Just over a year ago, my partner and I moved house. Radically different from what we’d lived in before, it required a big rethink of how we wanted the space to be. And it was more than that: moving house was something I’d done a dozen or so times before, but this time it was about making home.
This was great. I adore design. I work in a design-focused company and write a blog about craft, design, and aesthetics. I hang out with people who venerate “Design”. (Cue grand music.) As a result I consume an endless succession of shelter magazines, blogs and books and my head is daily filled with beautiful spaces, places, and things. I have a sense of my own style. I have opinions. So doing my own space would be easy, and even better, an utter joy.
Well, you see where this is going.
I became unduly obsessed with the idea of “designing” home. Being trained to solve problems in a reasonably linear manner, I should, I thought, have a grand vision for the space: a quick two word sound bite of what our “style” was, something I could execute against, quickly, and make the house a home. Hey presto.
The small moments that matter
I followed all the old conventional wisdom. My head spun with the images of pages torn from magazines, Pinterest pins, snaps of store vignettes, stylist/blogger “advice”. “Style” tests informed me I was variously contemporary zen, or contemporary industrial. (What on earth does contemporary mean?) Suggestions that I “decorate” the way I dress was laughable: unremitting black is not exactly my roadmap to creating a home.
Some days, it seemed that sense would only be quelled by just doing something – anything – which meant, of course, buying something. So we did, only to have it arrive and realize it just didn’t work. Which of course just reinforced my sense of inadequacy. Why couldn’t I figure this out? What was my problem?
It didn’t help that well-meaning friends would persist in asking whether it was “done”. There was also an additional occupational hazard: various editor friends who’d ask when the house would be ready to feature. Ego started whispering in one ear. Anxiety whispered in the other.
So I pinned faster. Clipped more furiously. And fretted, oh how I fretted.
And then the light bulb finally flickered on. I had completely bought into the whole design industrial complex, the one that promises fast perfection, the one that has easy styling rules, even though I know better. Where was the pleasure in all this? Where was the joy? All that “wisdom” and all those “rules” only work for magazine and styling shoots, and for decorators and stylists who need to have a “process” to walk their clients through.
What it didn’t work for was creating a home that’s about substance not style, art not artifice, soul not surface.
So here are my rules on design. Or rather, my non-rules.
1. Slow down. As a society, we want it all, and we want it fast. Even me. Especially me. Yes, I, lover of the idea of slow, struggle mightily with the reality.
But making a home just does not, should not, and cannot happen fast. Creating a space where you can feel the soul and the love and the identity of the people living there takes decades not months or a year. The best homes are the ones that bear the imprint of lives well lived.
Should you need it, there’s even solid data to support the notion that slower decision making is better decision making. And it’s cheaper (see above.)
But whatever you do, don’t invite the relatives over for Christmas. Fake deadlines create all kinds of bad decisions.
2. Yeah yeah yeah, but…Faced with empty rooms, telling yourself to slow down and let it happen is akin to being on a diet and craving chocolate. You will give in. And it will be ugly. Some ways that worked for us:
Trick your eye. The home design equivalent of drinking lots of water to fill yourself up is to invest in plants. Lots of them. They’re great for filling multiple corners and areas, adding a sense of fullness and abundance, and they don’t break the bank.
Another way is to trick the eye with light. So often, light is an accessory, an afterthought. But lighting is magical and powerful, creating mood and atmosphere, that all-important (for us) sense of coziness and warmth. It’s also imbued with an ability to carve and sculpt space – which you’d otherwise need to rely on furniture, artwork or even walls to do. We have cans on floors hidden behind furniture, lights nestled in between books, under cabinets, etc. Similarly, we found that because we had so much light during the day, we needed to sculpt that light as well. In came in solar shades that not only helped modulate the light but let us frame the view as well.
Buy that wildly impractical thing you love. Do this, even at the expense of other functional things. In fact buy one thing that’s over the top wonderful, the thing you’ve always wanted, even if it’s, well, goofy,
I had always wanted a bar cart: somewhere in my head, it was something that was the height of Mad Men sophistication, something decadent, certainly not something you put at the top of your list of things to buy for the house. We still had all our books piled up on the floor, ceramics in boxes, and outdoor chairs in the living room. But my smart and long-suffering better half got me one for my birthday.
Well, that bar cart saved my sanity: it was the first thing that really made the house feel like home. It had personality, it had our collections of booze, silver, and ephemera, it had life. It had us.
Get yourself what you really want
3. Trust yourself. This is about home: your home. It’s not a showplace. It’s not something bound for a magazine or a blog post. It’s you. Stop listening to the design industrial complex and to other people’s rules.
Stop looking for that unified theory. That really was my big problem: I kept clinging to the notion that if I could just come up with a clear “style”, that grand theory for the space, everything would be easier.
