Thursday, April 15, 2010

Architectural (in)Digest(ion)

As I entered the house with three of my boys in tow, I had one of those rare moments of shock when I see my home (and, by extension, my life) with the eyes of an outsider—or rather with the eyes I possessed in a former life. With aesthetic disapproval, I surveyed the scene that greeted me when I opened the front door. What kind of woman lives in the midst of this designer faux pas? This, quite honestly, is not the home I thought I would inhabit, back in the days when I fancied myself to be some sort of aesthete. I have an art degree, after all. La-dee-dah.

Ten happy years ago, I recall tripping lightly through the halls of commerce, scanner gun in hand, and registering for sets of crystal stemware and high-thread-count sateen sheets, all the while imagining how they would grace our brightly lit neoclassical house on a hill. The one with the 14-foot ceilings and the gorgeous, dust-free crown molding; the one with the carefully selected paint colors and the matching sets of furniture in every room. I've done what I can to make ours a lovely home, but my time and resources are limited, and my talents do not extend to reupholstering sofas. Just to repaint the dining room seems, right now, to be an unattainable goal. My home beautification efforts are normally limited to what you might call "damage control." I'm hardly the hip, design-savvy housewife I once assumed I'd be. Not even close.

When I was in high school, my mom worked as a secretary in the Department of Architecture at the local university, and every few months, she would bring home a new stack of back issues of Architectural Digest and other home design magazines. I loved to sit on the couch to peruse their pages; they were full of ingenious injection-molded furniture and glitzy, custom-printed wallpaper. As I flipped through, I would take mental notes, soaking up all the decorating possibilities of the "someday" house I would inhabit.

But as I look back from the vantage of motherhood and nearly ten years of marriage, certain characteristics of those picture-perfect residences become clear. Sure, there were lots of homes that still strike me as downright lovely. But the rest were owned by childless couples (usually "partners") who stay there for only a few months of each year—and with good reason. In retrospect, I can see that those designer homes were utterly ridiculous—not just because of their bank-draining price tags, but also because of their life-draining aesthetics. If there's one thing that can be said about the pages of those journals, it is that they represented, by and large, an entirely sterile way of life. They were made to accomodate ideas, not human beings. And, let's face it, human beings are what constitute a family.

It's impossible to imagine raising flesh-and-blood children (though, judging by the photos, some have tried) in a cantilevered concrete box filled with polished stainless steel and right angles and glass tables and suspended, rail-less stairs.*  Nor is it possible to imagine bringing up a family in the midst of a palatial Rococo explosion of gilt statuary and mismatched brocade and silk-upholstered ottomans and crystal candelabras. In either case, the environment is hostile to basic family life—in the first instance by setting up hard edges, cold surfaces, and dangerous angles, and in the second by scattering priceless art and irreplaceable fabrics and fragile collectables in every conceivable corner. These designers have shoved aside the business of living in order to make way for the business of showing off their refined tastes. Now that I think about it, my family could hardly be comfortable in many of these magazine estates for a single weekend, let alone for the rest of our lives. Who are these people kidding?

Themselves, if you ask me. And I, too, am kidding myself to think I'd be happier in the pages of a magazine.

Sure, the magazine couples are the ones with the maids and the polished marble floors. I'm the one with the messes and the stained, unraveling carpets. But, although it's far from perfect, my home at least looks like it's meant to be lived in. It has been lived in. Boy, has it ever. There will soon be seven of us in this 3-bedroom house. And I grant that it's a little tight. When bad weather keeps us all indoors, this home can feel very small and chaotic indeed. And it's times like that when it's easy to cast side-long glances—easy to flip through a catalog and long for something bigger, better, more.

Not only do my living room chairs and couches not match; they are also bespeckled with ten thousand sippie cup drips. A shiny streak on a throw pillow is evidence that one child has decided the cushions were more convenient than a Kleenex. The rug is fraying around the edges and is littered with random toys and lonely socks. There's no rhyme or reason to the furniture choices. No matching bedroom sets. No thematically decorated nursery. And (ACK!) would you just LOOK at the kitchen floor! My former self would have thought, "This woman doesn't just need a maid; she needs an HGTV team of home stylists to come to the rescue." And moments do come when I almost agree with myself.

