Interior Lives: Inside the Homes of New Yorkers
“By pointing to things my respondents had deemed meaningful enough to dwell with, I was often able to make them reconsider the import and strangeness of their everyday domestic surroundings.”
Men alone, as mortals, by dwelling attain to the world as world. Only what conjoins itself out of world becomes a thing.
—Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 1971
Each sign is placed in relation to a chain of signifiers whose ultimate referent is not the interior of the room, but the interior of the self.
—Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, 2007
- Tell me the story of your home.
- How long have you been collecting these?
- What object has travelled with you through all your moves?
- If your house could say something to you, what would it say?
- What is this Star Wars Boba Fett cardboard stand-up all about?
These were some of the questions I asked as perfect strangers gave me tours of their New York City apartments. Surveying the homes of urban professionals in their late twenties and early thirties—all within the same lower-middle-class income bracket—I teased out the human narratives inscribed in personal possessions.
My interview methods were based on those used by Clare Cooper Marcus for her 1995 book House as Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home, and Daniel Miller in his 2008 book The Comfort of Things, in the sense that I asked the subjects to speak of their memories by pointing to objects visible in their homes.
“All distances in time and space are shrinking,” philosopher Martin Heidegger writes in his essay on the “thing:”
Man puts the longest distances behind him in the shortest time. He puts the greatest distances behind himself and thus puts everything before himself at the shortest range. Yet the frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness; for nearness does not consist in shortness of distance […] Nearness, it seems, cannot be encountered directly. We succeed in reaching it rather by attending to what is near. Near to us are what we usually call things.
The critical theorist Bill Brown expands on Heidegger’s inquiry into how things allow us to understand the world outside by insisting on things’ independence:
As they circulate through our lives, we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture—above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things. We look through objects because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful, because there is a discourse of objectivity that allows us to use them as facts […] We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us […] The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.
By pointing to the things my respondents had deemed meaningful enough to dwell with, I was often able to make them reconsider the import and strangeness of their everyday domestic surroundings.
Profile: Heather Smaha
“Should we start at the front door?” Heather asks as she leads me through her one-bedroom apartment in Inwood. “I moved here because I broke up with my boyfriend. I walked in and it was, like, home! That’s it. You walk into a room; I know exactly what to do with it. It seemed like a good next step.” Since April of last year, Heather, a twenty-five-year-old freelance lighting designer and electrician, has been setting up her apartment on her own terms. She prefers to define her home by the things she doesn’t own rather than the things she does. “I didn’t expect to buy the dining room table or the desk. I knew I needed them, but I thought I’d just throw stuff around and sit on the floor. So actually setting my house up was a surprise… I really moved in. Now I’m here. I’m… ok. Everything is ok.”
Heather’s grandmother cleaned houses professionally “and to this day she will wash her kitchen sink and then wash dishes in the bathroom for three days because the kitchen sink is so clean,” Heather says amusedly. She admits to having inherited some of these rituals: “I usually go one room at a time. I make it a project. I play music and put on cleaning pants. One day I cleaned the kitchen for eight hours. It’s ridiculous.” She remembers growing up around too much furniture and too many surfaces that needed cleaning in her childhood home in Pennsylvania, and thus is trying to reduce her possessions so there are less of them to maintain. In an effort to self-correct her learned urges she plans to donate all of her books, having read them all.
In her austere bedroom, a makeshift clothing system, made of IKEA wine rack shelf extenders, allows her to create a pile of clothing worn for a few working hours, neither clean enough to fold and put back in the drawers, but not yet dirty enough to launder. “Even though it is a mess of a pile on this rack, it has a place to be,” she says. The surfaces and furniture help Heather organize the different parts of her life in different sections and corners of her apartment, so she can address them bits at a time, much like how she cleans each room.
Based on Claire Cooper Marcus’s technique of inviting her subjects to role play and speak from the subjectivity of their respective dwellings, I asked Heather what her home would say to her if it could say something. She responds, “‘You need to relax and chill out. Everything’s fine!’ I feel like I do a lot of walking around and thinking I have to do this thing and then have to do this thing and the cleaning is a compulsive reflection of that. My house would say ‘you need to take a minute and just sit.’ Which I don’t do at home, I do it in yoga class.”
