Essentially overnight, home went from a place — as in, one of many where we spent our lives — to the place. As in, the only place we ever are. Home is no longer merely where we eat, sleep, groom, and relax, it’s where we work, learn, exercise, and attempt to deal with the unmooring sense of impending doom that comes from living through a global pandemic and resulting economic crisis. For those of us who are non-essential workers, the past seven or so weeks have been about, among so much other stuff, figuring out how to optimize our homes to serve the countless new things we need them to be and do. That looks different for different people, of course — some are scrambling to assemble a workspace they can envision being productive in for a yet-undetermined amount of months, others are hiding out in the bathroom just to get a moment of privacy.
While strict stay-at-home orders will eventually lift, the current sheltering-in-place experience will undoubtedly change the way we collectively understand the concept of home. It will also likely influence architecture, interior design, and the home goods industry in big and small ways for years to come. What will that look like? What does it mean for a generation currently attempting to establish themselves through the cultivation of a home that's more than just a place to store their stuff? What is the meaning of home when home suddenly becomes all we have?
Whether you’re living in a tiny apartment, a comparatively giant, yard-having suburban oasis, or something in between, chances are you’ve already begun to both envision and interact with your space much differently than you did before. For many of us, it was the realization, circa mid-March, that we’d be spending the next several weeks working from home that inspired the tinkering to begin. Personally, after a stressful first week attempting to make the kitchen table my homebase — and scurrying in and out of the room every time my boyfriend, stationed at a small desk nearby, or I had a call — I realized I needed to figure out something more permanent. One night, a lightbulb went off: In a disregarded sliver of space between my bed and the wall, formerly home to a dinky night table I’d had since college and a pile of unread books, I erected a tall, skinny desk that I bought online for less than $150. I rationalized the cost knowing it can be used as a shelf when, you know, all this is over.
This decision, in addition to saving my sanity and potentially my relationship, has ushered in a newfound obsession, even in a space I’ve mostly grown to increasingly resent over the four years I’ve spent in it. My bedroom — and it is, as those who have seen it can attest, very much mine, even though it is technically shared — has always been my favourite room in our ungainly, artlessly constructed duplex apartment. But because I now spend 8+ hours a day locked in it like a teenager, I’ve become inspired to make changes I’d been putting off until the lease was up: ordering a new duvet cover, filling out the gallery wall above my bed, even dealing with the pile of random crap hanging off the closet door. I still want to move, yes, but in the meantime I’ve developed a relationship with my big, street-facing window, and grown to appreciate that I can hear what feels like the whole neighbourhood’s comings and goings from the comfort of my bed.
Chiara de Rege, a New York-based interior designer, says these are the kinds of changes many of her clients were quick to make after stay-at-home orders came down. “You need to be able to go into a room and close the door,” she says. “The home office is definitely becoming something of value. The thing that's important to remember is these decisions don't have to be ugly and you get rid of them once this is over. A beautiful desk and a beautiful desk chair can actually be a great addition to a living room or bedroom.”
But, especially in smaller or shared spaces, a desk that feels too in the middle of everything can be a burden. Many who have never conducted business from home before are already struggling with what feels like an impossible blurring of the lines between work, home, and family life. Having your workspace, with its incomplete tasks and rapidly approaching deadlines, clearly visible when you’re just trying to cook a meal and watch a movie — or, in my case, go to sleep — can add unnecessary stress to an already-stressful situation.
For this reason, says Sarah Zames of the interior architecture firm General Assembly, multifunctionality and convertibility are the new interior design buzzwords. “What I’m taking away from this, really, is that we have to try and make sure we can have an ‘off switch,’ and I think a lot of that does come down to design,” she explains. Her strategy is to make use of different lighting for different moods and times of day. “The same way that our phones have a ‘dark mode,’ you have to go into dark mode in your apartment. You’re making a practice of creating a different atmosphere in the evening, even as the furniture is staying the same.” She also notes that having storage options that allow things to feel truly put away is crucial here. “I love open shelving but I wonder, as we move forward, how much people will want that, and how much smart storage might impact design.”
