One of the best books I’ve read so far this year is Alexandra Lange’s The Design of Childhood. In it, Lange talks about the ways in which physical spaces and physical objects have been constructed to both encourage and impede certain kinds of activities and behaviors. The playground and the nursery, for example, have particular histories shaped by (and shaping in turn) ideas about what kids should do and be.
I’ve been keenly aware of “space” since moving to (and now from) New York City. Having lived almost my entire life in the west (Wyoming, Oregon, California), I am accustomed to more of it. More space. Open space. “Room to spread out.” All stories that folks from the west like to tell about why it’s better out here.
There was a sign painted on the wall of a storage facility in our neighborhood that read “The suburbs have bigger closets – perfect for hiding your dreams in.” I thought it was hilarious. Certain friends from out west thought it offensive. (And that was before I told them I actually thought white people moved to the suburbs for very, very different reasons.)
Space – closet space or otherwise – was at a premium in our little apartment on the Upper West Side. The building was old; the ceilings were high; there were no closets in either of the bedrooms. There were two closets in the kitchen and a closet above the door that went from the hallway to the back room. But that was it.
I learned to spread up and not out. I bought storage boxes that would stack – skinny little plastic bins that could be shoved into cupboards or stacked next to countertops. (I bought a step-ladder so I could reach everything.)
Our apartment had, ostensibly at least, two bedrooms. One was very small and dark. The other a bit larger with two windows that looked out onto 104th. When you opened the front door, you walked right into a kitchen counter – quite literally. The old iron radiator was right there too, making it almost impossible to navigate furniture in and out. There was no wall between the kitchen and the… I don’t know what to call it. Dining area? Living room? The only thing that marked the division between these “rooms” was the end of the linoleum and the beginning of the hardwood floors. Whatever it was called, that space was just a hair wider than the hallway that lead to the sunny back room.
I decided to make that hallway / living room / dining area my work space, which barely held a small kitchen table with two small chairs placed at the ends. Initially we placed our bed in the back room, but opted a few weeks later to move it forward into the smaller room to take advantage of the darkness, but more importantly, so that Kin could work in the bigger room with more light.
We have worked at home (and with great frequency, it feels, worked on the road) for about a decade now. And the typical home or apartment – no matter its size or location – isn’t really designed for that. (“Working from home” versus “working at home” – I’m not sure what to make of the different prepositions there.)
In the last apartment we rented here in Hermosa Beach, I think we went along with the usage of each room as the architects would have planned. The master bedroom was the master bedroom. The spare bedroom was the spare bedroom. I worked at the kitchen table. Kin worked in the living room. (He likes sitting in large, overstuffed chairs with his laptop on his lap.)
Kin did eventually buy a desk and office chair, which he placed in our bedroom. But he rarely used them, except when making phone calls or recording webinars. (My mom stitched us an “on air” sign to hang on the door.)
We didn’t make that spare bedroom an “office,” which is, I think, what one is expected to do when one works from home. I don’t recall why we didn’t – I imagine it had to do with our preferring to work together in the same room (one of the things I really didn’t like about living in New York), our craving the sunlight and open space that the living area afforded, and our not wanting to have to abandon the office when, thanks to houseguests, it returned to its status as spare bedroom.
I couldn’t believe how much space we’d wasted – how much just sat empty and unused – when we moved into the much smaller apartment in New York. But I think Americans’ homes are designed for that – they’re designed in ways that encourage you to fill up the closets and garages and spare bedrooms with stuff. There are catalogs upon catalogs with products and websites upon websites with ideas of how to buy things and build things that transform rooms to your liking.
Most Americans spend much of the day out of the house, at work or at school, and much of the night in bed. Bedrooms (in the suburbs certainly) have grown larger and larger in the last fifty years or so; and the kitchen, dining room, and living room have often morphed into one “great room.” Indeed, the kitchen, as Lange writes in The Design of Childhood is the “household command post.” It is where most families spend the most of their time together. Kin and I eat out. None of this was designed for us.
Kin and I have moved into a new apartment knowing that we wanted to push back against some the expectations embedded in the architecture:
We took the smaller bedroom as our own – luckily, this apartment has the bathroom attached it and not, as is more typical, to the master bedroom.
The master bedroom will be the living room. That’s where we’ll stick a sofa. That’s where Kin will have his overstuffed chair. That’s where we’ll put the TV. That’s where we will inflate a very nice air mattress when we have houseguests. (Yes. We have opted to furnish that room based on how it’s going to be used 98% of the time. And sofa-beds suck. We aren’t buying a sofa-bed.)
The living room – which gets the glorious morning sun and has full-length windows and a patio door running the length of it – will be our workspace. That’s where we’ve put the bookshelves. And this weekend, IKEA delivered two very large and sturdy dining room tables. One for me. One for Kin. These sit side-by-side, along with two office chairs.
We will spend the bulk of the day in this “great room.” But we won’t have to eat and work at the same table. We can retreat to the living room to watch television or read (or to be on webinars, should we be so unlucky).
We have tried to furnish this new place for how we work and how we spend our time – rather than furnish it for how rooms are traditionally labeled. But I think it’s even more evident for that, that we are working against the ways in which the space has been designed, against the expectations of habits and behaviors of “home.”