My eyes tend to get dry, so my ophthalmologist recommended a twice-daily regimen that includes wearing a warm compress over both eyes for eight minutes. Fine, but what should I do for those sightless eight minutes, twice a day? I happen to be in the planning stage of renovating my apartment, so I decided to try an experiment: I would use my sense of touch to get a new perspective on the way I inhabit my living space.
After putting on the compress, I start my expedition. I run my hand along the table and find a tangle of power cords. I grasp the handle of a closet door, and I’m pleased by its smooth shape. I feel the wooden school desk that I’ve cherished for years and a poorly placed cabinet that threatens to hit me in the face.
When I take off the compress, I look around with fresh (and less dry) eyes, and I see, with new awareness, other examples of my attentiveness and negligence, my delights and letdowns.
I invite you to join me in thinking about how we design—consciously and unconsciously—our domestic spaces. Have you made small adjustments, like replacing a showerhead? Or big changes, like moving from a one-bedroom apartment in the city to a cottage in the country? And conversely, what desires did you not act upon because you did not have a) the wherewithal, b) the energy or c) the courage? Like my touch-only encounters around my home, we begin with literal surfaces, but when we dig deeper, we reveal more.
For the first four months of the pandemic, I lived at my best friends’ house. I love being there: it is a visual feast, filled with art and artifacts collected from family members, trips, garage sales and hobbies. I’ve often thought I wanted my own home to be more like that. But when I returned to my apartment, I felt good within its comparative emptiness. White space is my preference and always has been. One of my favorite books is Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living. In it, there’s a letter that Josef Albers wrote in 1928 to his friends who were moving. “Now take care and make sure your apartment is clean, light and empty,” he advised. On a separate postcard, he exclaimed, “The empty room is the best!!!!!!!!!!!” (I counted the exclamation points; there are eleven!)
During one of my eight-minute, room-touching exercises, I opened a drawer full of travel-size bottles and another with toiletry bags. I travel often—sometimes for a couple of days, sometimes for much longer—and I accumulate these to use for my trips. At first, they seem to have nothing to do with my choices regarding domestic space. But looking again, I see that they embody one of the primary reasons I live in a condominium: I can pick up and go without worrying about the upkeep that a house typically demands.
When I seek advice from savvy home renovators, they say I should plan as though I will live in my renovated home for at least 25 years. This makes me consider the impending dwindling of my abilities; in other words, aging. My mom lived to the age of 96, and I had a lot of experience in witnessing, helping with and learning about the aging process. As she became older and less capable, I focused on eliminating potential hazards and difficulties she might encounter. I removed rugs in the hallways, added grab bars in the bathroom and so on. This was all good, but looking back, I see that her desires were not for safety; instead, they were for many of the same passions that I have—in particular, beautiful design. For example, in another of my walks around my apartment without sight, I came upon a lamp that had belonged to my mom. I had forgotten about its skinny on-off knob. When we saw it in the store, I had worried that it would be challenging for her arthritis, but she wanted it. After it was delivered, she twisted a few rubber bands around the knob and voila, no problem. My mom’s desires and modifications are lessons for me now: If we focus on hazard-avoiding safeguards for “old age,” we may forget to supply ourselves with the very things we have always loved.
Your surroundings might seem like they coalesced by chance, but choices were made, which in turn affected more choices. What do your decisions about your home reveal about how you live now, and what do they suggest for the future? What gives you the nourishment you need? As I begin to plan for my home renovation, I remind myself daily to pay attention to what I already know. ca
© W. Richmond 2021