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Natural Awakenings

How a House Becomes a Home: Explore the Deeper Meaning of Your Home's Style

Sep 01, 2009 03:00AM ● By Judith Fertig

Home. It’s a small word for a universal idea, one that resonates deeply with complex individual meanings and associations.

Regardless of whether home is a room, apartment, cottage or mansion, how homey it seems depends first on two physical factors: light coming in on two sides and a view of greenery or sky, according to Clare Cooper Marcus, professor emerita of the departments of architecture and landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley. “We yearn for nature,” she observes. “Houseplants or a view of a garden is a universal desire.”

In her seminal book, House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home, which resulted from her work on a low-income housing project and a series of case studies, Marcus came to understand that “People consciously and unconsciously use their home environment to express something about themselves.” For Marcus, our evolving self-image is directly reflected in the homes we create, like a chambered nautilus, around our deepest self.

Sometimes, we discover that we have outgrown the shell in which we currently live, and a change is in order, remarks Jill Butler, an illustrator, creativity coach and author of Create the Space You Deserve: An Artistic Journey to Expressing Yourself Through Your Home. This could be the result of a shift, as the result of downsizing to a smaller home or again becoming a single adult; a celebration of finally being able to build a home or move to the place of our dreams; or a milestone, which might come in the form of a first apartment or new baby.

“Creating a soul space, or a nest, is not a new idea for most women,” says Butler. “What might be new is creating the nest that supports you and makes you feel loved and nurtured when your world might not. Taking the time to understand the deeper need is the first step.”

How a House Becomes a Home

“A house is more than a roof over your head,” says Butler, noting that it is far more than what it came to be seen as in recent years as Americans’ primary savings account. “The whole idea of a house became skewed when we worried more about resale value than actually living there,” she continues. “It’s time to consider their return on our emotional investment.”

A house becomes a home only as we put our own personal, emotional imprint on it. “A home is people-made,” writes Alexandra Stoddard, author of Feeling at Home: Defining Who You Are and How You Want to Live. “Our home is our essence, the ultimate Earthly place where we live and love and have our being.

“All the more reason to ask ourselves: Are we living with harmony, fulfillment, and joy at home? Are we living as well as we would like, or are we too often anxious, emotionally exhausted and stressed?”

Interior designer Kelee Katillac, author of House of Belief: Creating Your Own Personal Style, suggests we start by taking a close look at what we see around us in our home. “Homes that say nothing of who we are--what we believe in and values that we aspire toward--are places of tumultuous spiritual discontent,” she counsels. “By filling the space around us with benign objects--department-store clones with matching accessories to fill every nook and cranny--we lock ourselves into a gilded cage of fashion for which our creative spirit has no key.”

Taking Stock

Before we can create a home that truly expresses our deepest self, we need to rediscover who we are now, where we are in our life and what we really want. This calls for an assessment or inventory, a “before” snapshot.

Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul: How to Add Depth and Meaning to Your Everyday Life, recalls a “reading” he did of one woman’s dwelling. “My idea was to see the house’s poetry and alphabet, to understand the gestures it was making in its architecture, colors, furnishing [and] decorations, and the condition it was in at that particular time.” After the exercise, he notes, “We both felt unusually connected to the place.” More, “I was motivated to reflect on my own home and to think more deeply about the poetics of everyday life.”

How well does our current home feel like we wish it to? In Feeling at Home, Stoddard lists 15 elements that contribute to the emotional intelligence of a home. In addition to the dual keys of light and a view outside, as Marcus mentions, are color, comfortable furniture, change (periodic rearrangement of elements), privacy, fresh air, nature, beauty, art, order, a working kitchen, a home library and favorite objects. The latter may encompass heirlooms, childhood souvenirs and handcrafts.

“We begin by shaping our home environments into places of inspiration and affirmation,” advises Katillac. “By keeping our beliefs in front of us in our homes and by building our belief and our confidence through artistry in our own home, we enter into an exhilarating process that affects our lives on every level.”

“Just as a picture is drawn
by an artist, surroundings
are created by the activities
of the mind.”
~ Guatama Buddha

Creative Renewal

“Although we tend to relegate creativity to the working artist, all of us are creating all the time,” says Butler. Creativity at home may begin with a notebook filled with pictures culled from magazines, paint chips, product literature and to-do lists. We have the information and the ideas, now we must make it all happen.

Some creative house projects are relatively easy and inexpensive to do ourselves. We can make a static space, like a living or dining room, function better for how we really live—make it more informal, colorful, or lived-in—by changing the type of furniture or its arrangement, advises Katillac. Butler emphasizes that the secret to using every room lies in setting up the room exactly as we want it.

We can happily engage all the senses with favorite music, scented candles, fresh flowers, soft throws or silky pillows and perhaps a garden, visible through a window. We can repaint a room in a color we love. We can even make our own artwork. We can decorate only with objects that resonate with us, with less of an eye to the price.

“Living artfully might require taking the time to buy things with soul for the home,” counsels Moore. “Good linens, a special rug or a simple teapot can be a source of enrichment, not only for our own life, but also the lives of our children and grandchildren.”

Adds Katillac, “By surrounding ourselves with the trappings of our past successes, or with things we associate with those who have achieved the success we want in our lives, we begin to believe in the possibility of our dreams.”

When re-envisioning our home involves tearing out walls, adding rooms or building from the ground up, it’s time to call in help from experts: architects, interior designers, contractors, plumbers and painters—the works. That can seem daunting at first. But our sources share a secret: Find a professional with the credentials you want for your project, and he or she generally will lead you to other qualified people.

“Each lead, each name or name of a service, leads to the next lead,” advises Butler. “Each time you meet someone and get help, he or she will answer questions and evoke more questions yet to be answered, and on and on it goes.”

Finished ... for Now
When our home project is finished we’ll know, because the space contributes to our well-being, says Butler. “You’ll feel nurtured, nested, and protected. You’ll feel at home.”

“Feeling at home is a way of life, an inspiring journey of discovery as well as a bridge that leads us to great appreciation, reverence and beauty,” concludes Stoddard. A home that feels like home is a place “where we’ve transformed our spirit because we’ve learned how to follow our own heart.”  The effects, too, are ongoing. “Through this process of belief-based decorating,” adds Katillac, “nothing seems beyond transformation—negative thoughts, financial trouble, loneliness—nothing.”

Related Articles:  Playing with ColorSeven Avenues of Self-Discovery

Illustrations by Jill Butler

Judith Fertig is a freelance writer in Overland Park, KS. Connect at [email protected].

For more information and inspiration, contact Jill Butler at; Kelee Katillac at and; Clare Cooper Marcus at [email protected]; Thomas Moore at; and Alexandra Stoddard at

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