Why Renovate?


Dawn Marlan


Ever since I was in college, I wanted to design a house.  Two of my good friends studied architecture, and though conversations about their projects and glimpses of their intricate cardboard models, I decided that someday–with the very help, perhaps, of one of these budding architects–I too would design the space I inhabited.  I had fragments of ideas.  My house would reconcile my parents’ opposing aesthetics, retaining the mystery and wonder of old objects, patinas, and collections without sacrificing the elegant peacefulness of spare spaces or the drama of dark colors, rich fabrics, and reflective surfaces.  The ancient and modern worlds (representing my father and mother respectively) could co-exist harmoniously.  I would mix incompatible elements and methods, my father’s habit of juxtaposing ancient artifacts with gruesome plastic monsters because of their symbolic value and my mother’s penchant for pairing things because of their visual relationships, a design-school desideratum.   I would do both.  I would populate my house with objects that evoked every place I ever loved: tall vertical shuttered windows and zinc countertops from Paris, tiled Dutch oven heat from Berlin, tin ceilings from New York and Chicago, and I’d include elements from places I would certainly love if I were ever able to get there, like brightly glazed tiles from Morocco.


It was twenty years later before I considered renovating in earnest.  The house was a cramped but charming Italianate Victorian, which we bought when I was still investing the “antique” with boudoir glamour.  When our primary source of trepidation about the house–the hazard to young children posed by poisonous fruits in the garden–turned out to be perfectly innocuous plums, it began to seem a house worth investing in.


The house across the street, however, was also a Victorian, but a farmhouse.  Its occupants, respecting the authenticity of the period, furnished it in Victorian reproductions.  Above the square archway separating the dining room from the hallway a quotation from the Bible was scrawled in pencil.  Perhaps the pencil enabled the constant flow of fluctuating messages targeting different members of the family whenever a need presented itself.  The idea struck me suddenly: authenticity was dangerous.  Not only did the Bible creep from the bedside table to the walls of the house, visible warnings against transgressions, a Victorian-era house-alarm or surveillance system, but reproducing the Victorian period probably meant resurrecting the Angel of the House, and I was no angel.  Sticky notes, directed to her husband, reading “I will not indulge in sweets” clung to their bathroom mirror.  Their house, and even their relationship, was about Victorian constraint.  Something Victorian in my own house would have to be demolished.  Some period feature would have to be defiled, some rule of proportion flouted or transgressed.


One day I was talking on the phone with a friend who was held up by no such hesitation.   She had launched bravely forward in her own renovations.  I was asking her about her progress when she said something shockingly out of character.  She said, “I’d never move into a house I wasn’t going to gut.”  I was in the living room, on an antique dusty pink velvet couch, looking at a white marble fireplace surround, pine trim and moldings, French doors.  I was surrounded by quaint. Heat rose to my cheeks.  All of the choices I’d made were ones she’d reject for herself as somehow not tasteful enough, not sending the right message, not interesting.  She didn’t mean that she didn’t like my house and even less that she didn’t find me interesting.  She was exacting about houses for the same reasons she was exacting about her wedding.  It was her way of negotiating how to frame her life, and how she announced that frame.  What her project made clear was that far from being a capitulation, designing domestic spaces had begun to involve some suspicion about marriage, some rejection of complacent domesticity.  This would not be surprising in designs accomplished by thrift store finds or by a daring use of color.  But even in the sort of full-scale remodels previously associated with married life and its predictable, bourgeois, domestic values, people were distancing themselves from some of these values.  Renovating had begun to signal that an old institution was being rethought, that married life could be artful, playful, flamboyant, subtle, intriguing, innovative, and multivalent.  It wasn’t going to be tradition-bound, sexless, and dull.  It was going to be a new kind of home.


Why such elaborate efforts to show what we were not doing, being, accepting?  What were we running from? Perhaps from an oversimplified concept of home as an intact, stable, harmonious refuge.  Home might save you from the outside but it binds you to the inside, protecting you from others but subjecting you to yourselves and your family.   There are real political reasons to want to revise a concept of home that was built on gender roles and power structures that we feel we see more clearly now.  And there are psychic reasons for wanting to escape a model of home that required one to play an ill-fitting role.  Even the best adjusted adolescent experiences home, at least some of the time, as stifling and confining because one’s family witnesses the exposed, shameful act of declaring oneself, of morphing into a new being without knowing if the change will be successful.   Even the most inspired families leave residues of frustration, suspicions of non-understanding among their members.  So once you finally have the freedom to craft a home and identity that is not of someone else’s devising, what freedom!

