The UnDesigned Home

This (sorta) Old Life: The UnDesigned Home

First, let’s be clear about one thing:  An undesigned home is not a home with no design.

It is a home that is, in many ways, very intentionally designed. But it is not traditionally designed.

This (sorta) Old LIfe: Master bath renovation

Traditional design is is focused on the end result–a product.

In traditional home design, a good designer starts with a clear vision for a space (the product) and executes it as efficiently as possible. How the space looks is the biggest factor in determining its value. While there can be much to admire about traditional design and what comes of it, it’s an approach to creating a home that doesn’t work for us.

Traditional design done well requires skill, time, and money. Those of us who aren’t designers can sometimes get by with a lot of two and a little bit of one, but it’s hard for many of us to pull off traditional design in our homes. Unless we’re trying to simply copy an image from a magazine, it’s very difficult for us to create and execute a complete, cohesive vision for our home design challenges.

And yet–we all must design our homes, one way or another. It can seem as if there are only two options:  To emulate traditional designers or to bypass the whole idea of design, filling our homes with whatever we can most easily find and afford. We think this is a false dichotomy.

We’re interested in exploring a third option: UnDesign.

This (sorta) Old LIfe: Design and Undesign

UnDesign is focused on processes.

It’s not that we don’t have visions for the kind of home we want. We do. But our visions are more about how our home feels and works than about how it looks. And they are more about the how of design than the what:

How do we create a pleasing, comfortable, functional shelter from the world?

This (sorta) Old Life: Kitchen wallpaper removal

Sometimes how means stripping wallpaper two days before a party–and not caring that the wall won’t be finished when the party starts. (Clicking on the image will take you to the post with this story.)

As self-proclaimed UnDesigners, we value the process of creating our home more than anything we put in it.

More often than not, we don’t quite know what we’re going to end up with until we are nearly done with a project. And “done” is a constantly moving target. Because the “product” reveals itself slowly over time, there are ample opportunities to make changes and do things differently than we originally thought we might.

This (sorta) Old Life: Art gallery wall

 There is time to reflect, to discover new paths, and to change course. With the traditional design process it’s tough to do that. You don’t want to make changes if you’ve gone out and bought the sofa, drapes, flooring, and 5 gallons of paint all at once. (We know this from hard experience.)

But UnDesign is not simply a different way to end up with pleasing spaces. It’s a way of interacting with our environment that allows us to grow in healthy ways. We want not only our home to be transformed by the process, but for our lives to be transformed as well.

We want us to be transformed.

This (sorta) Old Life: Cane painting the house

Painting our house wasn’t fun, but we did grow in positive ways from this DIY project.

 When we’re in our best UnDesign groove, we’re collaborating, playing, experimenting, going off on tangents, and growing. We’re doing it in ways that add value to the world rather than subtracting from it. We’re having fun, not completing a chore. Because of that, our goal isn’t to get to the finished product as quickly as possible. It’s to make the process as rich and rewarding as possible.

This (sorta) Old Life: Buying lunch at a taco truck

For us, taco trucks are an integral part of the UnDesign process.

The most elegant part of the whole thing? When we are able to stay true to our UnDesign values, we find ourselves arriving at beautiful, unique, and personal solutions that we love. Everything we’ve undesigned has been so much better than anything we might have created by using more traditional approaches to home design.

This (sorta) Old LIfe: Master bathroom sink

We could never have traditionally designed our master bathroom.

As UnDesigners, we value:

Style is always secondary to function. We admire things that look lovely, but they must function well. We believe that things that are designed simply with no frills can be beautiful and stylish in their own right–and so do many of you.
This (sorta) Old Life: DIY Adirondack Chairs

This project has been viewed more times than anything else we’ve shared.

We don’t place old books on the coffee table just because they are cool looking old books. We might do it if those old books have some special meaning to us. Meaning is created by connection. Connection is created by experiences. So, things that we choose to surround ourselves with have to have important connection to our lives and experiences. As lovely as an old pair of ice skates might be, they won’t sit on our bookshelf unless someone in the house has some connection to skating. 
This (sorta) Old Life: Sweater stocking

This stocking was made from a treasured, Grandma-knit sweater.

In UnDesigning a room or space, we never start with a completely finished plan. That’s designing. We begin with a sketch or an idea or an item we love and let the space evolve over time. We try lots of different things and let one thing lead to another and to another. Not being tied to a particular outcome allows us to discover solutions we’d never imagined when we started.
This (sorta) Old Life: Bathroom tile/tub surround

We tried at least 10 different layouts before settling on this pattern for our tile.

The Ordinary 
We incorporate and appreciate what graphic designers call “the vernacular“:  Everyday, low-design objects and materials. Sometimes these objects are used as-is, and sometimes they are re-imagined and re-purposed for different uses. Regardless, we find beauty and meaning in the common and often imperfect items we find and bring into our home.