I point out the five long mirrors she has hung horizontally throughout her home, and she explains, “I feel like they give a sense of expansion. I like the way the reflection feels. Hey, I’m the person I have to deal with all the time, so I should not be ignoring that. They’re always there. I look at them and think: here’s me. Deal with the self… All of this is all me. Everything on that wall, excluding the clock, is something I’ve made, or created or drawn. And that makes me feel so much better. Like, Look what I can do! That’s right! It’s all a part of me.” Her drawings remind her of her own abilities and re-affirm that she is “okay,” a word she uses often.
Instead of accumulating more things, Heather was learning to play the guitar (she named it Maggie, after the name her parents had first thought to name her.) “It’s something else that makes me feel like this is my own space and no one else has a claim on it.”
The Canadian anthropologist, Jean-Sébastien Marcoux writes of experiences similar to Heather’s in his essay “The Refurbishment of Memory.” He theorizes that the physical sorting of belongings that every residential move requires is a re-assessing of relationships and memories that the objects evoke and represent. The moving process thus becomes a practice of narrative construction and editing. Irene Cieraad describes the other side of this object/memory pairing. In her recent article “Homes from Home: Memories and Projection,” Cieraad challenges the concept of home as having a static definition. Instead home is a “layered” mental and physical space composed of memories of first homes and projections of ideal homes.
Homemaking is treated as a lifelong project, with no home ever reaching a state of completion. Homemaking exists as long as memories need places to be housed. The objects brought along from past homes become physical enactments of and future triggers of memory. Collections function as mnemonic stimuli for recollections as inhabitants use their domestic interiors as sites to re-present their pasts. The shelf, mantelpiece, and wall, are some of the places where ideas of self and others are modified, altered, and repeatedly reconstituted.
Profile: Alice Heinz
Another interviewee was also newly single and living alone for the first time in a studio apartment where “everything gets layered” with patterned textiles, textures, and continuations of family practices. Alice Heinz, a twenty-five-year-old Decorative Arts graduate student, treated the end of her relationship with her boyfriend of four years, as a time to re-entwine herself in the aesthetics and objects of her parents, uncles, and sisters. “We have shared memories,” she explains about her twin sister: “This chair (a Breuer side chair) is one of those. My sister thinks she found it and I think I did. She remembers it from an antique market. I swear it’s mine.” Alice’s family is a source of comfort, stability, and self-recognition within a larger, older social relationship.
As she walks around her apartment, telling me the stories of her uncle’s ceramic oil dispenser and sake sets, her father’s carved cutting boards, her mother’s aprons, printed tea towels, and her sister’s prints, Alice shakes her head, smiling, and says “it keeps getting funnier and funnier.” Just when she thought no traces remained of her ex-boyfriend, she realizes that she is, in fact, surrounded by objects filled to the brim with their joint memories. She opens a drawer to show me her grandfather’s wooden boxes and sees a set of heirloom silverware that belongs to her ex’s aunt. “I wonder if I should give those back,” she says and closes the drawer.
She relishes in having all of her messes be her own, and not having to hide her knitting yarn and projects for fear the dog (whom she also lost in the break up) might get to them. “My grandmother on my dad’s side collects rocks. My dad does too, as do his brothers and sister. We all collect rocks… This rose quartz birthstone is from my dad, here’s a shiny rock from Central Park, and a river rock from the weekend my boyfriend and I broke up. I found this triangular rock in Central Park the next day. It’s really pretty and it stands by itself… it’s symbolic.”
She has recently inherited her father’s bead collection and jewelry making tools, along with several pieces he started decades ago intended as gifts for her mother, which she now completes. In the corner of her room stand three boxes, stacked and decoupaged with maps of her hometown in Kentucky and other meaningful places in her life. These boxes are replications of the map-covered boxes she saw on top of her father’s wardrobe throughout her childhood. Her home today represents a visual continuity with the home of her parents and the traditions and practices she found there that she feels no urge to move away from. The only direct material trace of her ex-boyfriend lives in the bicycle that he hasn’t picked up yet. She uses the handlebars as a jewelry organizer from which to hang her handmade necklaces.
In their comprehensive study The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton state that, “One of the most important psychological purposes of the home is that those objects that have shaped one’s personality and which are needed to express concretely those aspects of the self that one values are kept within it. Thus the home is not only a material shelter but also a shelter for those things that make life meaningful.”
