By Valerie Andrews
We now regard any change in the home—whether it’s downsizing, renovating or reorganizing—as a rite of passage, a fresh start that comes with a built-in guarantee of happiness, like changing careers or falling in love. Yet these activities are fluid, rich, expansive, and our approach to the home has grown static, minimalist, restrictive. It’s no wonder we are often disappointed with the results of our tinkering.
The novelist Rachel Cusk writes about her own stark do-over in Coventry, a book of essays about family, gender and the politics of home. At the beginning of the project, she longs for a blank slate, a kind of mystical transcendence that can only be achieved through the greatest sacrifice—of money, memory and creature comforts. “I threw away decades worth of clutter and keepsakes and old furniture; with what at times seems like magic and at others sheer violence,” Cusk confesses, “I caused the past to be obliterated and put something new, something of my choosing in its place.”
When all is said and done, this renovation leaves her feeling vulnerable and undefended. “Everywhere I looked, I now seemed to see a hidden part of myself that was publicly exposed. The numberless, private decisions I had made, from the colors on the walls to the bathroom taps, were exhibited for all to see. What’s more, the very people—my family and friends—for whom this vision was realized threatened by their presence to defile it.”
After a great expenditure of time and money, and personal inconvenience — living with dust and plaster and punched out walls — Cusk feels strangely unmoored. “We were both more and less ourselves in that (new) undistinguished space,” she writes. “Less burdened but less anchored too, for nothing gave us back an image of ourselves.”
This is a cautionary tale, one that brings us face to face with our own ambivalence about sudden changes in the home. Before we start the process of stripping down, it’s a good idea stop and ask ourselves, What portion of our lives are we’re dissatisfied with? And what is it we’re really trying to fix?
Who gets to define the home
Our childhood patterns are a good place to begin. Growing up, Cusk moved often and grew used to living in transition. Each relocation “came on the heels of some major life accomplishment, as though once some aim in life was fulfilled, home had to abandoned and then forged anew. It was the perfecting of our environment that was causing (our family) to leave it, as though living there had been a process of contribution that was now complete.”
This rhythm dictates the way Cusk runs her household today. Once she starts to feel too comfortable, she feels impelled to shake things up, to put herself at risk. This need to be “on the edge” leads her to move to a challenging neighborhood, to choose less than ideal living spaces, to opt for change over stability.
Instead of moving, this time Cusk opts for a remodel, testing her ability—and her family’s—to handle deprivation (no working kitchen, no place free of noise or dust). As the project comes to a close, one can see the light go on in the corner of her mind. While attempting to make the house into a work of art, she has lost touch with the art of living.
When this essay on the perils of renovating was excerpted in The New York Times, it hit a collective nerve. Readers zeroed in on what happens when one person imposes her obsession on other family members. All agreed, a renovation should not be a power-trip, a winner-takes-all proposition nor should one person get to pick the personality of the house. What’s more, many believed that our mania for home improvement had gotten out of hand.
Dorothy Potter Snyder, of Durham, North Carolina traced Cusk’s misfortunes to our constant hype and marketing of home. “I am an American and I live in a culture of house shows, love it or leave it shows and intense materialism in which style is neither personal nor creative,” she wrote, “but rather a kind of soda-pop, imbibed from an endless wash of advertisements disguised as entertainment. The robot public, convinced that it will never be happy until all the appliances are stainless steel, all the countertops granite, all the ground floor open concept…shops its way to a fragile sense of adequacy. As the author’s final walk through her flower-strewn mausoleum of a home indicates, the preoccupation with home décor is an obsession no more healthy than (the one) with thinness.”
Here we have a good description of the anorexic home. The kind with gray tones, polished surfaces, and bright lights, that stagers tend to favor when preparing a home for sale. A space so overly curated often resembles a high-end boutique with five gossamer items on the rack and not a speck of color anywhere.
Other readers worried about the physical dangers of decorating. One New Yorker cautioned, “You don’t have to be rich to know the shame of compulsive domesticating. In Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich…a lawyer buys his dream house…and in a frenzy of redecorating, falls and injures himself while hanging a curtain rod. As the months go by, the bump leads to a little pain, then more, then doctors, different diagnoses, treatments and finally agony and death. Ivan thinks back to that excited and hopeful time, only months ago, when he was decorating the house. ‘It really is so! I lost my life over that curtain, as I might have done when storming a fort.’”
But homes that were packed to the brim came in for criticism, too. Overdone houses are like museums, said Hartley Leiber of Portland, Oregon. “Both (my) parents were collectors. My mom’s thing was art and furniture and rugs (while) my dad’s thing was coins, gold and silver bars, watches…The living room was the main display case. As kids, we learned how to navigate the rooms, careful to avoid hearing, ‘Get out of here or put that down!’ We recently moved my mother into assisted living…and I got my fair share of her material possessions. I have them in the basement. Boxed. (When) the real estate agent staged the house, all of my parent’s stuff was put in storage. Before the closing I slept in a staged (house), in my sleeping bag. I never felt so free.”
