Simple Rooms – Simple Spaces
We all seem to be obsessed with decluttering our lives and the clean minimalist look is very much in fashion. But the path to getting the look we want might well involve asking what the rooms we live in are for.
‘What is a room for?’ might feel like a very odd question. Clearly, our bedrooms have beds in them, lounge-rooms are for lounging (I guess) and kitchens are, of course, for kitchen-ing – or maybe that’s cooking. Simple.
Except, these days, all those spaces are, thanks to the wonders of portable technology, places where we might be doing work, or study, or any of the myriad places we let our pocket-sized portals transport our minds to.
Of course, even before this tech era the lines were blurred. Lots of kids grew up doing their homework on the kitchen table; many small businesses started in people’s lounge-rooms; bedrooms often doubled as home fitness centres; and, perhaps the most sacred of all (for me at least), the garage regularly doubling as a music studio.
Starting To Think About Room Purposes
It was after moving to Singapore in 2011 that I started to think seriously about what rooms are for. I’d spent the previous five years living in a small Hong Kong apartment. OK, by Hong Kong standards, it wasn’t small – it was kind of luxurious actually – but it was small compared to anywhere else I’d lived, not a lot bigger than the aforementioned garage in my childhood home.
But in Singapore I found myself in a small house, with the relatively few possessions we’d brought from Hong Kong and also reunited with belongings from the farmhouse I’d called home in India, things locked away in storage during the Hong Kong years.
Suddenly, I found myself with all sorts of problems. The furniture that had worked well in an Indian farmhouse made no sense in a Singaporean townhouse. I had books with no bookcases, covered outdoor spaces with nothing to sit on, corners and alcoves with nothing to light them.
It’s easy to think the answers are in a catalogue or magazine but, while shopping was part of the solution, the real answers come from asking what kind of life these spaces might lend themselves to and how life would evolve in them.
How Rooms Think For Us
The book that helped me think about this was Winifred Gallagher’s House Thinking: A Room By Room Look At How We Live, which I mentioned in earlier blogposts here and here. The book surveys the way rooms have changed over time and the how various ideas, from the arts and crafts movement to the industrialisation of food and, of course, women’s rights, have had an impact on the design of our homes.
Gallagher’s idea is that our home is like an external brain, with different rooms designed around ‘environmental cues’, generating quite specific kinds of feelings and emotions. The well-designed home doesn’t just reflect someone’s tastes; it reflects the kind of relationship they want to their life, the people around them, and even their memories and past experiences.
“From this environmental-behavioural perspective, the first step toward a home that’s just right for you isn’t leafing through magazines or collecting paint chips but listing the things that you’ve loved and hated in past and present homes, and the activities that are and aren’t important in your daily life.”
In many ways, our homes think for us; each room has in it clues about how we should behave and what we might expect from visitors. Compare the great hall of a castle to the living room in most people’s homes. Or consider how the kitchen of a serious cook who makes meals every day often has a vibe that’s palpably different from a kitchen belonging to someone who only reheats and plates takeout.
What Do Our Rooms Say About Us?
If the rooms in your home could talk, what would they say? Maybe they’d say ‘Clean me’, but let’s not focus on guilt and focus instead on what they might invite you to do.
I mentioned the farmhouse where I lived in India. The living room of that house was big, stark, with white walls and grand windows. It had a fireplace, but no TV, with a few pieces of modernist furniture scattered about. When we had parties (something I did then but never do now), guests would almost avoid the living room at first. But, as time passed, you’d see folks carry a drink in there to sit and chat. That’s really all the room was for – talking.
The deckchairs on the back porch, however, were a totally different story. They were inviting. They were the chill space. They got used more often, but I remember them less, probably because I was half-asleep most of the time I was in them.
A powerful exercise is to walk into every room in your home and ask, ‘What am I supposed to do in this space and how am I supposed to feel?’
Simplifying Your Rooms Through Primary And Secondary Purposes
If we start to focus on a few purposes for each room, one or two key activities and a handful of emotions, we soon learn to teach our rooms to speak to us.
