Ending The Day Well
How a visit to a famous designer’s studio got me thinking about the way artists and creatives end their working day
The studio was a large, two-storey covered industrial space – vast open white walls, with a small improvised lounge area near the entrance, a kitchen and washroom near the back and wooden stairs that ran along a side wall to a mezzanine that functioned as a bedroom. The centre of the space, under the expanse of a high open ceiling, contained a huge worktable. During the day we sat around it, working, thinking drawing, sketching, chatting. Then late in the afternoon all the papers were cleared, the pens and brushes put away, and, as the plates, glasses and sparkling wine came out, the worktable became a dining table.
In 2015 I got to hang out in James Victore’s studio in Brooklyn. A lot of things stood out during the week, but perhaps what left the deepest impression was the way James ended each day. His studio was also his home and the centrepiece was this vast wooden table. During the day this desk would be home to all sorts of activity – ideas were sketched; text was drawn; work was scanned, assembled and reassembled; stories were told – everything that goes into the life of a busy professional design studio.
But, at a point in the late afternoon, it would be time to pack up. All the ‘work stuff’ went away. It wasn’t architecture-magazine minimalism, but there were places for the brushes and pens and paper to go and a clear sense that the working day was done.
Then the desk became a table – the snacks and drinks came out, taking the place of the working day’s tools. It was more than just a veneer of socialisation; it felt like a ritual.
Part of why it made such an impression is because back then my working days didn’t really end. Sure, at some point I would feel forced to run up to the kitchen, cook and assemble a meal. But I never really switched off and shut down in any formal sense. Sometimes I would step away from the cooker to go back to my desk to do ‘a little more’ writing, editing or some other kind of work. After dinner I might slink back to work, trying to pick up the pieces and finish what I could.
My working days didn’t so much end as fall apart.
A generation ago, office and factory work often institutionalised the shutdown ritual – the shift ended, the clock was punched, it was time to go home. But when I ask friends who work in creative jobs, especially freelancers, and especially freelancers who work from home, the idea of a shutdown ritual, a clear mark in the day, every day, where work ends, feels odd, quaint, or simply unattainable.
It’s ironic that James’s shutdown ritual had such an impact, since at that time the rest of my days had some pretty good structure about them. I’ve written before about my work blocks that helped me stay organised and focused for many years and also gave me time in the afternoons to spend with my daughter when she came home from school. But the end of the day was something I never thought about.
Which is odd because, looking back, it was often the most trying part of the day. Being stressed out by how to end your day when things have gone unexpectedly wrong might be understandable. But being troubled by it day in and day out is crazy, like being taken by surprise when the sun rises!
My shutdown ritual is still very much a work in progress. I don’t want email and the internet in my evenings anymore, so I give time to them in the late afternoon and try to leave them there, though I fall off the wagon from time to time. I’ve been better at ‘clearing the desk’ and I’ve taken to writing by hand the tasks I want to carry on from this day to the next. I’ve also taken to downing a drink, maybe a fresh lime soda, a herbal tea, or even just a glass of water, and saying to myself, ‘The day is done’, then taking a moment to reflect on what got accomplished, and who helped me along the way.