It was with such a sense of possibility and that my husband and I launched into a renovation of our Chicago Victorian home, paying thousands of dollars for blueprints that would push the kitchen several feet further into the yard, capture some space beneath it for a home office, and possibly enlarge a closet-sized bedroom above it.  Just about when I realized that there was nothing particularly radical, inspiring, or gender-bending about this new configuration, my husband got a job in Oregon.


I knew three things about Eugene, OR: it was located in the west; it contained countryside, and it was not a likely target of a terrorist attack.  “If we move to Oregon, we could get a dog,” I told the children.  “Yards in Eugene, OR will be big enough for a dog.”  But alas, I could have used a lesson in the evils of preconceptions.  Of all the houses the realtor showed us, not one had a yard to speak of.  Yet my sense of well-being depended on Eugene being countryside.  To make sense of my sacrifice, it was necessary to have traded city-life for an experience of another kind.  Finding a house with a yard became necessary.


After tireless searching, we drove up a long driveway lined with tall grasses.  I stepped out of the car to the sight of flowering vines draped over a trellis, and a Japanese maple in the courtyard leading to the house.  Three apple trees were full with non-poisonous fruit (apples being far more recognizable than plums).  Douglas firs loomed overhead.  Deer were grazing.  This was not just a yard.  It was a magical yard.  I almost failed to notice the rambling ranch house with seventies finishes nestled behind the herb garden.


I had never much liked ranch houses.  The only sense of drama they conjured was familial.  But in Eugene, with its modest, practical, earthy sensibility, drama was situated in the natural landscape, in the old-growth forests and the inhospitable crashing, stormy coast.  If I was able to find some element of it in my backyard, that was already something.  Because the house was built before mid-century, it lent itself to some of the more appealing aspects of modernity (its new freedoms, its experimental spirit) while its stylistic inconsistency allowed me to ignore other less savory elements of the modern it might have otherwise invoked (its backlashes, its anxieties).  And, in addition to all of this, I appreciated the tension between the whimsical lush quality of the yard and the spare, unfussy spirit of the dwelling, which needed only a little coaxing to be fully achieved.  It was finally time for a remodel.


The first step was to research materials, which involved scouring magazines and websites until I knew every single doorknob produced in the last year and had weighed the virtues of one against the virtues of another, the bulbous against the geometric, the shiny against the matte.  I never would  have believed I was capable of falling in love with a doorknob.  But there was a website that set me up to love a delicate sculptural knob, so informed was it about the design’s genesis, so suggestive about its associative reach, so convincing about how this small piece of hardware could bring the aura of the historical moment it echoed to my own humble ranch.  I calculated how I might afford it if I scrimped on other elements of the renovation, committing to eternal frugality.   But this was a love born of its utter impossibility.  However hard I tried, I simply could not make the numbers work.  I gave up and turned back to my copious stash of home design magazines that were hidden away like a vice.


Recovering from my doorknob disappointment, I happened upon a magnificent house while flipping through magazines that might serve as a model of a remodel, or as it turned out, an anti-model.  This house was shamefully self-revealing on the one hand and stubbornly reticent on the other, full of misfired messages.  It was one of the most visually striking homes I had ever seen, elegant, quiet, and expansive.  The “creative” and “loft-living” couple that owned it was described as possessing a simple appreciation of nature.


Upon further inspection it seemed clear that while this expansive suburban house looked like a loft (especially in the shot of the mother sitting on the floor, clad in an ethnic gown), it was not a loft.  This was neither a transformed city warehouse nor an appropriated industrial space, but new construction.  Far from the city the couple wanted not an actual loft, but the things the loft signified.   This loft-like image seemed inextricably tied to a sex scene in Flashdance, which ushered in an era of loft apartments that traffic in fantasies of being young, free, and embodied.  In the scene, a dancer (squatter, house-occupier) makes love in an abandoned warehouse that she has made her home, revealing the extent to which loft apartments conjure the sensuality of huge, empty spaces that engulf and overwhelm, the daring and recklessness made possible by vagabond lifestyles, free of the responsibilities of ownership.  In modeling a home after a loft one attempts to profit from its association with sex (much like game shows that perch a scantily clad woman atop a car) without embracing the relative poverty that fueled such fantasies of free abandon.