The more we can articulate the few things we want a room to invite us to do and the few feelings we want a room to evoke, the easier it will be to design and organise our spaces to meet our needs.
Part of the reason I always keep a decent stash of books and magazines on my lounge-room coffee table isn’t really to do with aesthetics. I’d rather a clean minimalist surface. But, I keep the books and magazines there (a little tidier than in the header image above) because this lounge-room is a place of ‘calm thinking’.
Sure, there are the obvious elements – couch, coffee table, TV, side table and chairs. But the room exists to generate ideas and connect them with other ideas, not in a freewheeling studio kind of pace, but in a more measured and relaxed way, better suited to the close of day, or those precious moments when the sun is still shining and there’s breathing space between tasks.
And, for the folks who cling to the idea that having a TV is somehow incompatible with being either a true creative soul or a deep thinker, sorry, but the time for non-evidence-based elitism has passed. Get on Netflix and watch any of the brilliant made-for-TV documentaries, like Abstract, Chef’s Table, Cooked, or Tales By Light, for some serious inspiration.
What Is Clutter?
When we hear talk of simplifying our lives and living spaces, it’s often the problem of clutter that comes into focus. And it’s a big problem. Most of us have too much stuff. And a lot of stuff gets cheaper every year, so it’s tempting to buy even more stuff.
And pretty soon we have nowhere to put all the stuff. Clutter takes over.
But clutter is also a relative thing. There’s a whole other conversation we could have about what to do when we have too much of something, like clothes, for example, which touches on other aspects of psychology and consumerism.
Let’s stick with clothes for a moment. My home in Singapore had a lot of built-in cupboard space, which I never filled, because, with a climate that had didn’t vary much from summer to winter, I lived in the same clothes all year round. By contrast, Tokyo throws everything at you, from snow and ice to searing heat, so the only sane thing is to have a lot more clothes in the cupboard.
Clutter is really a problem of how things look and how they are used. Lots of clothes might not be a problem if you need a range of choices and have enough space to put the clothes away (and they don’t just fall on your head when you open a cupboard). But, even if you have enough storage, it might be a problem if you can never find something that suits an activity you regularly engage in.
Kitchens are often the best place to think about clutter, partly because magazines and design-oriented websites feed us such false expectations of gleaming, everything-put-away kitchens. Professional kitchens, especially in high-end restaurants, do tend to be tidy, and clean, but they are also full of stuff and seldom have the look fetishised by the ‘design-obsessed’.
What matters far more than the lack of clutter is the amount of readiness – how ready is the room for whatever it is that you want to do in that room? Clutter is a problem in a bedroom if clothes on the floor get in the way of the calm and relaxed frame of mind you want from the room where you sleep and unwind. In a kitchen, dirty dishes in the sink and used pots on the stove will get in the way of being able to easily start preparing the next meal; it’s a hurdle in a room where we want to move quickly and safely.
Rooms As A Way To Design Your Simple Life
It might be fair to say that efforts to change or better organise our lives really ought to start with changing or better organising our rooms and spaces. Our rooms are really our ‘system for living’ in so many ways. We encode into them our expectations for the activities we engage in and in each space we ask them to think for us, to suggest a limited set of activities and emotions.
‘But I’m a creative, I need freedom,’ you may cry. It’s a question addressed well in Daniel J. Levitin’s somewhat epic book The Organised Mind, which has a chapter on organising our homes as a way to think more clearly. He details the way having clear categories and an order for things, often frees the mind to be more creative.
“John Lennon kept boxes and boxes of work tapes of songs in progress, carefully labeled and organised.”
Daniel J Levitin
Perhaps we’re used to asking too much of our rooms because we often ask too much of ourselves. We multitask; we try to cram as much as we can into every day; we carry a portal to the whole world in our pockets, or more often in our hand, as if we need instant access to the collective knowledge of all human history more than we need the touch of another human’s skin.
The first step to decluttering our spaces is to declutter our minds. When we stop expecting every moment to be seven different things at the same time, it becomes easier to not try and make our rooms do so many things all at once. When we ask our rooms to only say a few things, and to say them clearly, it becomes a little easier to live a more simple, decluttered life.