Jake Larson of Salt Lake City was sure that he and his wife would have the perfect life once they finished assembling the perfect home.
“When (we) finally saved up enough to buy a modest condo, we were excited to make it a reflection of us,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, this translated into agonizing over the simplest of decisions. The HGTV shows made it seem so fun. The reality: It was anything but. The novelty soon wore off. I began to resent that what free time I had on the weekend was spent trekking around town to find the perfect accent pillows. When we finally got it just right–it looked like something out of a Pottery Barn catalogue—we were reluctant to live in it. We sold our dream condo shortly after, freeing ourselves from the tyranny of living in a showcase.”
This brings us back to our main question: What do we expect from a house? How does it reflect the hopes and dreams of the people who live in it? And how do we achieve a sense of harmony and balance?
Design as a form of detente
Setting up a household is a collective act, forged from endless rounds of compromise and collaboration. After living solo for many years, I moved in with my fiancee S. and his young son. We found a house, gutted and remodeled it, but the real challenge was making sure the decor reflected our divergent tastes and personalities.
A former auctioneer at Christie’s South Kensington, S. had his own highly-honed aesthetic. Among his treasures were an Elizabethan chest on stand, and some important but gloomy portraits of Alexander Pope and Mary, Queen of Scots. In our bedroom was an imposing picture of Floyer Sydenham, the first English translator of Plato. S. also had a collection of antiquarian books and rare Persian rugs that could not be exposed to sunlight.
To all this seriousness, I brought a bright blue Shaker hutch, a pale linen couch, some watercolors of Paris and Salzbourg and sketches of the French wine country. S’s somber taste was countered by my affinity for things light and airy. His eight-year-old son contributed a sense of whimsy—selecting the bathroom tiles based on early fossils, lining his bedroom with books and skateboard trophies, and covering his door with a collage from Thrasher magazine.
What ultimately made this household work? Our public space was nicely integrated, while each of us had a room of our own to decorate as we pleased. For us, home was a constant conversation, an artful interweaving of our different personalities and desires. Only once you make room for all of that individuality can you get the balance right.
For many, making a comfortable home is a lifelong vocation. “The house a woman creates is a Utopia,” said the French novelist Marguerite Duras. “She can’t help it—can’t help trying to interest her nearest and dearest not in happiness itself, but in the search for it.” Here, design is about process, not end result.
Duras believed that making a home is like building a cathedral—a quest to achieve some state of being that remains just beyond our grasp. It’s a heroic commitment, not for the faint of heart. But Duras was of a different generation, one that knew war and deprivation, and saw a comfortable and well-stocked home as a bulwark against hard times.
Today our goal is to pare down our living space so that it makes few demands on us. In The Longing for Less, critic Kyle Chayka says this brand of minimalism is related to a longing for systemic change:
“The spasm of getting rid of everything is like an exorcism of the past, clearing the way for a new future of pristine simplicity,” he writes. “It represents a decisive break. No longer will we depend on the accumulation of stuff to bring us happiness – we will instead be content with the things we have consciously decided to keep, the things that represent our ideal selves. By owning fewer things, we might be able to construct new identities through selective curation.”
The question is, Will we do the inner work?
Minimalism started out as an art movement based on extreme simplicity of form, Chayka notes. Yet it has morphed into a form of consumerism — bolstered by the idea that less is better, more sophisticated, and somehow more moral and more pure.
In 1982, Steve Jobs, master of the sleek design, was photographed in his Silicon Valley living room with no furniture, sitting on a rug with his stereo in a corner. “All you needed,” he said, “was a cup of tea, a light, and your stereo.” The lamp, however, was Tiffany and the stereo would cost about $8,200 today.
According to his biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs was so careful with his purchases that it took him eight years to furnish a house he bought in 1991. When he finally bought a washer & dryer, a lamp, a TV, or a radio, it was because he’d found a design he truly admired.
Yet this minimalist philosophy can backfire, as well. When the architect Philip Johnson moved into in the glass house he’d designed in New Canaan, CT, he found it unlivable. At night, the interior lights turned the glass walls into a reflective surface. Calling his contractor in a panic, Johnson protested, “All I can see is me, me, me!” The next day he installed exterior lighting to put his focus on the trees.
This is where we are as a culture. Instead of reflecting our relationship to nature, our houses have become oddly solipsistic, and our dwellings, a stark assessment of how we feel about ourselves.
What's behind our longing for less
Americans embraced minimalism to counteract the Age of Throwaway and what The Atlantic magazine so presciently called “the tyranny of things.” But it was also a reaction to the Victorian era, when the drawing room resembled a dusty diorama in a Museum of Natural History and the parlor served as a showcase for vast and varied collections (butterflies, rocks, taxidermy, samovars and ottomans—souvenirs from the far reaches of the British Empire). Everything was overstuffed, from the sofa to the boar’s head on the wall. Rooms were dark and musty, trim painted a deep green or black, the wallpaper carnivorous, and drapes heavy as a pall. (Virginia Woolf referred to the second storey of her childhood home in Kensington, muffled in crimson velvet, as “the red gloom.”)
