This is the second part of a two-part blog post. You can read the first part here.
Architect and theorist Christopher Alexander has a beautiful way of drawing out the profound from what can in others’ hands feel like trivial or vain pursuits. His ability to draw a connecting thread from deep, philosophical ideas about the nature of life to the seemingly ordinary tasks of homemaking is inspiring. From his point of view, the process of designing our homes is not a mindless act of vanity but rather, at its best, it can be an important opportunity to create spaces that can breathe life into the ordinary tasks of daily living.
In his numerous books, he has frequently raised the point that imposing too ridged an order onto a design can stifle it making it stale and lifeless. Like clinging too tightly onto a vision of what our future should look like, clinging too tightly onto a vision of what our homes should look like can be counterproductive. Instead, when creating our spaces, he advocates for a kind of relaxed ‘roughness’ that allows the larger order of the design to be “modified according to the demands and constraints" that happen locally at every part of the design process.
Alexander explains that an essential part of creating beautiful, living spaces is that the design of these space is allowed to emerge slowly, gradually. A critique repeated throughout much of his writing is that “neither the process of design, nor the process of construction in modern conventional processes work like this.” Instead, in modern design, the ‘desired end-state’ is fully conceptualised, and the space is forced to fit this concept at all costs without room for ‘realistic feedback, improvement and adaptation’.
For Alexander, a key component of creating a ‘living’ space that can nurture and support human life is allowing the design process to not be too rigid or over-conceptualised. Instead, our visions and ideas should be flexible enough to adapt to the realities of each new step of the process. This step-by-step adaptation allows each decision to be evaluated according to whether it supports and enhances the whole. In this way, our designs can unfold gradually through slow, carful adaption rather than being forced to fit a preconceived idea that may not make sense once the design starts transforming the idea into reality.
I love this notion of not holding on too tightly to a conceptualised vision of what our spaces should look like. It pushes back against an approach to design solely focused on creating a look. Even where we use inspiration from other sources, our process should allow the details of our design to emerge on the basis of the realities of our specific situation, never forcing the design to be an exact copy of something we have seen elsewhere.
The modern world fills our minds with images of what homes should look like. But the desire to re-create something we have seen in an image can often lead to frustration: if we only had more space or lived in a different style of house or had more financial means, we could create something that is truly representative of who we are. But the truth is that the something we dream of is often an image we have seen elsewhere, someone else’s life, not our own.
The alternative is to embrace precisely that reality in which we find ourselves right now. To allow the limitations of our situation to create the boundaries for something to emerge that is unique to our individual circumstances and therefore truly representative and perfectly suited to our lives. In a world with far too many choices, the limitations of our reality can serve as a helpful aide for creative expression.
In his essay titled ‘In Praise of Shadows’, Junichiro Tanazaki highlights that when creating our homes, clinging too tightly to even the noblest ideals can create results that “impress us as nervous, fussy, excessively contrived.”
In design, like in life, we stand to gain so much from a willingness to stay open and to embrace an element of uncertainty. What we see all around us can serve as wonderful inspiration. But those images will only truly serve us if we view them as seeds for creating something of our own.
Our visions and inspirations can guide us and infuse us with the energy to move forward. But we need to be open enough to allow ourselves to respond to the realities of what is in front of us. Each new step will only feel integrated with the whole if we allow it to emerge out of all that came before it. No matter how hard we try, reality will most often not allow itself to be forced into a mould of how we wish it to be. A certain looseness and gentleness in our approach to our striving allows us to dance alongside it, rather than wrangle the next steps into being. And this approach not only fosters more pleasure, more engagement and more joy but also allows the mysteries of the unexpected to emerge as gifts rather than obstacles.
Images above show our Belgian Linen Bedding Set in Natural White, Hand Dyed Velvet Cushion Covers in Battista’s Backdrop, Belgian Linen Fitted Sheets in Natural White, Handmade Linen Top Sheet in Off-White, Handmade Linen Pillow Slip Sets in Off-White, Handwoven Cotton Cushion Covers in Plain Stripes, Shuro Palm Hand Broom, Handwoven Organic Cotton Towels in Ecru and Handwoven Organic Cotton Checked Towels in Ecru