This blog is part of a series. You can read the first part here.
There are places in the world that make us feel perfectly at ease. Places where we feel fully ourselves, inspired, invigorated and alive. It can feel like magic, like a secret ingredient we can’t quite put our finger on, but if we pay close enough attention, there are patterns there that can teach us something about ourselves and the things that help us come alive.
There are many examples of stylish spaces. Spaces that are perfectly put together, that showcase all of the latest trends. And then there are soulful spaces that don’t just look good but feel truly life-giving to be in. Spaces where we feel at home from the moment we step into them. These spaces don’t seem to be affected by the passage of time in the same way that trend-focused spaces do and often look good years and decades after they were created.
In his book titled ‘The Timeless Way of Building’, Architect and Emeritus Professor Christopher Alexander, describes this timeless quality in a building, a town or a home as ‘the quality without a name’*. He shows us how spaces and places that have ‘the quality without a name’ are not only perceived to be more beautiful but actually have an impact on how we live and feel within them.
Alexander’s explanation of this quality is somewhat elusive, in large part, because he deems that it can never be fully described in words. But he argues that just because it is difficult to precisely capture the nature of this quality with language, does not mean that we cannot objectively distinguish it.
So how can we create this quality without a name through good design? From reading Alexander’s work and the work of other architects and designers who share the belief that design is about more than just creating a look, three key ideas come up time and time again. These three components of how to create well-designed space come together to form more of an approach to design, a design philosophy, than ‘how-to’ instructions or a manual. They also feel like they run a little counter to modern Western culture where the ideas and advice we find most appealing are ones that provide short, prescriptive steps to follow.
The three components to how to create spaces that help us come alive are not quick, easy steps but more of an approach to aesthetics and design. They form the bones of a slow considered design philosophy that focuses not just on how things appear and look but on how they make us feel and how they help us to live. These three components are attention, time and something I’ll refer to as the character of nature.
As a society, we have become extremely distracted. Whether it is the ability to attend to a conversation deeply enough to break through the initial superficial levels of polite conversation or the ability to attend to what sparks our interest enough to develop a true and deep understanding of a subject, our attention is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal. What we attend to shapes the direction our lives will unfold in. What does it say about us if cannot attend to anything for long enough to break through superficiality?
Learning to pay close enough attention until the mere act of attending begins to reveal answers is a skill that can only be acquired with time and practice. While it seems like such a simple recommendation, in fact, it is one of the most challenging practices we can devote ourselves to. But learning to do anything well requires that we learn how to pay very close, and ever more discerning, attention to it.
When it comes to designing spaces, the best way to start this practice is through beginning to pay very close attention to the spaces we love. Whether it is a favourite park, a beautiful building, a welcoming restaurant or a cosy home when we are in a space that we love we can begin to ask ourselves why do we love it? What exactly is it about the space? What contributes to creating its atmosphere? What small details can we notice and how do they work together to form the whole? How exactly does this space make us feel and how and why does that differ to other places that don’t evoke those feelings? Asking ourselves these questions will get us to start focusing our attention on noticing all of the components that come together in a space to make it feel right.
Alexander argued that when we are in a place and have a general sense that something is “right” that something is working and makes us feel good, we need to ask ourselves what exactly this something is and why is it helping to make this place feel alive? After we have begun to notice what we are drawn to in individual spaces we can start to consider what they all have in common. What are the traits and characteristics that repeat across all of them? What common features across a variety of spaces help us to feel comfortable and come alive within them?
Alexander points out that this is extremely hard because it takes an enormous amount of effort to pay attention for long enough to discover what exactly it is about spaces that makes them work. But once we learn how to attend to our feelings in this way we can begin to use them as a tool for guiding our design decisions. By paying very close attention to all of the spaces and places that make us feel good, that help us come alive, we can begin to understand what they have in common and how these same features can be translated into our own spaces. “Making abstractions which are powerful and deep is an art” Alexander explains, “it requires tremendous ability to go to the heart of things and get at the really deep abstraction. No one can tell you how to do it in science. No one can tell you how to do it in design”, it is simply a skill we acquire through time and practice. While it may not feel like we are getting anywhere when we start this practice, with time and patience we will begin to notice an awareness and deep understanding accumulating and this will make all the difference.