Then early in the 20th century, designers in Europe and America embraced Edith Wharton’s sun-drenched rooms. In The Decoration of Houses, she stressed light walls and simple lines, liberating the house from decades of formality and fustiness.
Artists, too, sought a new kind of freedom. Cubism began moving closer and closer toward abstraction and by midcentury, painters like Agnes Martin were producing large monotone canvases that were Zen-like meditations on light and space.
Minimalism is about turning inward, looking at our own experience rather than at the surfaces of things. But artists didn’t always apply this philosophy to their living space. The sculptor Donald Judd, who made steel boxes and polished rectangles, had so much stuff (a collection of Navajo blankets, old newspapers, and works by other artists) that he easily filled two airplane hangars at his compound in Marfa, Texas.
Picasso who so gracefully distilled a subject to a single line, also appears to have been a hoarder. While his studio was tidy, a new exhibit at The Royal Academy reveals that his villa in Cannes was crammed with scrolls of paper, boxes, and jars of paint.
Art may be about simplicity — but the surroundings in which we make it are often crowded and complex.
The same dialectic applies to our domestic lives. A house must accommodate our need for order yet it must also welcome the messy process of creation — the piles of books and files, the music and the craft supplies — and have at least one area suitable for sprawling conversations.
What we are longing for in the age of Kondo is not more white walls and pristine closets. We are hungering for a place that stimulates the imagination and inspires us to grow. The ablest and best designers help us to achieve that.
Researching the origins of minimalism, Chayka made a pilgrimage to a Riyoan-ji, a rock garden in Kyoto dating back to the fifteenth century. “What I saw was dramatic simplicity side by side with unruly life,” he reports.
“There was a peacefulness to the garden, as if it has accepted every one of its visitors’ interpretations and was content simply to persist. I felt a kind of joy at how the aesthetics of absence could be found at the heart of life’s drama, rather than separate from it, raucous instead of quiet, warm instead of cold, with nary a white wall in sight.”
A balance between rest and stimulation is what we are seeking in our homes. So keep this caveat in mind when you are renovating. Rooms should be flexible and forgiving—embracing us at our ordered best and our chaotic worst. They should be easy to tidy up and capable of absorbing our creative clutter. Above all, they should helps us to embrace the spontaneity of life.
Six Questions to Ask Before Minimizing
It pays to do a little introspection before you make any changes in your living quarters.
The following checklist will remind you why we have the word interior in interior design.
And if you have no downsizing or alterations planned, it will help you to evaluate how comfortable you feel in your current home.
1. Consider what home meant to you as you were growing up. Are you recreating a space that gave you comfort? Or rebelling against the rooms you were raised in?
2. What do you want to change in your life and how do you want that to be reflected in your home?
3. Are you a serial perfecter like Marguerite Duras, intent on making regular changes and improvements? Or a minimalist like Steve Jobs who needs home to be as simple as possible?
4. Does your space make room for other people’s needs and interests? Are changes made by personal fiat or are they a collective effort?
5. Do you have one place for introversion and another for festive celebrations? How does your home stimulate the intellect, the senses, the emotions? Allow you to imagine the future?
6. Does your home reflect the seasons and ground you in the natural world?
Make Your Home Organic, Not Perfect
Our impulse to simplify often does away with old-fashioned comforts—the carpet that reliably muffles noise, the soft lights that are kind to the complexion, the mounds of lawless but intriguing clutter. Yet we are deeply distressed when our possessions overtake us and we feel like we’re losing control of our surroundings. A major redo that requires us to take truckloads to the dump is our therapy of choice.
If you’ve gone through these binge-purge cycles in the home, be gentle with yourself. Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers. It’s in our nature to assemble, display and collect things, from shells and bones, to funky chairs and abstract sculpture. But we also programmed to de-accession things. Our early ancestors periodically decamped and left their household goods behind— they didn’t have to contend with years of accumulation in the garage, with overflowing basements and storage units.
For tens of thousands of years, home was a movable feast, tied to natural cycles of scarcity and abundance. Today, a combination of factors — economic cycles, rising housing costs, job changes and major life transitions, from expanding families to retirement — require us to shed our shells and build our lives anew.
As Renzo Piano has said, “One of the great beauties of architecture is that each time, it is like life starting all over again.” This should be the feeling you have when you walk through the front door, that home is your haven and your sanctuary, and whatever challenges may lie ahead, you’ll have the strength to see things through.
A home should be designed around our perceptions and emotions and reflect our search for balance in the world at large. So it’s best to abandon any ideas of perfection. “Good architecture is like a good therapy session, a good marriage, a good poem – gently and almost invisibly allowing you to be you,” says critic Robert Sullivan, “as flawed and as beautiful as you are.”
Valerie Andrews is the founder and Chief Storyteller of Reinventing Home.
Coventry by Rachel Cusk
The Longing for Less by Kyle Chayka