LEARNING TO BE WITH THE UNDONE
It is common for the process of designing interiors, at least in modern Western societies, to be based on creating a ‘look’. This look, often shaped by current trends, becomes a pre-determined vision of what our homes should ideally look like and the process of creation becomes about fitting our spaces into this vision as closely as possible. The aim of this approach, characterised by walk-in-ready designs, created and executed in short spaces of time, is to generate something impressive, especially in photos, regardless of what the space may feel like to live with.
Walking into an over-designed space, where every decorative item has been preselected, leaves little room for life to unfold. A softer, gentler approach to design that feels more accommodating of how life is lived is to create spaces that intentionally leave room for the future. The design of these kinds of spaces is loose and inherently undone. To borrow a term from architect and theorist Christopher Alexander, this style of ‘design’ leaves room for the natural “unfolding” process to occur, allowing one slow decision to occur at a time. Spaces created using this method result in homes that feel alive and that help to make the everyday feel special rather than the unreal look spectacular.
And here is where we as the everyday appreciators of beauty have an advantage over professional interior designers or architects. While most professionals need to work to tightly controlled plans, budgets and timelines, we do not. We have the freedom to take our time, collect one item or one set at a time, and allow our budgets to stretch over years or even decades rather than be fixed. We do not need to be measured by any external criteria but instead can use our feeling and the way we want to live as guides. We do not need to have everything preselected or ready for a move in date. We have the luxury of entering into a long, open dialogue with our spaces and to approach our designs one thoughtful decision at a time.
We have the time to allow ourselves to take cues from the needs that arise in our everyday lives rather than having to complete everything all in one go. Once we have gotten to know our spaces, how we live in them and use them, their proportions, light and feeling, they will slowly start to reveal the answers to questions such as how long the dining table should be or where it ought to be placed.
When our spaces are left intentionally ‘undone’, when we take the decision to make this a crucial element of our design process, we leave room for our lives to grow and stretch into our homes shaping and moulding them as they in turn shape and mould us. As new needs emerge, we can respond to them and accommodate them rather than feeling trapped and frustrated by a fixed design that no longer accommodates our evolving needs.
Being comfortable enough to allow a space to unfold, and taking the time to let this happen one decision at a time, requires a shift away from a perfect image of what our home should look like and a move toward embracing the idea that our homes, like ourselves, will never be ‘complete’.
This requires a subtle but profound shift within ourselves. It requires a refocusing of our values to something internal, how it feels to be and live in a space, rather than an external validation of a look that has been created. We need to practise being comfortable in imperfect, unfinished spaces and learn to recognise the slow and steady opportunity for joy within the act of adding to our homes one choice at a time.
This shift might be first and foremost about giving ourselves the permission, even encouragement, to take a pause, or to consider something for longer than our fast-paced world encourages us to.
In the second book out of his series ‘The Nature of Order’ titled ‘The Process of Creating Life’ Christopher Alexander illustrates the natural process of unfolding as a method for creating living spaces. The core of this approach is about allowing spaces to develop step by step through close attention. He argues that we need to pay close and careful attention to each successive decision always attending to and assessing how it contributes to the whole. “The essence of the process is that each step creates fine adaptation, creates a beautiful relation between what has gone before and what is being done. The building is created by attention.”
In this slow and thoughtful approach to design, every decision is made with the intention of being as harmonious as it can be with the entirety of what has come before, always aiming to enhance it by making a small but meaningful additional contribution. Alexander argues that at the centre of all unfolding processes lies common sense. He argues that “at each moment [throughout the process] you ask yourself what is the most important thing I have to do next, which will have the best effect on the life of the house?”. In this way we can allow our needs to drive our design process, allowing each step to happen in succession so that sufficient time and attention can be devoted to each element.
So much about modern life has become about creating a vision, based on a look, and then force-fitting life into it. Our homes too have suffered under this oppressive and reductive approach to home design that demands fake and suffocating perfectionism and demands it all quickly.
Our life is always unfinished and undone. So many of us live in the state of anticipation that once the next thing is resolved, sorted or completed we will be able to live contently. This feeling propels us to rush through life, with ‘completion’ as our measure of success. Shifting our perspective to one where we are continuously working on and adjusting all aspects of our lives - our self-development, our view of the world, our relationships, and even the less critical but nevertheless important aspects like the spaces where our lives play out – creates room for thoughtful and intentional engagement with the self to occur.
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