How have I lived this way for this long? I feel like I don’t even know you.
This week, plunked down at home during social distancing, it’s not just spouses and partners people are questioning — it’s home itself.
For those who are used to spending much of their day outside the home, the domestic space may have previously served a handful of basic functions, as a backdrop. Last week my hair stylist admitted via text on his eighth day of self-quarantine that it was the longest stretch he’d stayed in his house in 23 years. I had only been at mine for longer during maternity leave.
For those with a desire — and the resources — to connote a certain kind of idyllic domesticity, the home’s function was primarily determined by aesthetics. This or that design layout is how a nice home “should” look, according to social media.
But shoulds are unhelpful at a time when the demands on the home have increased exponentially: Dining tables are doubling as classrooms. Living rooms are home offices. Kitchens that ably moved takeout dinners and microwaved plates are now bracing through three meals and three snacks a day. The sofa, once only for Netflix and occasional guests, is now the site of back-to-back Zoom sessions. (Followed by Netflix.)
If you’re fortunate enough to be unburdened by stressors such as illness, caring for sick relatives or job loss, it’s a good time to ask: Is this place working for me? Are my needs being met? Is my home with me or against me?
But those aren’t the questions people have been taught to ask about their home. Instead, the Pinterest-Instagram-HGTV-Airbnb hype machine has positioned the dwelling as, at best, a personal style statement and, at worst, an investment or moneymaker. It’s no wonder many people are ill prepared for the oddly daunting challenge at hand of simply staying put for longer than expected.
The Magnolia Home empire and the upscale furnishing company Restoration Hardware have most likely influenced the aesthetic and home spending of more Americans than any other brand or movement in recent years, despite the fact that most people don’t live with five kids on 40 acres of land in a central Texas town as the founders Mangolia Homes’ founders, Chip and Joanna Gaines, do. The two aesthetics are merely variations on a theme: White walls or white linen, to exude purity and luxury; rustic touches like barnwood surfaces to feel, well, homey.
The remaining sector of aspirational home decorating design showcases the West Village townhouses of models and art advisers — Federal-style, but with the back sheared off and replaced with plate glass, and a batty array of pattern-on-pattern as if to say, “We’re fearless — see?”
Media driven by startlingly eye-catching images simply reinforces the idea that rooms are for looking at. But they’re not. Rooms are for living in. Honed-stone countertops and proportionally correct furniture layouts aren’t giving us what we need.
Photogenic rooms — the ones on TV, the ones double-tapped on Instagram — are not always comfortable. And comfortable rooms don’t always present well onscreen. Inspiration is terrific — essential, even — but don’t let a great room get in the way of good living.
In my former role as the editor in chief of House Beautiful magazine and in my work since, I championed the idea of prescriptive home design: the idea that the decisions you make for your home can and should support your goals. Family rooms can be designed to help make family time possible, bedrooms can be arranged to prioritize restorative sleep, and kitchens with the goal of eating healthier food. And rooms can serve a soul-enriching purpose, be it a space with layers of personal affects or a nook with a field of joyful color.
What this time calls for is flexibility and imagination — not keeping up with the Joneses, not stylistic cartwheels. Just small comforts. A home to bend to your will and not the other way around.
Loosen up. Drag a chair and a side table (or stack of books) to the sunniest spot in your home. Have a partner or roommate you enjoy? Bring a second chair. Give in to the dining-table-as-work-station, but put work-related things in a bin on the floor when you eat. Out of sight, out of mind.
Multitasking with small children around? Bring their favorite toys to the kitchen or nearby — they play, you cook. Swap art from one wall to another. Swap light bulbs and make one room moodier and another brighter. Rotate your living room furniture by 180 degrees. Is the sofa not facing the TV anymore? Even better. Encourage TV watchers (or yourself) to stretch on the floor while taking in the news; either you’ll get limber or you’ll find you watch a lot less TV. Pin up a piece of fabric, a tablecloth or a blanket for a Zoom background. A change of scenery is essential.
“The living space is never unfinished and never finished. It lives with those who live within,” said the Swedish designer Josef Frank. The point is: Try anything. Surprise your eyes. Change your foot-traffic patterns. Become reacquainted with your place.
Remember, nothing is permanent. This, too, shall pass. But you might just find that your improvisation is an improvement.
Sophie Donelson (@Sophiedow) is an author, editor and public speaker.
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