Home & Garden

About the Hous: Freeing Aesthetics from the Constraints of Economics

By Matt Cantor
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 10:58:00 AM

If the terriers and bariffs are torn down, this economy will grow.—G.W. Bush (Heck if I know what a bariff is but if the terriers get torn down, I’m moving to Canada—M.C.) 


From high atop North America (if you accept the Mercator Projection), the Royal Bank of Canada tracks consumer confidence with their program “Consumer Attitudes and Spending by Household” (amusingly acronymed C.A.S.H.) These ratings have plummeted from nearly 70 percent in September ‘08 to about 35 percent this November. In other words, they’ve crashed. Perhaps more than the various stock markets—none of which I understand—the perceived safety or prudence of spending has fallen dramatically this year, foreshadowing a Christmas season that will have Target missing its mark and Amazon up the creek without a blowgun.  

I can’t say that I’m entirely unhappy about all these happenings any more than I’m entirely unhappy about recently high gas prices. I think that our consumer cult(ure) is unhealthy on several levels, including those of our spiritual life (not religious or even theistic … just spiritual), the health of the planet and the health of our true economy (working people producing good and vital services). Spending is the not the basis of either a healthy economy or a healthy personal life. We all know this but we tend to forget, so I’m here to act, once again, as an annoying but a relatively benign reminder. 

Americans don’t save. Using credit cards they can’t afford, they try to impress people they don’t like by buying things they don’t need. The instability of our economy started at home and that’s where it continues to crumble. The housing crisis is certainly as good an example of misguided spending as any and it is clearly near the core of the current economic crisis. While home ownership is a very desirable thing when it’s within our means, when it’s beyond our means, it’s beyond our means. Selling someone a mortgage they can’t afford to keep up is a crime that should be punishable by business failure. Don’t get me started—well, that ship would seem to have sailed, so my apologies. 

The other day I met a young woman who impressed me very much. Her name is Hyland. She does own a home and she has paid the mortgage. She bought her house on the other side of the tracks, as it were, and she’s just fine with that. It’s part of living within her means, which she does uncommonly well. The house is sparse and clean and I was so envious at this alone that it was actually physically painful in much the way that one yearns for ice cream or youth or the ability to undo a really nasty faux pas. Her house is full of color and light and not too much of anything else. Without spending a lot of money, she has achieved a kind of perfection. 

Her attic is one of those that cannot be called a proper living space for reasons including ceiling height, floor strength and proper ingress (stairway.) But it is lively, being neatly arrayed with a score of clear totes containing the archive of her life. Things that would have been piled up in my home (and yours, perhaps?) are filed away and labeled with amusing cards in the front that make it easy to see what each contains. Clearly, she has not voided her life of all memorabilia but she has wrangled them in such a way as to allow for breath, space and clarity.  

This allows her living room, kitchen, the bedroom and bath to be nearly empty of extra stuff. These rooms feature thoughtfully chosen textures and colors, bits of ancient memory in the form of a deliberately remaindered bit of linoleum (evoking history almost reverentially) and various delicious bits of wonder culled from the salvage yards. These include common vessels of glass (I share this love of glass) and cans with labels from 70 years ago. 

She commissioned her long-time friend Brian to construct several pieces of very simple built-in furniture, each cleverly designed to serve exactly as needed. None look fancy or ostentatious but each seems as though it belonged there from the time that this very simple 800-to-900-square-foot house was built.  

Color and light are emphasized in each small item and nothing is fancy. In other words, Hyland made no purchases to please the neighbors or a buyer. She was filling specific needs and providing stewardship of a craftsman and a friend.  

Hyland is not afraid of color, and what a blessing this is. There is color everywhere and it’s so very refreshing. (How I ache from looking at white, white, white.) The front is a scheme of two colors, the back a different pair. Each room has its own set of colors and each evokes its own feeling. Again, there are very few objects/furnishings and there is plenty of room to dance, to plop down on the floor or to start a project. 

Now, Hyland is not without her many bits of salvage and discovery. The basement—thank goodness for basements—is filled with tools and art objects. There’s an enormous wooden mold for a ship’s propeller, for example, probably from the Kaiser Richmond shipyards of WWII. She somehow obtained several massive chests of drawers of the kind used in industry for parts storage. Opening one revealed a nutcracker. I imagine that the others contain marbles, upholstery tools, pink-pearl erasers and paint brushes. 

While seeming lavish and, sensually, almost opulent, this home contains virtually nothing bought new at any store in recent years. The luxury comes from space, color, light and order; from a joy found in ordinary immemoria. An old toy, some beaded-board planks lining a wall, an ancient jar. 

With this aesthetic, Hyland is pretty recession-proof. Yes, she does need to pay the mortgage, but she’s not working her life away. She doesn’t make a financier’s earnings and doesn’t need to. She earns a living by selling houses, doing graphic design and editing copy—and she has time and has crafted a life for herself that leaves me somewhat dumbfounded. (And I don’t generally lack for words as you, dear reader, can attest. If you’d like to join me in admiring her home, you can see bits of it at hylandbaron.com.)  

So back to my initial point. With respect to our houses, there are many things we can do to avoid going bankrupt whilst making these places serve us. First is to give up on doing it the way the Joneses do. Leave the granite in the ground (I hear some of it’s radioactive, anyway). The green cost of shipping granite across the sea is untenable and it’s also becoming so common that Formica is starting to carry the shock of the new by comparison.  

Second: Visit the salvage yards. Once you’ve begun to see what’s missing in your space, see if something used can fill the bill. If it needs alteration, you can invest in the local economy by hiring a craftsperson to shape, install and paint something that’s one quarter the cost of new. You can give Kermit a run for his greenness when you use something old, as you will be combating dozens of significant ways in which the manufacture of new goods is ravaging this planet (deforestation, shipping and manufacturing CO2, land filling, to name just a few.)  

A client of mine, Lara, a scientist, mother and homeowner, is currently rehabbing much of her house. She has elected to reuse her cabinets, feeling that they are still perfectly adequate. She also plans to not to install a new one as she builds out a new kitchen. Why not? Her current dishwasher idles in mechanical indolence below the counter where hand-washed dishes rest in a disk rack. She is making reasonable choices based on actual need-how refreshing!  

If you must buy new, consider where things are made (shipping being a major element in the destructive impact of each new thing, especially if it is weighty.) Consider that what makes a space wonderful may be less a function of what you put into it than what you take out of it; and less a function of money than of good fundamental design.  

For those acquiring new homes, My friend, realtor Leif Jenssen, likes to cite that it’s best to wait a year or so before doing any major remodeling simply because it will take that long to begin to discern the real deficiencies in the new place. Also, it can take a year to figure out where you spend most of your time, where it’s too dark, and so forth.  

The recession isn’t likely to leave us any time soon and the value of your home—if you’re lucky (lucky?) enough to own one—may remain static or even drop in the coming years. Further, many will have to make do with smaller incomes and all of us would be wise to save more and spend less.  

Hyland’s lesson—which she lives but does not preach—is that happiness, aesthetic gratification and sensible home maintenance need not break the bank. In fact, none of these things can be found at the bank. They are obtained through the interest and engagement of active minds and eager hearts.