But I don't have a maid. Or a personal stylist. Or an interior decorator. Or anyone else to breeze through my messy life and wrap it up in glamor and sparkle. A broom and a bottle of Windex (and, on a really great day, a vase of daffodils) are the only design team I am able to employ, and they don't do much to produce stunning "Before" and "After" shots.

It's not that I'm longing to set up house in Kubla Khan's stately pleasure-dome. At least, not anymore. But a couple of rooms from a Restoration Hardware catalog would be all right with me. It's a good thing I no longer get that rag in the mail; it would too easily leave me sighing over out-of-reach armoires and tastefully coordinated drapes and upholstery. Better not to know what new wares they're peddling and be spared many a covetous hour. Even in a catalog-worthy house, the envious soul could find new ways to want more, and if I can't be content here, what makes me think I'll be content in a Pottery Barn showroom?  A spirit of discontent has a way of staying with a person regardless of location, location, location. "Wherever you go," as they say, "there you are."

In this blessed existence, days will come (and have come) when I descend the stairs—in all my disheveled, pre-caffeine glory—to discover that my boys have emptied all their drawers in search of a certain shirt; dumped the entire contents of our 84 bins of Legos onto the carpet; pulled approximately 397 books off the shelves in an effort to locate a missing school folder; and decided it would be a good idea to pour their own drinks...into water bottles with an opening the diameter of a pencil. And I had, in my foolishness, gone to bed with a clean house expecting to find the same when I awoke. Haha. Those are the days when an army of servants would be quite welcome.

And those are also the days when it can be hard to take the long view. I could be giving my hours to a full-time job, clicking away at a computer for 40 hours a week in order to help finance the house I used to dream about. I could spend the hours God's given me in order to live the DINK dream, in a pristine home with beautiful, unspotted sofas and real wool rugs and windows entirely free of nose prints. I could set giant bouquets in crystal vases on the coffee table, and carry a little clutch purse on my way to dinner at eight. I could give the best years of my life to appearing in the pages of Architectural Digest.

But Architectural Digest is here today and tomorrow is cast into the fire. Instead, my hours—messy and unglamorous as they may be—are being spent on something eternal. Five somethings, to be more precise. Silk upholstery will tear and fade. Walnut armoires will scratch and crack. Colors schemes and design fads will fall from favor. But my children have spirits that will last forever—spirits that are being shaped and nurtured here. Here, on these fraying rugs. Here on these sticky floors. Here on the mismatched chairs. Here are souls that cannot go out of fashion. Here is a "Before" and "After" project worth giving my life for.

*Visit for a look at life in just this sort of modernist architectural Hell.


Diane Garaway said...

Beautifully expressed. I start a study on Burroughs' Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment tonight and your post will be recommended(perhaps printed out.) A common struggle and challenge for most young (and older) women in our culture. You put it perspective. Thanks again for your lovely and thoughtful writing.

KeriAnn said...

Love it Hannah.

Austin Storm said...

Hannah, have you seen the unhappy hipsters blog? You'd love it. They recaption photos from Dwell and other modernist architecture sites:

My favorite:

Sara said...

thanks for writing this... good reminder on those discontent-house days - of which i have now and then! i may need to re-read it every few weeks... :)

Hannah G said...

Austin, yes. My sister-in-law introduced me to that site recently. Good times! (Just not for the people who live in those modernist nightmares.)

Signe said...

Your home is lovely, and visiting it is a joy. Maybe you should start a magazine for homes with people living in them, lots of people. In your spare time.

Great writing keep it up!

Carissalayla said...

my secret to making my home look just a little chic is a lovely real orchid plant only $19.99 from Costco, it's my little special treat and makes me smile everytime I pass it. It's beauty amoungst chaos and clutter!

Bobbinoggin said...

I remember when your mom worked at the college. :)

Good realizations... about the unattainability and fruitlessness of having an immaculately designed home.

caitygirl said...

hi, I found your blog a while ago (a link from feminagirls blog) and have tremendously enjoyed reading your posts!! so I thought it was about time I comment and let you know I'm reading...and that you inspire me.

oh, I will be attending NSA in the fall, so hopefully when I'm up there I can meet you =)

-caity spencer

Hannah G said...

Caity, I'm glad to know that you've enjoyed this ol' blog, and I look forward to meeting you next year! (My husband teaches at NSA, so I'm sure our paths will cross.)

windandbigwaves said...

I love the dress and the new addition news, how very exciting ;0 Keep up the great work:)

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