You don't want to invite me to your house for dinner. Because at any lull in the conversation, I'll be scanning the room, noticing what's on the walls, what's on the tabletop, what I'm sitting on, and what's underfoot.
You see, I fully agree with Julian Fellowes, the creator of "Downton Abbey," who declared, in reference to his meticulous rendering of lavishly appointed upper class Edwardian interiors: "There is almost nothing in your house that does not tell something about you."
Most of us understand that notion. Our homes have actually become another aspect of what the sociologist Erving Goffman famously termed "the presentation of self in everyday life." Some of us are so painfully aware of this that, like poor status-conscious Hyacinth Bucket ("pronounced Bouquet, dear") in the Britcom "Keeping Up Appearances," we decorate our dwellings with items designed more to impress others than to please ourselves.
Conversely, others of us, also painfully aware of what our homes can reveal about our private lives, simply bar visitors at the threshold rather than deal with the wealth of embarrassments within.
My client's cottage
Whether we're house-proud or house-shamed, both states have to do with what our homes tell others about us. The more interesting question is: What do our homes tell us about ourselves? What unrecognized aspects of our psyches are reflected in the spaces we inhabit?
Here's a case in point. I once had an interior design client who lived in a charming, if badly lighted, house modeled on a Cotswold cottage. It was basically a little fortress, with thick walls and small windows, a place in which one could feel either extremely secure or extremely claustrophobic. My client felt safe and protected while I had an overpowering desire to take a sledgehammer and knock holes in the walls. (But that's just me; my idea of a cozy home is a Mies van der Rohe glass cube.)
The real issue was the furniture. There was way too much of it. The living room had no end of end tables, not to mention cabinets and side chairs, and every bedroom contained at least three chests of drawers. Crossing a room was like negotiating an obstacle course constructed from turn-of-the-20th Century golden oak. This clutter, coupled with low ceilings and Hobbit-sized rooms, created an overwhelming sense of constriction.
Which was exactly the state my client was in with regard to her life in general. During our tour of her home, she had recited a litany of personal and professional frustrations. She felt blocked, stuck and stymied at every turn.
"First things first," I advised, "Get rid of the bloody furniture. You told me you don't even like it."
"I can't," she wailed. "It belonged to…" whereupon she reeled off a list of the deceased ancestresses who had owned and loved each and every piece of the cumbersome Victoriana that cluttered up her cottage.
Betraying the family
Probing further, I discovered that my conscience-stricken client felt obligated to keep all this stuff, presumably forever, because parting with even one needlepointed footstool would constitute a betrayal of her proud family heritage, a heritage that included a pervasive—and extremely limiting— sense of female martyrdom.
After considerable nagging on my part, my client agreed that lightening up, in more ways than one, might improve her spirits. She sent half her excess furniture to the Salvation Army and sold the other half on consignment. She also hired a therapist and began to deal with her martyrdom issues.
Coincidentally— or perhaps not— a new boyfriend came into her life just as the cursed furniture departed. The Cotswold dungeon got sold, and together they moved into a mid-century modern home with plenty of windows and a manageable amount of Scandinavian teak. As far as I know, they are living there happily ever after.
The moral of this story? Ask not of your house what it says about you to others; ask what it says about you to yourself. And if you don't like what you hear, call the Salvation Army.♦
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