Profile: Hannah Ault
“I hope that when you walk into my apartment it doesn’t look like New York City anymore,” Hannah Ault tells me as we tour her muted, Iowa-farmhouse-inspired, one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg. “I have ten quilts on my bed and nothing is new. And I hope that doesn’t come off as inauthentic… because all of the things are… my aunt gave me this rug, my grandmother gave me this picture of my relatives, I got this in an antique store in Omaha with my mom. It’s not just stuff I went down the block and bought from some curated junk shop.”
“That’s what drove me about crazy about living with roommates. I had to live with things I didn’t choose. I need a lot of editing,” Hannah explains. Emulating the warm and cozy aesthetic of her antiquing, bargain-shopper grandmother, Hannah’s friends often joke that her home looks like that of a seventy-five-year-old lady, which is a description Hannah finds apt and reassuring. Hung above the dresser in her bedroom, Hannah has a collection of dainty, feathered, women’s hats circa
1940 that she buys but never dreams of wearing. “I feel like this zone is the nod to girliness. But just a nod. I think you would walk into my apartment and say a woman lives here; I don’t think it’s terribly masculine. But I don’t think that it’s super feminine. I hope not actually. My goal is to make you, like, ‘I don’t know if a man or a woman lives here.’ Because I like things that are a little stronger, dirtier, and heavier.”
Hung near the ceiling in the corner above her bed is a god’s eye— a symmetrical yarn-and-wood talisman that resembles a kite, and is meant to ward of bad spirits. Meanwhile a small heart made of filigreed metal hangs on the adjacent wall, meant to beckon suitors. In the living room a lock of long blonde horsehair hangs off a nail, much like the chic hats, reminding Hannah of an uncompleted project to learn Victorian hair work. She stresses being a bargain-shopper like her mother and grandmother, stating the low prices of all the objects that fill her earth-toned home, and mimicking the austerity culture that existed in the Depression era that most of her vintage objects come from.
Investigating the psychological characteristics of the collector in his 1995 book Collecting: An Unruly Passion, Werner Muensterberger concludes that all collectors use inanimate objects to compensate for animate relationships with people. The objects validate worth, sense of self, and correct past narcissistic wounds, allowing the collector to control a world of self-created abundance.
Profile: Jon Distad
“It’s a little messy,” says Jon Distad, a thirty-five-year-old software writer, as we walk into his basement bedroom in the Crown Heights house he and two of his old college friends moved into less than six months ago from Ohio. There is a bed, three bookshelves, two tables covered with multiple laptops, wires, and other miscellaneous odds and ends (a can of WD40 for example.) Amidst the books all over the floor, I point out a cardboard box, with its flaps splayed open, marked ‘mom’s books’. “Oh yeah, they’re not really,” he explains. “I’ve had that box I don’t know how long. It’s got the same stuff it’s had in there for years. I just carry it to the next place. There are socks in there now. I’m not very good at getting rid of my stuff. I don’t need any of these things. I just can’t bring myself to get rid of books—but I’m not going to read them a second time.” Most of Jon’s comments refer matter-of-factly to a particular Craigslist-acquired couch or thrift-store chair. His father’s childhood side table stands near his bed. His mother’s college bookshelf is also here, and has traveled with him since he was in college. Every object he mentions is first and foremost assessed for its functionality and performance, only after does Jon allow his memories to come to the fore.
“Have you seen this ridiculous bathroom?,” Jon blurts out after a long pause. By the sink he comes across a belonging that apparently soothes him. “My dad bought that for me when I was seventeen,” he says as he lifts up a shaving brush out of a sandalwood-scented soap lather dish. “I’ve never had to buy one for myself. He bought me two sets then, so this is the second one.” I ask Jon how he knows the exact cost of the set then. “Because I bought one for my dad a couple of years later.” The sentimental and practical merge in this hand held grooming tool.
Jon writes software for a consulting company based in North Carolina, and therefore works remotely via Skype from his computer table in the bedroom. He spends the majority of his day inside, and forces himself to leave the house for lunch to create a mental differentiation between his professional and personal time. He travels to the main headquarters every six weeks, and this routine helped him arrive to a surprising realization: “Brooklyn is the only place I’ve felt homesick for… I’m only recently coming to the understanding that home is a place. I always thought that home was group of people. I’m finding that I want to have a place to just call mine. Where I can always go, even if I don’t have to stay there. Just a place that exists.” Moments before I plan to end our hour-and-a-half- long interview, Jon mentions that his parents split up a few years ago.
“Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the Edenic unity of time and space before entry into history. The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee. Encountering silence, he looks for memorable signs, desperately misreading them.” Svetlana Boym, the author of The Future of Nostalgia, could just as easily have been writing about Jon Distad, the reluctant nostalgic.
Profile: Melissa Schmechel and Jonathan Motzkin
After almost two years of living together in their one-bedroom Boerum Hill apartment, graphic designers Melissa Schmechel and Jonathan Motzkin, both thirty and engaged to be married, are beginning to feel safe asserting their individual aesthetic preferences for decorating their home.
Melissa remembers their move from San Francisco: “We were transitioning from IKEA/roommate furniture to ‘OK! We’re going to be adults and buy furniture we want to keep.’” They packed their separate lives into an eight-foot cube crate, shipped it, and moved to Brooklyn.
The first room they set up was their design office, located in a long, narrow nook off of the living room. “We both had our own design businesses when we moved in together. [Afterward] we became an LLC and also got engaged. So it’s been a really big merge,” Jonathan admits. “Some days I say ‘Put a wall up!’ We have a little wall between our sides of the desk.”
Almost all of the furniture and objects in Melissa and Jonathan’s home now are pieces that the two of the them designed and commissioned, or are icons of American, mid-century design given to them by Jonathan’s architect parents. “We both have strong senses of style and we’re very lucky that our style meshes so well,” Melissa tells me, but as soon as we walk into the bedroom, their narrative of being a stylistically and philosophically cohesive couple starts to diverge.
“We have this constant debate,” says Melissa. “We moved in really quickly and bought furniture. And I finagled those chairs and you didn’t really like them.” “No,” says Jonathan. “They’re great. But I’m really attached to this chair,” he says about his cherry-red Eames rocker. “I love it as a design icon. When I first got a job in San Francisco, I bought this chair with my first paycheck. I remember that milestone. Melissa recalls that, growing up, her bedrooms were always were very sparse. “It was only when I started bringing you there that I started being more conscious of the way things look around me. Our place here has more of your parents’ level of decoration.”
For the next half hour, Melissa and Jonathan are locked in a conversation about which chairs each preferred for the bedroom. Melissa tells Jonathan, “I was wanting to store that chair. It’s too new. It’s too red. I really liked that chair when I first met you, but now there is too much red in this room.”
Melissa’s family history is defined more by a lack than by a rich, memory-infused materiality. Her parents were divorced when she was two years old and much of her childhood was spent moving: “I just found this picture of my parents and it’s the only picture I have of us all together, so I put it front and center above my computer.”
Negotiating individual interiorities within a conjoined interior is a life-long process for couples. Clare Cooper Marcus, in House as Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home, also addresses how physical residences provide the structures and surface upon which her interview subjects’ latent needs, unresolved disappointments, or satisfactions rest. Marcus reveals that homes and the objects within them mirror their negotiations with past homes, power dynamics with partners and boundaries of selfhood and safety.
With this research I set out to learn why my generation was growing increasingly attracted to objects, design practices, and craft traditions of yesteryear. Certainly there was respect and enthusiasm for time-honored skill sets that seemed to be disappearing with every additional megabyte loaded onto the Internet, but why were we interested in times before our own memory’s reach? Was this recycling of past styles an attempt to chivalrously place a coat over the puddle of the new century’s unknowns and uncertainties, or were we growing alarmingly aware that the generation that had lived through WWII, and survived to tell some of the most harrowing memories, was dying out? Our primary sources for memory and history, namely our grandparents, were fading. The last decade’s aesthetically nostalgic zeitgeist was defined by the twenty- to thirty-somethings, whether they were apartment renters or store merchandisers, scurrying to record their grandparents’ tales and traces. The less desirable alternative was to craft facsimiles or substitutes out of whatever contemporary material was at hand, before it was too late.
I still find myself staring longingly at well-built American Shaker furniture, or tin coffee cans with chipped, hand-painted labels—or even at the Fifth Avenue Anthropologie window displays cleverly built by twenty and thirty-somethings. Nostalgia’s longing can be a pleasurable sting. For centuries, it has graciously provided a sense of wonder about the ways things were and a sense of gratitude about the ways things can be.