My unified theory did arrive, ultimately. It took the form of a quote by designer Josef Frank in 1958, who said,
“There’s nothing wrong with mixing old and new, with combining different furniture styles, colors and patterns. Anything that is in your taste will automatically fuse to form an entire, relaxing environment. A home does not need to be planned down to the smallest detail or contrived; it should be an amalgamation of the things that its owner loves and feels at home with.”
In other words: fill your home with what you love. You are the unified theory. I cannot begin to tell you how comforting this was.
We all know – deep, deep down – what’s right. It’s just that it’s more likely to be a feeling than anything specific. Let that be OK. We were centered on keeping it real. We’re absolutely allergic to contrivance, to that forced feeling you get with over-decorated and staged spaces. We want ease, soul, intimacy and of course, pleasures of all types. Patina yes. Great materials, always. But nothing more specific than that.
Trust me on this: being rigorous about making sure you truly do love something is the key. A space gets muddied, off course, when other voices come in, whether they’re the voices of expedience, practicality, “taste” or your favorite blogger. Stay true.
That being said, stay loose. We all have our very specific biases, a long list of what we like, or don’t like. Or rather, what we THINK we like and don’t like. As it is with falling in love, it’s nice to have some idea of your taste, but even more important to avoid rigidity. I always used to be very clear that I hated antiques and vintage. Over the years, I amended that to allowing antiques and vintage that I’d inherited but absolutely no one else’s history. I recently found myself completely breaking with that rule buying an antique English hat stand for the bowler hat I’d inherited from my father. Intellectually it was the farthest thing from what I would ever try. But seeing it tugged something in my heart and out came the credit card. Besides, just try buying a modern hat stand: they’re hideous.
Inspiration that’s real
4. Practice Obliquity. A few years back, there was a great book about life written by an economist named John Kay. It was called Obliquity, and its subtitle–Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly–has always resonated with me.
Do something – anything – else. Take up a hobby you’ve always been curious about. Binge watch Narcos or Homeland (but not Downton Abbey: too much visual stimulation there). Watch LA Story. Read about quantum mechanics (not that I’ve tried that one). Travel. Meditate. Learn harmonica. Think serendipity, letting go. For us, this involved working on the garage: we now have a marvelously well organized garage, thank you very much. If you simply MUST explore the world of design, read the more thoughtful books out there: Ilsa Crawford’s Frame for Life, and (here’s the most unlikely one) The Monocle Guide to Cosy Homes (particularly the essays up front).
Relax, get less anxious, and good things will happen. Put one foot in front of the other and things come to you: you pass a store you’d never seen before, or someone gives you a gift that inspires, or an errant phrase triggers a way of seeing your space. Just wait.
Breaking the “rules”
5. OK I lied. There is one firm rule. Listen to what the space wants to be: every space has its own personality. Architecture and context should be the starting place for inspiration, not something to hide. There should be congruence between inside and out.
I’ve always been put off by people who do things like turning their Victorians into modernist white boxes, slapping on glass and concrete box at the back. Not that living in a Victorian should consign you to living in a profusion of gew gaws, fainting couches and silver service, but there should at least be a common language of some type that is emotional and actually understandable by a layman and not just some post-hoc architect’s rationalization. You did pick your apartment/house for a reason: play with that, not against it.
Now this can create problems. We loved our new house – more traditional than the last – with its big open spaces, the golden California light that pours in through the scaled-large windows that look out on staggeringly vast, makes-you-believe-in-a-higher-power skies and dramatic canyon views.
But this flowed counter to our love of dark and cozy and to all the images I’d torn out of magazines in those early days: all dark, moody urban interiors with Northern European blue light. Not much fit there.
So we (OK I) needed to open our (my) mind(s) a bit to respect the house, respect the space, respect what drove us.
In yet another example of breaking my own rules (to wit “I don’t care about rugs and Persian rugs aren’t my thing”), I fell in love with a mammoth Persian rug that’s all about the blues and soft gold: colors I’d never thought of before, but which matched the color of the sky and the tone of the light. With it, our living room started to fall into place.
Ditto fighting my instincts about scale and space: years of apartment living and multiple moves had taught me to think small. Because of the space I’m in (both physically and metaphorically), I’m now all about thinking big. Too many small things = clutter, and while bringing something big into our space feels like a big commitment … well, shouldn’t it be? Now I’m about making big statements, as long as they’re my own.
So there you have it: my non-rules. Is my house done? Flippin’ hell no. As a particularly wonderful decorator friend once said to me, “A good house is never done.” I used to think that “done” was just a comment about “completion” but I think it’s also about contrivance.
But more importantly, am I having fun? Yes. The idea of inspiration for inspiration’s sake is back. The sense of looseness and no attachments is back. The sense of adventure and joie de vivre and pleasure are back.
I don’t want my home to be done because, god knows, I’m not done with being and evolving and learning. But I do want it to feel like home, and I think slowly, more than a year into it, it’s started to feel that way.
It’s not about the “stuff”
And by the way, never ask your friends who’ve recently (in the last 10 years) moved house whether they’re “done” yet. And despite the fact that we love you for caring: it’s a buzzkill.