I have often wondered why I care if the things around me are beautiful or not. If “form follows function,” as Louis Sullivan once said, then as long as an interior layout is serviceable, isn’t that enough? Why go to the time and considerable trouble of renovating?
And it’s not just me. As has been revealed in the past few years, people very often overspend when purchasing their homes, getting into mortgages they can’t pay off. Renovating is as popular as ever, because people want to improve the homes they have. Everyone wants granite countertops and hardwood floors – there isn’t much of a drool factor to formica or vinyl. Why do we fetishize things that will just be different versions of what we have?
Sure, there’s a practical side to doing home renovations. All houses require upkeep, and if a floor needs replacing you might as well buy something that increases the value of your home. All homes get sold sooner or later. But that’s not what I’m talking about. People regularly go beyond the realm of the practical – they spend more than they intend to get something that’s extra special.
Come along as I jump down the rabbit hole and explore what motivates the pursuit of a better looking home. We won’t bite into the “what is beauty” question – I’m just going to accept that it exists. What I’m after is “why”.
The Practical, And The Cynical
There are some initial possibilities that come to mind.
- Is it about the bling factor? Am I trying to gain social status by showing off to others? Or am I desperately chasing acceptance, trying to keep up with the Joneses?
- Is it about novelty? Few would deny that we get a brain buzz from new toys of any variety. Before I owned a house, I used to shop for clothes because having new clothes is fun. But all too often, they wouldn’t look as good as I thought they did, or they went out of style, and out they went. Great! Time to shop for new clothes!
I think these things may be true for some people. I know the novelty motivation was once true for me. But I don’t think it tells the whole story.
I think the real answer lies deeper in the human heart and mind. Here is what I think is going on when we take the time to change our living spaces beyond the realms of practicality.
1. We change our spaces to feel better, physically and emotionally.
It’s long been known that our environment has a real effect on our mood and our outlook. Anyone who has had to live in a rundown neighbourhood knows that it can really bring you down. If you remain too long, the mood can become a permanent part of our outlook. Architecture can also uplift and inspire – think of the strong vertical spaces in churches, libraries or other large public spaces. Most of us can’t just create 30 foot ceilings in our homes, but perhaps it is something of this effect that we’re seeking with the subtler changes we can make.
Consider as well the known effect of lack of daylight on our health. Shift workers who don’t get enough daylight suffer more health problems and, on average, die at a younger age. It’s no coincidence that a main goal of most of the architecture of the past century has been to increase daylight to interiors.
The spaces we inhabit affect how we feel in subtle and not so subtle ways. When we change them, we’re using design as medicine.
2. We change our spaces to create environments that provide what we are missing from our lives.
Our lives are busier than ever. Every technological convenience we create seems to increase the expectations on us to produce more. The increased leisure time promised in the 50s and 60s has consistently failed to materialize!
When we come home, we are looking for a space that welcomes us, and encourages us to relax.
Maybe relaxation means soothing earth tones and natural materials. Maybe it means something feminine and pretty. Maybe it means a place to host fantastic dinner parties full of friends. Whatever reason or combination of reasons, we want our physical spaces to help summon the emotions we want to feel.
3. We change our spaces as creative exercise and a chance to play.
Few of us get to have complete creative control in our daily lives. Even creative workers like graphic designers aren’t at liberty to do whatever they want – they have to consider the preferences of the client and of the market. Because we answer only to ourselves in our own homes, we are free to follow the trends or go off in any direction we choose.
Being creative is transforming in its own right, and can provide us with a deeper satisfaction with our lives when we take the opportunity to grow. Sometimes survival is not enough. We need to dream.
by Jennifer Priest
Are you interested in the psychological mechanics of how spaces affect our moods and our health? Here are some articles and interviews and books I plan to read as I explore this subject:
- Article: “Why Our Brains Love Curvy Architecture”
- Interview and book: “How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit” by Witold Rybczynski
- Book: Alain de Botton “The Architecture of Happiness”