This (sorta) Old Life: Wool rug with old trunk

Good UnDesign is fiscally and environmentally responsible. We don’t spend money we don’t have fixing up our house to make it look pretty. That’s not a responsible use of our resources. We use earth-friendly materials and methods as much as we can. Thrifting, re-using, and re-purposing are always our first choices; they are good for our wallet and the planet. That’s a win-win in our scorebook.
This (sorta) Old Life: Rehabbed vintage Weber grill

Rehabbing this old Weber grill was so much more satisfying than buying a new one.

We design our spaces for the long-term. Even if we were good at chasing trends–which we’re not–we don’t try to. Constantly swapping out the old for the new would waste our resources and be an exercise in futility. Instead, we try to honor the age and era of our home and make changes that fit with its roots. We want to cultivate appreciation for its history and bring into it things that will still be functional and pleasing years from now. 
This (sorta) Old Life:  70's light fixture

We’re slowly replacing our 90s lighting with the kind of 70s lights we imagine our home had when it was built.

We don’t want our spaces to say things about us that aren’t true. The choices we make should have a direct connection to what we’ve experienced, and what we value.  If we’re bringing something into our home, it’s got to be authentic to who we are and how we live. If it’s not (because the couch below is evidence that we do make mistakes in this arena), we want to be honest enough to admit it and make corrections.

This (sorta) Old Life: Retro couch

We love homes that are as each of us are–not exactly like any other. Such homes have value in the way art has value: They communicate, they move us, they help us see things in new ways. UnDesign naturally leads us to create original, meaningful, thought-provoking rooms. Availability of materials, time, skills, accidents (happy and otherwise) inevitably shape the project. They are what make UnDesigned spaces unique and individual. In other words, original.
This (sorta) Old Life: bathroom vanity

We know no one has a vanity like ours. We added shelves to a basic box, made a concrete counter top for it, and plopped a 70’s sink into it.

UnDesigning is simple. Simple doesn’t mean plain. It does mean that we value an economy of means, effort, materials, and design. We believe that everything in our home should be beautiful or useful. Hopefully both. 
This (sorta) Old Life: DIY towel bar

A few plumbing parts and some spray paint were all we needed to have the extra-long towel bar we wanted.

Don’t some of these values contradict each other?

They can. While we love to find perfect, responsible solutions to design needs at thrift stores, the truth is that we sometimes find the most functional and economical solution at Target. (And we take it.)

Even if the principles weren’t sometimes contradictory, there’s the fact that we’re human–which means, contradictory and definitely not perfect. We love simplicity and clutter-free spaces, but we also love our art collection and the riot of color it brings to our home. We can get as sucked up in what’s popular/what looks good as anyone else and find ourselves straying from our home design values. Like our home, we are works in progress.

UnDesign is our goal, our vision, our ideal.

This (sorta) Old Life: Salvaged door coffee table

Are we just making all this stuff up?

A little. Much of our UnDesign framework is based upon the ideas and work of  Tibor Kalman, a graphic designer known in the 90s for his original approaches and challenges to traditional design. Kalman urged designers to use design for more than decoration and marketing. He wanted them to say important things that would make the world a better place. We do, too.

In the time we’ve been working on creating a home together, our feelings and ideas about how to best do it have shifted and evolved. For us, this framework of thinking brings together so many things we’ve found useful in various ways:  minimalism, simplicity, recycling/repurposing, retro renovation, slow movements of various kinds. It’s something that’s helped us make sense of where we’ve been and provides guideposts that will help us move forward.

In future posts we’re planning to dig deeper into the how and why of UnDesign. As we do, we’ll link them to this page. We hope you’ll follow along as we see where these ideas about home design might take us–and you.

This (sorta) Old Life: Bridge


Posts that dig deeper into UnDesign:

How we do home is how we do life


  1. Andrea
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 10:40:04

    Finally a real blog, I love gaining inspiration from other people’s work but they are in a life that is not reality for me. I have a 1980’s split level home in need of so much on going work. I just want a tidy, clean, functioning home to enjoy life in. I love DIY projects and being creative but I am tired of this level that we are supposed to live up to.

  2. Jaye @ Just Tryin' to Make Cents of it All
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 15:21:12

    Great new “undesign” for your blog. Great direction. You know I will always read what you have to say.
    Jaye @ Just Tryin’ to Make Cents of it All recently posted..RELIVING THE 70’S WITH AN EXTREME MAKEOVER!My Profile

  3. Rita
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 16:43:37

    Thanks for your encouragement, Andrea. Boy, do we know about split-levels in need of on-going work! The great thing is, we’ve realized in the last year that we can enjoy life in it despite the things that still need doing. The key has been letting go of thinking the house has to be a particular way before we can start enjoying it. Wishing you well–