At around 9 p.m. on Feb. 15, I was in my usual place on the sofa, laptop warming my thighs, reflexively refreshing e-mail, Twitter, Facebook. My husband and his laptop were over at the opposite end, the yang to my yin, just not as romantic. Valentine's Day had come and gone, yet here we were back in position. Not unhappy, just … existing. We deserve more than this, I thought.
Wouldn't I love to spend my evenings reading poetry by the fire, getting fit or writing a bestseller, instead of reading about people who do that kind of thing on my computer screen? It seems straightforward, and yet once we've put the kids to bed and scoffed our supper, the lure of the sofa is inescapable. To loosely paraphrase the young Brooke Shields, nothing comes between me and my couch.
Call me lazy. Guilty as charged. What I'm learning, though, is that my house has its own explaining to do. It's not just me: My interior is stuck in a full-blown rut.
That diagnosis came from Kim Eastburn, a Baltimore-based designer and self-professed "interior design shrink." A 30-year industry veteran, Eastburn gets most of her business from clients who come seeking a style makeover when what they actually need is a lifestyle makeover. According to Eastburn, the two go hand in hand.
Apparently, my first mistake was neglecting my "spiritual housekeeping." In other words, I'm not being mindful of how I live. "The home is not the flop place," Eastburn said. "Like anything in this world, we get out what we put in." And hours spent on the couch are "classic avoidance."
Eastburn doesn't practice feng shui per se, but she does talk a lot about energy – how you can tweak your furniture layout to allow it, and you, to flow more positively. Arrange your favourite chair and beloved things around your home's prime spot and you'll start finding good habits within arm's reach, while your bad ones slide. She suggests starting small.
"Clean out a junk drawer," she told me. "The skills we use to edit and evaluate the contents of a junk drawer are same skills we need to evaluate and edit all the other things in our lives. When you do that, you reset."
Meanwhile, says Eastburn, put away the laptop. "We've come to believe that we've got to entertain every single thing that comes into our universe, every phone call, e-mail, advertisement." She advocates a sort of domestic "triage." Some things need an immediate response; others can wait.
It seems obvious: If the sofa isn't making you happy, get up and do something else. But often it takes a guru to set you straight. So I tackled our spice cupboard while my husband cleared out the toolbox and, dull as it sounds, it brought a certain frisson to the moment. Afterward, we watched a DVD without our electronic gadgets in hand – first time that's happened in recent memory.
Some designers have taken an anthropological approach to domestic life. San Francisco-based architect Barbara Lyons Stewart has argued that people function better in spaces that replicate the savannah: darker at ground level, neutral at eye level, with light ceilings, like the sky. An article that appeared last spring in The Dirt, a blog for the American Society of Landscape Architects, quoted her as saying: "Humans feel most comfortable in spaces that follow nature, instead of monochromatic bubbles." There's a reason we favour hardwood under our feet, she said. It replicates the forest floor.
Taking that a step further, Eastburn says we should decorate around our natural inclinations or pastimes. "You've been trained to look for something to do externally. You're waiting for something," she said. I realized I've forgotten what I enjoy.
"Imagine what it would be," Eastburn said, "then build around it to create your perfect scenario."
For that I called Colette van den Thillart, the Toronto-based creative director of NH Design and a champion of multitasking rooms.
"I sometimes shake my head when I look at magazines, bewildered how we've 'styled' ourselves to the point of banality," she said. "I see rooms so lacking in humanity – great for photo shoots but bereft of any soulfulness. You should decorate with a view to how you wish to live – and I mean live, not exist."
She says she avoids "great rooms" at all costs; they're largely responsible for those cereal-on-the-sofa suppers. Instead she's put a library table in her living room that's suitable for writing or card-playing, so routines remain fluid rather than fixed.
"Multi-purpose rooms are vital for facilitating your pastimes," said van den Thillart. "I put stacks of books absolutely everywhere so there's always something at hand to beckon besides the laptop. Every room in our house has at least one comfortable place to sit, often by a fire, to read, chat, dream, talk on the phone or write."
The point is to make it easier to do what you love to do, because, as she said, "Your home wants to love you back."
A few days after I spoke to the designer, I visited a friend in Paris. And one evening, sitting in a comfy club chair next to an ample side table, a New Yorker in my lap and a drink in hand, it hit me. I felt like a new woman.
Follow William Morris's golden rule: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
Don't "declutter" – that's simply transferring junk to pretty boxes. Haul out what you don't truly need and say "no" to stuff coming in. "We buy because we're bored," says designer Kim Eastburn.
Tackle the smallest room. Change the mirror in your powder room or give the walls a fresh coat of paint.
Rearrange a room to focus on a hobby: Put an easy chair and table by a window if you like to read; install your knitting basket there, too.
Designate a space for the tools of your trade. You'll never get around to sewing if the fabric is hidden away from the thread, and your machine is in the crawlspace.
If all else fails, says designer Colette van den Thillart, "hang yellow curtains and bask in the perpetual sunshine streaming in."