As I continued to study the magazine, I began to feel that this strikingly beautiful house contained a warning.  Its owners did not seem to control its messages.  They did not seem to be aware of the contradiction between the values they purported to have and the values the building itself proclaimed.  For instance, despite the couple’s self-identification as creative, they banished all art and books from their house, exposing their suspicion of creativity and its fruits.   Similarly, the space is constructed of four materials to reduce visual complexity, illustrate discipline, and announce the value of simplicity.  Yet achieving such simplicity turns out to be a rather complex affair, requiring them to “struggle mightily” to conceal all switches and vents, and even to match sand to ensure uniformly colored concrete.  And finally, they declare the value of “openness” as if this value were universal.  But faced with their example, enormous spaces and furniture too far apart to facilitate conversation, one wonders if they ever questioned openness as a value at all, let alone as a universal one.  Why is it desirable to have a house without doors?  How do the children feel wandering from open room to open room for six thousand feet with no apparent limitations?  What about the owners’ experience and habits cause them to insist on “perfect consistency”? Why is their most consistent message that comfort and warmth are not the cornerstones of domesticity?  Everything important is left out of this story.


Despite both these silences and the transparently fictive tale this family tells about itself, one thing is clear: they explicitly reject organizing their home around traditional familial expectations.  They resist confinement, togetherness, and warmth, embracing cool, open, distant sensuous abandon. Perhaps these owners, like my friend who wouldn’t move into a house she wasn’t going to gut, renovate with such rigor because they fear that domesticity requires abandoning sensuality and adventure.  Perhaps behind public discussions about whether the institution of marriage has become obsolete is a couched fear that domesticity will do us in, that its conservatism cancels all extra-familial pleasures and subsumes all other values.

Of course, some conservative impulses–to maintain and protect one’s possessions and relations, to be responsible to those who depend on you, to appreciate and care for the things one has and more importantly, for the people in one’s life, to have a sober respect for the sheer effort it took to build these fragile things–are laudable, if not necessary.  And generally it’s preferable and more tenable to be tame than to be wild, violent, exposed and alone.  Unless ostensibly tame and ordinary structures–like those that confined women to their domestic domain–are soul-destructive.  If so, being tame might mean being fearful, vulnerable, and trapped.


Because the domestic realm contains both pleasures and pitfalls, we should not be surprised by our own ambivalence toward it.  But neither should we conclude that rejecting it solves our problem.  Domesticity has an element of the mundane, as it is organized around concepts of stability, health and comfort.  Whereas what one wants, sometimes, is precisely risk, adventure, and the possibility of change.  One fears being reduced to speaking platitudes, unwilling to entertain a thought that might trigger one’s defenses.  One fears being seduced into submission.  But one also fears being seduced into happiness, for only the happy have something to lose.  How much can one strive if one is comfortable?   How can the world reveal itself and its mysteries if one is always in control?   One wants–sometimes–to be surprised, shaken, destabilized, to feel strong enough to bear it, its pains and its gratifications.  If the domestic realm seduces, it’s because  the pleasures it offers are real, inhering both in the relationships found within it and in its aesthetic offerings.  Pleasure is not confined to the space outside the home.  One’s hedonistic credentials might be bolstered by the pretense, but one’s pleasures and satisfactions are not secured by  taking refuge in the outside any more than domestic life secures safety or harmony for its inhabitants.


Studying the cold, empty, magnificent house in the magazine made me wonder which value or principal should guide my own remodel.  Pleasure?  Comfort?  Drama?  Destabilization?  It was hard to imagine telling the contractor that I wanted to build an unstable home.  On purpose.  I might love the photography of Laura Letinsky, whose still-lives document the fragility of relationships and domestic life by depicting tea cups tottering on the edges of a table and messes left exposed.  But to have fragility as a goal?   No matter if it’s true, no matter if it makes us painfully aware of what is precious, shouldn’t we try to build something solid?

When I paused in my reflections to look squarely at the ranch house, I found that I did not really want to make it more harmonious with its natural environment.  The virtue of the ranch is supposed to be just this:  it is submissive to its setting.  But I was still resisting the setting of the Pacific Northwest.  My heart remained in the big city.  And because having left it was a sacrifice, something about this remodel was compensatory.


What I wanted was not so unlike what the owners of the art-free house wanted.  I too wanted something crisp, elegant, and peaceful.  But far from privileging nature, I was resisting this new context of fleece and comfort and woods.  I missed “culture” and was afraid of modest desires.  Was anyone from the state of Oregon ever published?


Finally, I took the first step in launching my remodel.  It was a step that cost nothing and required little permanent commitment, but ironically, it had frightening echoes of the big, empty house in the glossy magazine, despite my attempt to understand that project and avoid its mistakes.   In an effort to attain something sleek, stream-lined and peaceful, I too banished books from the house.  Staring at books in my place of refuge had begun to make me nervous.  Because books are my work, looking at them was unnerving.  I was reminded of all that I don’t know, all I have yet to accomplish.  I was reminded of all of the other people who, although many of them know no more than I, have enough books published to occupy an entire shelf.  And books are messy.  Books ask to be fiddled with.  One is constantly picking them up and putting them down again, confronted with the gap between intention and its realization.


