kept documentation files including drawings, plans and photographs about his designs and copies of any media coverage.

Series 6: Notes (c. 1950-2001) are Isaacs own personal and professional notes, written in bound journals, diaries, daybooks, and on loose index cards. At the end of the index cards, a metal clip still holds some of his notes on index cards.

Series 7: Photographs and Recordings (circa 1900-2016) records Isaacs’ design work, including studio and process shots, and classroom activity and student work. There are also some personal photographs of Isaacs’ parents, his youth, and his family. Most photos were created by or for Isaacs, although some are copies by photojournalists covering Isaacs for newspapers and magazines. Photographic prints and transparencies make up most of the series, though there are recordings of lectures by and about Isaacs, audio notes, media appearances, and films by Barbara Isaacs.

Series 8: Oversize Material (1900-2009) contains Isaacs’ furniture and residential architecture designs, collaborations in environment design, and graphic design work for clients. Mainly comprised of large works on paper by Isaacs and his UIC students consisting of drawings, fliers, posters, and architectural plans. Also included are mounted presentation photographs from Isaacs' early career and other large photographic prints, as well as some documents and newspaper clippings. Some of these items were likely used as teaching tools in UIC classrooms.

Series 9: Objects (1950-1980) contains artwork, models, two inventions (tide clock and cartesian joints), and hardware and tools used by Isaacs. Artwork includes exhibit illustrations and some of Barbara Isaacs' abstract paintings, all mounted using Isaacs' system of Masonite squares with wooden backing for hanging.


  • 1900 - 2018
  • Majority of material found within 1945 - 2016



Access to the collection is largely unrestricted. Some educational records containing student information may be restricted or provided as a redacted copy at the archives' discretion.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to use collection materials must be requested in writing.

Copyright and exclusive licensing of materials in the collection is owned by Joshua Isaacs, son of Kenneth Dale Isaacs. Cranbrook Educational Community has non-exclusive rights to authorize the reproduction, publication, display, or temporary loan of these materials for educational or non-profit uses only.

Copyright of The Knowledge Box and Marie and Henry films is owned by Barbara Isaacs. Cranbrook Educational Community has non-exclusive rights to authorize the reproduction, publication, display, or temporary loan of these materials for educational or non-profit uses only.


Born in Peoria, Illinois in 1927, Kenneth Dale Isaacs was the only child of Henry “Joe” and Marie Isaacs. After a successful high school academic career, Ken Isaacs enlisted in the US Navy from 1945-February 1946. He enrolled at Bradley University in 1947, where his studies included anthropology, fine arts, theater set design, and furniture design, including loft beds and tension rod suspension in student housing. Here, Isaacs was exposed to industrial design, as well as the work of Buckminster Fuller, both of which he cited as inspiration throughout his career. Isaacs completed his BFA in design at Bradley in 1952. His portfolio won him a St. Dunstan’s Scholarship to study at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Studying at the Academy from 1952-1954, Isaacs explored two of the three major ongoing projects in his design work: Living Structures and instructional environments (the third, Microhouses, would develop a bit later). Living Structures were one multifunctional unit or Matrix of furniture which combined a whole room into one affordable, collapsible, transportable unit. Instructional environments were experimental, multimedia education environments, the first of which was the Matrix Drum. A later version would be known as the Knowledge Box, his most well-known educational structure in which visitors climb inside a large box with curated slides projected from all four sides and an accompanying audio soundtrack. Versions of both projects received coverage in LIFE magazine, garnering national attention.

After earning his MFA in design, Isaacs opened a design office in Manhattan and worked briefly with the United States Information Agency on exhibit design. In 1956 Isaacs was hired by Cranbrook Academy of Art President Zoltan Sepeshy to return as design faculty. Commuting back and forth between Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and his Manhattan business, Isaacs reconfigured the first-year program as the Matrix Year, focusing more on students gaining experience through guest visits and field trips. His tenure at Cranbrook lasted only two years and Isaacs left Cranbrook in 1958.

