Playing house

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      A new book urges us to get imaginative and create “mini environments” in the home

      Take a minute and try to forget what your home looks like. Then ask yourself, “How does it feel?”

      In her new book, House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live (HarperCollins, $32.95), Winifred Gallagher reminds us that we have lives, not lifestyles. Consequently, the spaces we occupy should reflect who we are instead of simply mirroring ephemeral trends lifted from the glossy pages of a hoity-toity house-and-garden magazine. For example, House Thinking cites research showing that—aside from architects and designers—most of us aren’t so keen on modernism’s clean lines, hard edges, and open, gallerylike spaces. According to Gallagher, a Manhattan-based journalist whose other books include The Power of Place, Just the Way You Are, and Working on God, George Washington’s country estate, Mount Vernon, set the template for the style of home the largest number of North Americans dream about: the farmhouse.

      That said, whether you hanker for Main Street USA, the postmodern jumble of Frank Gehry, or Bauhaus functionalism, today’s design media and retailers provide lots of ideas from which to pick and choose. Just don’t leave it up to someone else to tell you what you like and dislike. Gallagher cautions us that there is one thing you must not forget to include when you’re renovating, rearranging, or setting up your home: yourself. She points out that physical environments can conjure up buried memories that lead to negative or positive feelings, just the way scent does.

      “Get really personal right away,” she says by phone from the Upper West Side brownstone she shares with her husband and two of their five children. “Walk into each room and ask yourself, ”˜What do I want this room to do for me?’”

      Part design theory, part behavioural psychology, House Thinking explores the evolution of the North American home in its various permutations, and includes some thoughtful consideration of its three most common modern manifestations: “McMansions”, cramped cookie-cutter condos, and sprawling subdivisions of similar houses that nostalgically re-create another time and place. Backed up by plenty of fascinating research, including interviews with architects, psychologists, and historians, Gallagher also reveals how personality type and memories colour the way we respond to where we live. Her journey through the home started with a trip to India a few years ago.

      “It was a transformative experience. When I got home I walked through the door and thought ”˜Who lives here?’” Gallagher recalls. She and her family rolled up their shirtsleeves and got to work.

      “I realized that for more than 30 years I had been arranging my living room [in various residences] just like my mother. We’re a reading family but the living areas were set up for entertaining, so I always ended up reading in bed. We rearranged every room in the house and bought almost nothing. We did all the work ourselves. We couldn’t afford to have other people do it, so consequently my husband became an expert in plastering. In the end, it cost us only a few hundred dollars.”

      Make sure home is really you, says New York author Winifred Gallagher.

      Gallagher reconfigured her home office, putting an armchair opposite the room’s bay window for moments of contemplation, because she thinks it is important to keep connected to the outside. They removed all the clutter from the entranceway, and put a piano there because they are a musical family. The process revealed to Gallagher that space configuration, lighting, and the relationship of objects to one another affect us the way geography does. Some people thrive in a sunny Mediterranean environment, while others feel more at home cuddled up to the forest-clad mountains of our wet West Coast. House Thinking urges us to get imaginative and create “mini environments” throughout the home, even if it’s just a tiny bachelor apartment.

      “Architecture is the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods and men, to put man into possession of his own earth,” said Frank Lloyd Wright, who gets a big nod of approval in House Thinking. Wright looked to nature for his palette and inspiration. He incorporated mini environments into all the homes he designed, recognizing that some people are “perchers” who like the vista of open, expansive rooms, while others are “nesters” who like things cozy. So he created great halls with nesting areas by the hearth that featured lowered ceilings and other architectural details reinforcing a sense of security and safety.

      “The home should be spiritual,” Gallagher says.

      In other words, it should make you feel, well, at home.