The books went to the outbuilding, unaffectionately referred to as “the offices,” though I have tried other names for it.  I called it “The Library,” although this felt like a stretch because, first, only one wall of my workspace is covered in books, and a library, in my view, requires being surrounded by them, and second, because my father has a “real” library which looks like Dumbledore’s inner sanctum.  I tried calling the building “The Studio,” which sounded pretentious.   I might have tried “Garage” in a nod to its humble origins, but never considered it.  I settled on “Library,” despite the fact that it was a modest example of the category, but continued to refer to it as “The Office” concerned that the kids would be confused about the referent.  After all, they had to be able to locate us.  And “Office”–which, because it casts the only activity that excites me (and for which I have given up any chance of earning a living) as a bureaucratic or corporate enterprise, seems a rather self-undermining nomenclature–has stuck.  It is in that building that we keep our books.  Free of so many colorful volumes calling out for attention (because they lack the uniformity of beautiful white French books that politely recede on their shelves until addressed), the house exuded a kind of false peacefulness.


But having banished my books, I promptly began to miss them.  It was empty without the books.  The office (or library) was a long way to walk through the rain to check something.  It was hard to tell when I’d have a sudden need for the company of some one or other volume.  The spareness of the house was cooler than I like, more reticent, even withholding.  I began to worry whether guests might wonder if I read at all.  Would I appear to be one of those who felt she could write without reading, who felt self-sufficient, able to generate without absorbing?  Books began creeping into the house, but had no designated place.  Soothing piles began to collect on the nightstand, the bathroom, the kitchen counter.   I began to imagine turning the family room into a library, cloaking the remaining walls with floor to ceiling shelves.  There was something perfect about that room as a library.  Maybe it was the view of my favorite part of the yard, maybe the fireplace, or the wet-bar.  I wondered if the television made such a transformation impossible.  A television did not conform to my fantasy of a library, but I could find no necessary incompatibility between them.  But I couldn’t help but feel that it should be all or nothing: either books or the television; either banish the books, or include them all in a floor to ceiling jumble, a surround-sound of literary voices.


Failing to make a place within the house for books was not the only mistake I made in the design process.  The kitchen turned out to be too cool.  The Bertoia chairs (true to the period) are not terribly comfortable.   All of the surfaces stain easily from the concrete tiles on the floor to the limestone and marble countertops.   It turned out that I hadn’t a practical bone in my body.  I was not trying to make a house, I was trying to make a poem.


Like a poem, all of its elements were chosen both for the meanings they produced, but also for their sensual, tactile presence.  But most importantly, like many poems, they suggested a sort of paradox, contradiction, or mystery.  Thus, the dark shine of the stained cabinets deliberately obscures the earthy traces of the cherry wood still visible beneath its lacquered surface.  The soft cloudiness of the porous limestone counters muddles but preserves trace-fossils, reminding me that we are etched upon the world.  And the huge gray-blue painting by one of my college room-mates, Erin Parish, taking up most of the wall behind the breakfast table, contains a similar tension.  Depending on where you stand, it looks like clouds or simply, color, but if you move, a grid with fading corners emerges, revealing the fragility or impermanence of such ordering devices.  This shifting between perspectives is what seems true to me, because it seems to speak of a dialectic between nature and emptiness on the one hand, and the things we build, on the other.  I like that the grid of the painting is echoed in the metal backs of the uncomfortable Bertoia chairs, carrying the motif into the room with the question: how will we order the world?

I did not tell the contractor I was making a poem of my kitchen.  I did not tell him that I wanted to create a sense of mystery.  It was a lie of omission.  To myself, I told other lies.  I told myself that I wanted an industrial stove because I love to cook, and the stove, in announcing that love, makes me accountable for it.  But, in fact, I felt I’d earned it.  Earned–by devoting countless years to experiments with national cuisines, flavors, techniques–a tool I could rely upon, a tool of power and precision.   I knew quite well that it was possible to cook at a high level without an expensive, showy stove and that the language of earning is often invoked to assuage our guilt for wanting.  I should have said simply that I would make use of it and enjoy it, not that I had any right to it.  Or maybe it would be honest to add that I would also enjoy the fact that its brand name signified professional-level cooking, which I had not attained, although my children will loyally argue the contrary.  It is very difficult to get to the truth, which stubbornly wriggles away from one, even, and maybe especially when one is trying to capture it.