Continuing with freelance design work and exploration of his design and teaching philosophies, Isaacs served as a visiting faculty member at the Rhode Island Institute of Design (1961) and the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology (1961-1962). The award of a Graham Foundation grant enabled Isaacs and painter, filmmaker, and then-wife Barbara (nee Shivitz) Isaacs to build and document Microhouse structures and inhabit them in wooded acreage he co-owned with his parents at Groveland, Illinois. In the late 1960s, Isaacs established the Groveland 2 Limited, a storefront for Living Structure sales, first in Manhattan and later in Chicago. Partnerships with Bretano's bookstore and Abraham and Straus department store, combined with a contributing editorship at Popular Science magazine from 1968-1972, increased press coverage as well as access to products by Ken Isaacs Limited. Through design plans shared in the magazine, readers could even build a Living Structure for themselves.

In 1970, Isaacs began teaching in the newly-formed Art and Architecture Department at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where he'd remain as professor and administrator until 2000. While there, he served as the director of graduate studies and chairperson of the CRAFT program.

Ken Isaacs' first book, Culture Breakers and Other Numbers (1970), explored his philosophy in image and text, and was designed with Carole Rabito, with whom Isaacs had son Joshua. Isaacs' second book, How to Build Your Own Living Structures, was published in 1974. It features a mix of personal essays along with plans for his structures and photographs of the Isaacs' family and friends building and using Isaacs' Living Structures and Microhouses. He also wrote short pieces, including a series of articles and plans for the DIY audience of Popular Science magazine, where he was a contributing editor from 1968-1972.

Isaacs’ own design projects and philosophy continued to inform and overlap with his teaching. In 1982 he brought architecture students to an independent study of buildings at the Ox-Bow arts community in Saugatuck, Michigan. Other UIC courses included one on urban design, co-taught by architect Peter Roesch, and the 1990s Progressive House course, co-taught by Andrew Freear. Isaacs and design historian Victor Margolin were especially frequent collaborators and corresponders, including co-teaching a course on Utopian Design in 1984.

Throughout his career Ken Isaacs also worked in exhibit design, theater lighting, film, vehicle design, model building, and architecture. He was an architectural consultant for Chicagoland renovation projects, and he was involved in the planned community of Seaside, Florida, where beginning in 1988 he and wife Sara Isaacs designed a home.

With the involvement of Inside the Matrix biographer Susan Snodgrass, Isaacs' Knowledge Box was rebuilt in 2009 for the Chicago exhibit Learning Modern. The exhibit, Culture Breakers: The Living Structures of Ken Isaacs, was mounted at Cranbrook in 2014. Isaacs' designs were also featured in the Walker Art Center's Hippie Modernism show (2015).

Ken Isaacs died in Granger, Indiana in 2016.


46.1 Linear Feet ((75 MS, 17 OS, 10 SB) 6 OS folders, 1 reel, 1 object) : The reel is one film. The unboxed object is a desktop tool chest.

6.09 Gigabytes (133 files) : Files consist of 12 MP3s, 113 JPEGs, 6 VOBs, 1 PDF and 1 MOV.

Language of Materials



A graduate and former head of the Design Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in the 1950s, Ken Isaacs was an American designer, author and educator best known for his portable, customizable Living Structures and Microhouses. He claimed his design philosophy was influenced more by anthropologists than by architects. Moving from place to place and working with commonly available building materials were experiences in Isaacs’ own childhood and capabilities that he prioritized in his designs. Isaacs' Living Structures were sold assembled or packed flat through Ken Isaacs Ltd. The plans for his structures and microhouses were available through his company as well as in his book How To Build Your Own Living Structures and feature stories in Popular Science magazine. Isaacs also received national attention for his information environments, like the Knowledge Box. Simultaneous to his design practices, Isaacs spent his longest tenure in academia as a professor of architecture and design at University of Illinois, Chicago.

The bulk of the Kenneth Dale Isaacs Papers include records related to his designs, with some business records from Ken Isaacs Ltd. and the storefront, Groveland 2, as well as personal materials. His files document creative partnerships and publications, press appearances, and educational projects including a significant amount of paper and photographic records from UIC. This multimedia collection contains art and prints on paper, photographic materials created by and about Isaacs and his work, plus a variety of models and documentation in three and four dimensions.


