Why less is more when making a home

For almost two years, I’ve been reading what I call the house blogs:  People blogging about fixing up their houses.  There are all kinds of them, and they overlap with some other categories–DIY decoration blogs, craft blogs, lifestyle blogs that feature a lot of DIY projects.

I started reading them because I was fixing up my run-down 90s spec house.  While I found lots of useful information about how to do all kinds of things (which is great), there was something about all those blogs that just niggled at me.

a mantel decorated with fall decor items

Until I read the blog this image comes from (Thrify Decor Chick), I had no idea that some people changed their mantel decor for each season.

Perhaps it was the sheer amount of time and energy and money others were putting into such things as window coverings and rugs and mantel decorations.  I’d feel more than a little frivolous as I read them, wondering why I was choosing to spend my resources that way. I felt shallow for caring about such things as wall colors and cabinet finishes when there are far more “important” things I might be doing with my time and my creative energy–like being a better teacher or writer. (In his post on the difference between art and decoration, Cane shares his background as an artist. I’ve got a creative past, too.)

However, as I made improvements to the house, I came to realize that while creating a home isn’t exactly art (usually), it’s also not frivolous or shallow. Our feelings about our homes have much to do with how well they shelter us from all the elements in the world that can wear us down, and in this, appearances do matter.

My life as a house

When I moved into that run-down house after leaving my marriage, the place was positively depressing.  Dark green carpets stained with dog urine, dingy and scarred vinyl flooring, faded cabinets, and chalk-white walls in every room did nothing to bolster me during that very difficult time.  I hated going home to it, especially when my kids weren’t there.  Its ugly state seemed a metaphor for so many things in my life.

My old kitchen in all its former glory: Notice the dingy floors, the white walls, and me trying desperately to figure out some way to tone down all the oakiness by removing the doors from the upper cabinets. Yes, I let my daughter skate in the house. It's not like those floors could look much worse.


living room with ugly green carpet

A lousy photo, but I didn't take many that included the green carpet. It was in every room except the kitchen. Even the bathrooms.

But, as the house healed, so did I.  I’d never had a place all my own, and for the first time I got to make every decision about how things would look and be in my home (and my life).  I realized I’d never much thought about how I wanted my home (life) to be.  I was hungry to learn how other people did it, how they made their houses into homes. As I began to I learn what I like and don’t like, I was grateful for all knowledge I gleaned from others blogging about their projects.

By the time I sold it, both the house and I were transformed:

kitchen with red tile floors

Amazing what new flooring and a little paint can do. I even made peace with all the oak cabinetry.

From my experience, I came to clearly see the value of making a home functional, comfortable, and attractive; still, those niggling feelings about the home bloggers have grown.

picture of cat made of ikat fabric

Get it? It's an ikat cat. (Credit at end of post.)

The tipping point

The longer and more and widely I read the home bloggers, the more their houses all started looking the same to me. I found myself feeling irritable when reading them, and although I think rejecting something just because it’s popular is its own kind of snobbery, I was starting to think that if I saw another ikat-patterned or chevron-striped anything on a blog, I was going to immediately cross it off my list of places to visit.

I hit some kind of bottom last week, when I stumbled upon a post about how to make really cool wall “art” out of toilet paper rolls.  Yes, you read that right:  The idea is to cut up empty tubes of toilet paper and glue them together in a cool pattern and put them on the wall.  (After spray painting them, of course.)

And then I Googled “toilet paper roll wall art” and found a plethora of such posts.  Somehow, that was it for me.  I wrote a rant-y email to Cane in which I trashed everything from ikat to ombre paint jobs, including oil-rubbed bronze spray paint, faux-distressed cabinets, Target ottomans, the word “lurve” and people who use a period after every word just. like. this.

In most things, I’m pretty much a “to each his own” kind of person.  If toilet paper tube crafts are your thing and you like your house better with it on your walls, I’d say go for it.  What difference does it make if lots of people are painting chevron stripes on every paintable surface they can find?  No skin off my nose, right?

But (obviously) something was getting to me.

So what’s my problem?

I couldn’t put my finger on the source of my irritation,  and I wanted to figure out why I was sounding (and feeling) like such an elitist snob. Then I found this post over on Retro Renovation, and it all came clear.

In the post, blogger Pam Kueber discusses the mistaken thinking behind the idea that renovating our homes is an investment that will pay off when we eventually sell them.  As she writes:

One of reasons this blog’s tagline is “Love the house you’re in” is that I *think* I have long understood that unnecessarily “updating” your home to reflect what is trendy today is not a particularly sound financial investment. In fact, what’s trendy today… will likely be ‘hideous’ in about 10 years. 

Yeah, what she said.  The key word there:  unnecessarily.

Thanks to Pam’s post (her whole blog, actually–which I really like), I think I can now put my finger on the source of those niggles:  So many of the house blogs feed the idea that we have to have and do and be more to have nice homes.  We must make everything better.  We need to change our mantel decor for each season. We should paint our wood cabinets (and trim and furniture) crisp white.  It’s better to fill every wall space than to leave any blank, even if we’re filling them with discarded toilet paper rolls.

I think my niggles and snit are simply about being tired of all the voices that tell us (however nicely, indirectly, and/or unintentionally) that we should keep up with constantly changing tastes. And that our homes can and should look good right now, because it’s possible even if we don’t have time or money to give them. And that there are shortcuts to quality.

They do tell us that, you know:  Why else would smart, creative women be gluing toilet paper rolls to canvas and putting it on their walls?

I know I could still file this under the category of “whatever floats your boat,” but that chorus of voices contributes to waste of so many kinds.  And that’s what really bugs me.

So does this mean I’m not changing anything in our house?

Heck no!

I’m all about replacing things that are worn out or that we dislike, but I want to make sure my likes and dislikes are founded upon something more substantial than what’s currently hot.  If I change something, I want to make sure I’m not destroying something that others might find valuable and desirable.  As much as possible, I want the things in our home to reflect quality.  I think, in a real sense, we are what we surround ourselves with.

70s light fixture

We love this light fixture because it's got simple lines, nice materials, and a style consistent with the age of our house. We like that we recycled it, rather than buying something new, which was good for our finances and the planet. It required no repairs and we had fun finding it. We hope the same will be true for everything we bring into the house.

We want to surround ourselves with real things that have meaning to us. If we live with old furniture (and we do) it’s going to be authentically “distressed” from years of wear–not from hours of sandpaper.  We’d rather live with empty walls until we find or make something that has artistic value or personal significance. We’d rather enhance the charm that already exists in our older home, rather than trying to change it into something that it’s not–which someone (us?) will think needs to be undone when our collective ideas about what looks good change.

I still read house renovation blogs and truly do value the great information I’ve found about how to do things around and for my home, but I don’t hang out much any more with the ones that are focused more on decoration than function.  I’m on the lookout now for home blogs with a different slant--written by people who are finding satisfaction in what they have, who can see timeless beauty in their surroundings, who regularly forgo weekends of sanding and priming and painting so they can attend to their families, their friends, and their health–building something that will more soundly shelter them from life’s storms than any pretty house ever could.

family playing volleyball in the park

How about you?

What are your thoughts about fixing up/changing your home?  How do you decide what changes to make?  Have your ideas changed over time?

We’re still figuring a lot of this out, and we’d love to know what others think.  Please leave us a comment if you’ve got thoughts on this.

Image credit for ikat cat

Image credit for fall mantel