I could go on trying to justify why one might care deeply for the material world without seeking refuge in a spiritual explanation.  Is the material justifiable without a spiritual coefficient?  Is useless pleasure permitted?  Is there any sense at all in incorporating such pressing problems in the visual elements of a house?  Why would I have the need to represent these “truths” or “interests” all around me?  Am I afraid that otherwise they’ll disappear?  That I’ll forget something important?  That I will forget who I am?  That my character has no solidity?  That I can become something else?  Someone else?  There have been times when I’ve recognized this amnesia, this inconstancy, this temptation to be swayed, as a possibility and a threat. When I was younger I wrote at great length about seduction narratives, stories that center around the very effort to alter another person irrevocably.


The danger of losing oneself motivates rejections of domesticity just as intensely as it lurks behind our fears of the outside world.  We fear that we will be reduced to our domestic roles, that we will be permanently defanged.  We no longer fear that seduction–by someone with ill intentions–will take us away from ourselves.  Marriage and domesticity and the pleasures they offer, for they can offer so many, these are the threats.  We fear that we will be lulled to sleep forever by a good meal and a glass of wine, a soft bed and a child’s sweet, warm cheek.  Will we have any desire left in us?  Any sense of adventure?  Any fight?


When I remodeled my house, I believe I was trying to sustain this double promise of domesticity, its comforts and its dangers.  I was trying to make a space with some stability and some changeability, a space that would leave open the possibility of surprise.  But does anything about this house constitute a rethinking of domesticity or marriage?  Did it have its desired effects?

I have two favorite spaces in the house.  The first is the bedroom with its wall of orange silk, teal platform bed, and throw pillow with blossoming branches in almost the same brilliant orange against a yellow ground.  I like it because it is crisp and warm at once, because the curtains, which recall those of a theater, invite drama into the room.  They are raw silk, so they have a certain roughness to them, and at night they shine.  The living room has cooler tones with deep, peacock-blue velvet couches standing out among grays and browns.  The room is dark, moody.  The fireplace is hand-trowelled concrete, cloudy, imperfect, cracked.


Do my favorite spaces in this house help one, me, for instance, resist the traps and pitfalls of traditional marriage and domesticity, resist the complacency that dictates the choice of flannel pajamas and that coaxes me into sleep?  Could the arrangement of space or the selection of materials make me forget the logistical conversations I have with my husband about who drives whom where, or remember that we don’t yet know everything about each other or each other’s responses? Unlikely.  But as I walk around the house, or sit in a room thinking, I notice the arrangement and juxtaposition of shapes, colors and materials, and am at turns excited, at turns soothed, reminded of my priorities.  In the tension between darkness and shine, I feel small flashes of inspiration.


Surely some people (possibly most people) renovate in hopes of capturing a little more space, acquiring surfaces more compatible with one’s lifestyle, or impressing the Joneses.  But if one seeks answers solely in fashion trends or if one substitutes a designer’s tastes for one’s own, then one signs on to a set of values, messages and moods without understanding what they are.  Renovations–because they attempt to renew something old–offer an opportunity to rethink received values.  They implicitly suggest a personal vision for domesticity.  And isn’t suggestion a powerful act?   As we rearrange our spaces incorporating elements that recall things we’ve loved and things we’ve struggled with, we plant reminders that we find something of the past worthy of affection and respect and something in the future worth discovering.  If we force disparate elements to occupy the same space–cozy and cold, familial and swank–we suggest a livable tension, a refusal of the notion that such far-reaching aspects of the self are mutually exclusive.


Why renovate?  My own renovation produced a million mistakes.  Among the earth-toned square glass tiles I had chosen for my shower floor I discovered a fugitive aqua that clashed with the antiqued marble on the bathroom floor.  The countertops developed an unintentional patina, which, to the unpracticed eye, might resemble blotches or glass rings.  The gap between cabinet and counter–which did not belong to Euro-style cabinetry–had to be filled in with a horizontal slab of stained wood.  But none of these mistakes or imperfections really matter.  In every room of the house, present like trace-fossils, is evidence of my effort to make something I believe in.

There are fewer and fewer places that insist on beauty or thoughtfulness, and fewer still that want to bring these things together.  Practicality and profit conspire to create a visual cultural landscape of strip malls and fast food.   But a home is one place where one can still resist such forces.   I am not suggesting a disappearance into private life, merely an appreciation of it.    Whether one hauls in chunks of a mountaintop for a kitchen counter or whether one scours an Indian neighborhood for a beautiful sari to tack to the window, renovating can be a part of the process of deciding how to live.  I don’t know if spaces we craft finally change anything, but perhaps it’s enough that they serve as subtle reminders of our hopes.