The Ken Isaacs Papers are divided into nine series, reflecting distinct periods in his life (Series 1-4), preserving his reading files and notes (Series 5-6), or dictated by physical format of the material (Series 7-9). Isaacs’ own system of organization is maintained within a series or subseries, when discernable, including some early items filed one per folder. Folder titles record his terminology, when possible. Quotation marks denote Isaacs’ specific phrasing if they don’t directly describe the folders’ contents. Project name changes and known associations are noted on folders. Because some of Isaacs’ files are multimedia, materials may have been separated from their original filing order for preservation reasons. If so, the origin folder is noted on the new folder.

Series 1: Personal (Box 1) is arranged chronologically.

Series 2: Early Career (Box 1-15) is further divided into four subseries by subject. Files are arranged chronologically within each subseries, but the years of the different subseries do overlap.

Subseries 2.1: Projects and Teaching (Box 1-10a) Subseries 2.2: Groveland, Illinois (Box 11) Subseries 2.3: Popular Science Magazine (Box 12-15) Subseries 2.4: Culture Breakers Book (Box 15)

Series 3: Mid to Late Career (Box 16-47) is divided into three subseries by subject, with the first two subseries further divided, again by subject. Files are arranged chronologically within each subseries. Items without dates are kept where Isaacs filed them. Subseries 3.1: University of Illinois Chicago (Box 16-31) Sub-subseries 3.1.1: Courses Sub-subseries 3.1.2: Administration Sub-subseries 3.1.3: Projects Sub-subseries 3.1.4: Student Work Subseries 3.2 Independent Work (Box 32-41) Sub-subseries 3.2.1: Project files Sub-subseries 3.2.2: How to Build Your Own Living Structures Book Sub-subseries 3.3.3: Seaside, Florida Subseries 3.3 Subject Files (Box 42-47) are a combination from Isaacs’ UIC office files and from his home office, with his order maintained.

Series 4: Retirement (Box 48-51, Digital objects 202101_001-132) is filed roughly in chronological order when possible. In the case of project files, some materials with different creation dates have stayed arranged together.

Series 5: Reference Material (Box 52-59) is further divided into four subseries by type of publication, and then chronologically within each subseries. Correspondence and other documents related to press coverage and specific titles can be found in other series. Subseries 5.1 Press Clippings (Box 52-53). Does not include some clippings retained in the original project folders in Series 1-4. Subseries 5.2 Periodicals (Box 54-56). Does not include Popular Science issues. Subseries 5.3 Books by Ken Isaacs (Box 56) Subseries 5.4 Reference Books (57-59)

Series 6: Notes (Box 60-65) is arranged by format type: bound materials are first, followed by index cards. Each format type is then filed chronologically.

Series 7: Photographs and Recordings (Box 66-85) is divided first into four subseries by format and size, and then chronologically. Subseries 7.1 Prints (Box 66-73). Does not include some that were retained in the original project folders in Series 1-4. Subseries 7.2 Projection Slides (Box 74-77) Subseries 7.3 Negatives and Positive Transparencies (Box 77a-84) Subseries 7.4 Recordings (Box 85, Item 1, Digital object 202101_133) is arranged by media type.

Series 8: Oversize Material (Box 86-88, OS Folders 1-6) is arranged by size and type of material.

Series 9: Objects (Box 89-100, Item 2) is listed as boxed for preservation purposes.


Gift of Joan and David Trushin and Joshua Isaacs, December 2020. A digital copy of The Knowledge Box and Marie and Henry films was donated by Barbara Isaacs in 2014 and 2022, respectively.

Other Copies

Digital access copies of the films "The Knowledge Box" and "Marie + Henry" are available.

Select items from the collection have been digitized and are available online in Digital Collections.

Related Materials

Cranbrook Academy of Art Administration Records (1981-09), Cranbrook Academy of Art Exhibition Publications (1998-05), Cranbrook Academy of Art Office of the Registrar (1990-19), Cranbrook Academy of Art Student News Publications (1998-05c), Cranbrook Art Museum Exhibition Records (2013-05)

Isaacs' Academy of Art thesis is in the holdings of Cranbrook Academy of Art Library.

Separated Materials

OS folders of drawings are housed in flat file storage cabinets.

Box 85 (audio reels and VHS tapes) and the motion picture film, "Marie + Henry," were transferred to AV storage.

Processing Information

Processed and finding aid written by Meredith Counts, August 2022.


Guide to the Kenneth Dale Isaacs Papers
Meredith Counts
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research Repository