Pocket Doors Are Making a Comeback—Discover Their Unique History

Invented during the Victorian era, these room-separating, disappearing doors seemingly vanished (literally) into a design abyss. Their resurgence says a thing or two about the death of the open floor plan.

If you're a homeowner working with a smaller space, your contractor might suggest incorporating pocket doors into your floor plan. Somewhat similar to sliding doors, these room separators disappear into the wall (or their "pocket") when fully open, allowing you to maximize the area instead of having to navigate around a hinged door that swings back and forth, eating up ample square footage. In other words, pocket doors provide the spacious benefits of an open floor plan, but quickly become a barrier when privacy is needed. "Pocket doors are ideal for compact spaces, such as closets, bathrooms, home offices, pantries, and even laundry rooms," says Zoe Warren, an interiors expert at PriceYourJob. They're also a great design element, adds Laura A. Suglia-Isgro of KAS Interior Design—especially when it comes to hosting gatherings. Being able to expand a space for better entertaining, just by sliding open a door that can then be hidden, is a major benefit, she says.

Still, as convenient as pocket doors may seem, their popularity has fluctuated since they got their start in the Victorian era. The original design often resulted in a cumbersome, noisy, and flimsy final product, so they became a less common home feature over time. Fast forward to today, however, and we're seeing their resurgence, thanks to technological advancements and improved mechanics. To better understand their unique history and their function, we tapped our design experts; ahead, everything you need to know about pocket doors.

Victorian Invention

Pocket doors were first incorporated into the home space in the United States and England during the 1850s, or the Victorian era, notes Warren, yet these sliding dividers didn't peak in popularity until the 1880s, when technology and installation methods improved their function, making them ideal for entertaining. According to Holly Witten of Holly Witten Designs, "A pocket door allowed for a flow between the parlor and dining area, and then closed the rooms for more intimate gatherings in each space at different points in the evening." You won't only find pocket doors in 19th-century homes, though: They experienced an even bigger boom in the 1950s—specifically in post-war housing developments that were built quickly with smaller square footage, Warren notes. "Saving space was a necessity for most homes during the post-war building rush," she explains, so space-maximizing pocket doors were architecturally ideal.

Falling Out of Favor

Less-than-perfect mechanics ultimately turned homeowners and contractors away from pocket doors, first with the advent of hinged iterations in the 1920s (before their post-war resurgence) and again during the 1980s housing boom (when they seemingly fell out of the picture for good). Carrie Leskowitz, the founder of Carrie Leskowitz Interiors and author of Om for the Home ($21.95, barnesandnoble.com), puts it simply: "Pocket doors were noisy and broke easily."

Some of the biggest cons of pocket door construction? At the time, they used a track on the floor to slide in and out of the wall. "That was a huge tripping and cleaning hazard," say designers Mark Cutler and Nichole Schulze of cutlerschuze. Then, during the '80s housing boom, faulty mechanics worsened as builders worked as rapidly and cheaply as possible to keep up with demand. "At this point, pocket doors were ready-made and available at hardware stores, then often not adjusted correctly during installation. They had trouble rolling right in their tracks, so almost immediately, homeowners had trouble—and word spread," explains Suglia-Isgro.

sliding pocket doors living rom
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The Comeback

When technology progressed, so did pocket door mechanics. Technical improvements helped designers and homeowners appreciate the benefits of disappearing doors—this is especially true now, during the decline of the open floor plan (homeowners are putting up walls again, designating one space from the next). "Better technology allows the doors to slide on rollers suspended from an overhead track, as opposed to a track system on the floor," Leskowitz says, noting that this eliminates the tripping hazard. They are also constructed with much lighter material, which makes them easier to operate. Solid wood has since been replaced with medium density fiberboard (MDF), according to Witten. With these advancements, these dividers are celebrated once again. 'The space saving advantages of a pocket door will always make it a popular choice," says Leskowitz, "and the handsome design options lend themselves to any environment."

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