Time is something we all seem to be completely starved of in our modern cultures. When it comes to the design of our homes, things are no different. The desire to create a finished home within months of moving in, where every corner has been filled and there is no space left for the natural rhythms of our lives to leave their mark, often results in spaces being decorated and redecorated every few years.
Our desire to create a perfect ‘look’ within our homes leaves little room for the natural growth and evolution of our spaces. Instead, we rush to fill every corner, even when time and money may not allow us to, only to feel dissatisfied almost as soon as we have finished. But research now supports what architects like Christopher Alexander pointed out long ago: people tend to be more drawn to spaces that have evolved slowly over time than those that are put together all at once. This is because spaces that evolve slowly and naturally tend to have more complexity, something we will discuss in more detail in the next point. Put simply, the most beautiful spaces require depth and variety and these require time.
In her book ‘The Shaping of Us’ Lily Bernheimer asks “Why do we love old buildings?...Is it because, as Christopher Alexander says, they were constructed in a time when our built environment grew slowly, piece by piece?... What we think of as mainstream modern architecture today says just as much about our economy, our values as a society, as it does about modernist aesthetics. Modernism was the clothing that capitalism put on for its global growth spurt. Much of our built world is now created quickly and in large swathes. This violates a principle Alexander considers to be key to the beauty and success of many older environments: the process of ‘piecemeal growth’”.
To get to truly know our homes and how our lives can best unfold within them takes time. This intimate knowledge of how we move through and use the spaces we inhabit is one of the best guides for design decisions as it is based on the way we actually live. What type of dining table will meet our family’s needs? How do we actually use a spare room? What is the most comfortable space in our living room, the one we gravitate towards most often? How does the light move through our spaces and how will that impact the colours we choose? The answers to many of these questions naturally reveal themselves when we give ourselves the time to get to know the spaces we inhabit.
A helpful piece of advice is to strive to free ourselves of the idea of thinking about our home as a finished product. When we change our way of thinking to allow for our homes to grow and evolve with us, we can push away the self-imposed pressure to create the perfect finished home within a few months of moving in. Not every corner needs to be filled or perfectly styled no matter what the photos in the magazines tell us.
After acquiring the furniture pieces essential for daily life it is such a joy to allow our homes to fill slowly and with care. As the perfect items come into our lives after months of searching, as we bring things back from travels near and far, as we adjust existing pieces of furniture or give them new life, our own lived experiences will begin to shape and imprint on our spaces. Design that helps us come alive will intentionally leave space for this to happen naturally.
Lily Bernheimer poses a thoughtful question which I will repeat here: “what clouds, lightning, coastlines, and trees have in common is that their form is never static. They are in motion – growing, changing, moving. But when we make a toaster or a modern home, we tend to think of it as finished, static product. What does it do to our conception of ourselves, our communities, if we have no appreciation for the natural passage of time and of our place in the world that is alive and growing instead of a commodity?".
Allowing the design of our homes to unfold more slowly, more naturally while pushing away the idea of a perfect finished product brings us to the final component of the characteristics I consider essential for helping us to create spaces that help us come alive. I will refer to this characteristic as the character of nature and I will consider it in detail in our next blog post.
Images above show: Our Handmade Linen Table Cloth in Warm White, Handmade Linen Napkins in Off-White and Warm White, Handmade Linen Blanket (all coming soon), Handwoven Cotton Cushion Covers in Plain Stripes, Clerk Coffee Pour Over Stand, Hand Forged Copper Cup, Classic French Table Glasses, Stone Washed Flatware Set and Stone Washed Baguette Flatware Set, Handmade Fluted Berry Bowl, Handmade Fluted Side Plates, Helene Plant Pot, Copper tea and Coffee Canisters, Handmade Fluted Soup Bowls