About the House: Oblique Strategies and the Home Remodeling Process

By Matt Cantor
Thursday October 22, 2009 - 09:55:00 AM

Before I proceed to plagiarize, I’d like to pay homage to the memory and, in this case, the extraordinary creativity and insight of the makers of the oracle Oblique Strategies. 

In 1975, the musician Brian Eno (and the painter Peter Schmidt) published a set of flash-cards called Oblique Strategies. They still sell through a British supply house for £30.00 and are designed to help musicians (and other artists) break through blocks and expand their creativity. 

An example of one card (there are roughly 100 in the set) is “You can only make one dot at a time.” 

Now, on the face if it, this seems like a silly statement. What dots? Are they musical notes? Paint dots? Pixels in a digital art work? 

The point is for you to see how you might apply these cryptograms to your situation. They are often broad and intentionally incongruous. They are designed to throw you off balance and knock you out of the box you’ve been stuck in. 

Here’s another one that I just love: “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” 

This is a little easier to wrap one’s mind around. Basically, it says, don’t rush to fix your mistakes. Take a good healthy look at them. Was there something about them that you can learn from or use? Sometimes our mistakes are actually just the right action but so out of step with our current image that they just look wrong at first glance. Take a minute to look carefully at them and you may decide that this is exactly where you should be heading. Isn’t this fun? 

Years ago, my wife and I used to throw the I Ching when we felt stuck or on the horns of something (dilemma or opportunity). Oblique Strategy cards are similar, but they’re also designed specifically to get you to try something new in the interest of the creative process. 

I’ve thought for some time that remodeling or architectural design could make good use of these cards (which are really designed for artists and most specifically for musicians) but I’d like to do one better by suggesting a set just for the housing design professional (or the amateur equivalent). 

So here are a few possible cards one might find in a deck of Oblique Space-Design Strategies: 

“Put inside things outside. Put outside things inside.” 

This one could be interpreted as putting the NFL in your living room on a giant flat screen TV and taking a nap in the back yard, but we can do a little better than that. If one meditates on this mantra, one might put a creek through the hallway and a clawfoot tub on the back porch. 

The first go-around with one of these things might be all wrong, but once you’re out of the box, you can play with the things you find and put them together in a way that you can live with. The real trick is getting out of the damned box. 


Here are some more suggested cards: 

• Use something wobbly that is safe and fun. 

• Install it upside down. Does it work? 

• Consider the sound the room (floor, ceiling, etc.) will make. Give it a song. Make it very quiet. Make it scream. 

• Use color to help people doing something in the room. What are they doing? Is it a plum activity or a vermillion one? 

• What happens if it’s very wide? Short? Long? Round? 

• Make it taller or skinnier than any you’ve seen. 

• What animal is the space? Furry? Fast? Hibernating? Carnivorous? Vocalizing? Mating? 

• If the house is a cell, where are the vacuoles? Mitochondria? Nucleus? Chromasomes? 

• Devote the design of a room/house/ lamp/lawn to a person you love deeply. Let things you love about them manifest in your choices. 

• Make one space that you can feel completely safe in. One you can sleep in for 10 hours. One that feels like a cup of coffee. 

• Have the electrician design the plumbing. Have the gardener design the electrical system. Now compare to the drawings. What did you learn? 

• Try making the square thing round and the round thing square. 

• Take a poem you like and use each of the first 10 words as your overriding design constraints for 10 systems or 10 rooms. 

• Make something really dangerous but exciting. Now work backward to where it’s safe but still feels exciting. 

• Make some portion of the built environment suited to hosting a wild animal (a mouse, moose or elephant). 


Try making up a set for yourself. You can make cards based on throwing the I Ching and interpret them for yourself. In fact, you can base cards on a randomly selected page from a psychology text, a romance novel, a book on feng shui or a guide on resoling shoes. Our brains have an extraordinary ability to pick patterns out of one set of activities or studies and apply them to grossly dissimilar circumstances. Employing this deep skill (or oblique strategy) is one of the great secrets of creative individuals. 

A great resource that has some less wild-haired directives is the not-sufficiently-famous A Pattern Language by the Christopher Alexander and members of the Center for Environmental Structure here at Berkeley. 

A pattern language is similar in that each mantra/fortune/edict can be expres-sed initially as a single line of text, a single phrase, such as “Thick Walls”—pattern 197 (they all have numbers). Each pattern speaks about the way things in buildings feel or work when various features ( or patterns) are manifested and also presents alternatives that change the feeling or function. These patterns far exceed building design and range beyond to design an entire globe. It’s a fun idea, designing a world based on a set of principles culled from previous successes (most patterns are simple observations about what worked well in the past … often the distant past). 

If these various methodologies don’t work for you, try anything. That’s the real message here. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. The architectural world and particularly the remodeling world seen locally is doing just what William Morris observed it to be doing in the 1870s when he was developing the Arts and Crafts movement as a rebellion against industrialization. We’re all being sold our pre-designed dream homes (do we all dream alike?) either whole or in one slab of granite after another. 

A common fear that I hear or see in the nascent remodeler is that what they do will be too different from what everyone else is doing. Professional and homeowners alike seem to lack the bravery to do something even a little different than their neighbors. I guess the advertisements are working. We’re all so afraid of not fitting in. Now, here’s the funny part about this dilemma, and it’s not a warm, fuzzy lifestyle piece: 

Years ago, I remember inspecting a house that someone brave had rehabbed. Each room had different colors and they were terrific, vibrant, strong and emotional. The rooms were rich and had character and voice. The lighting was good (not fancy, just good) and the furnishings were fun and often loud. It was hard not to smile walking through the place. When this place hit the market it went WAY over the typical asking price for a house of this size and location. 

It is clear that it turned people on. Not just one or two odd folks but everyone. The lesson is that individual expression is more widely understood than a dull mass message and that this will be more welcome than most of us fear it will. 

Goethe said, “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” Goethe was speaking to the designer or poet just as much as he was to the conqueror. Go boldly.