“I think the key is finding a way where you’re not always looking at work, where it’s not in your face, and you can put it aside and have peaceful apartment time,” de Rege agrees, pointing to the secretary-style desk, which can be closed up during non-work hours, as a viable solution. But it’s also about knowing yourself: “There was one husband [of a client] who was like, no, I don’t wanna do this, I don’t wanna have to clean up after myself, I don’t wanna have to put things away, that’s just not gonna happen. But I actually like that. I like putting things away and I like lighting a candle and I like thinking about space.”
It’s not just home offices. Before we were in our homes 24/7, almost everyone had some area they didn’t know what to do with, didn’t have use for, or just simply ignored (i.e., the weird corner of space between my bed and the wall, where I now conduct literally all of my professional and many of my personal endeavors). Now that many of us have an abundance of spare time, though, many people are transforming long-neglected corners of their spaces into home gyms, crafting corners, reading nooks, and more.
Zames points out that, even prior to the pandemic, feelings about in-home gyms — once hidden away, or not even attempted in smaller spaces — were shifting. After all, if we post videos of ourselves working out to Instagram, why would we feel shy about showing off a predilection for physical fitness within our homes?
“A lot more young designers are thinking about how home gyms can be more interesting and designed,” she says. “It used to be you have the ugly treadmill in the basement in the suburbs and now, there’s a lot of good looking home gyms, whether it’s the giant iPhone looking things or these ones that are integrated into your bathroom system and are more like classic pilates [machines], made of really nice wood. I think it will end up being more on display, and not something you want to hide.”
Another oft-neglected area people are suddenly paying more attention to is the bathroom. Millennial women have long known bathrooms — when tricked out with the right plants, paycheck-consuming candles, and Instagram-minimalist accessories, of course — to be an unlikely haven. But if you’ve recently fielded a Zoom call from a stressed-out parent hiding from their toddler in a bathroom (or perhaps made such a call yourself), you know that the secret is out. Bathrooms are one of the last truly private places many of us have, and they are being widely worshipped as such via acts like, in my case, the purchase of a new shower curtain that isn’t smeared in stray foundation droplets and lightly speckled with mold at the bottom. It’s the little things.
Even the hallway, a space that seems designed for meaninglessness beyond conveying us from one room to another, is being transformed into a useful slice of space. “I turned it into a play area for my daughter, and a little desk working area for her,” de Rege says of her own apartment’s clearly generously sized hallway. “I think there’s a lot of thoughts about, how much of the square footage can we utilize so that if, God forbid, this happens again, or God forbid it keeps going, we can maximize space.”
Perhaps the biggest change, in terms of our real feelings about home, is the simple fact that we’re seeing so much more of it. We have no choice but to notice things about the spaces that surround us. Not just our own, but other people’s too: There’s your boss’s chic home office on Zoom, your best friend’s childhood bedroom on Houseparty, some minor celebrity’s impressive pool on TikTok. In a recent story for Curbed, Kyle Chayka writes: “In this brave new world, our home interiors are our new avatars, and they’re more honest than most.” There can be, obviously, some chilling class politics on display here. The reality that life in a Hamptons beach house is different than life in a cramped Bushwick studio has always been there, but it feels starkly apparent now that we’re all trapped for months on end in these very different variations of home.
But in lieu of almost all other modes of self-expression (sorry, makeup and clothes-that-aren’t-sweatsuits), the notion that our homes are the best way we currently have of telegraphing who we are — both to ourselves and to whomever we happen to be video-chatting with — feels real. It’s why, according to Salesforce’s Q1 Shopping Index, sales of home goods have seen a 51% percent bump compared to this time last year. “Your home is your self, and we see that now so much with Zoom. You see where everyone lives and it’s kind of opening up this whole world for us,” says Zames.
Being in an environment that, in the parlance of the great Marie Kondo, sparks joy, is also a survival strategy that shouldn’t be underestimated. An extreme example of this is Jenny Kaplan of An Aesthetic Pursuit, who designs the uber-hip furniture line Pieces by An Aesthetic Pursuit, and is staying in a home I can say with relative certainty has my dream interior. The Kennebunkport, Maine, house where she’s quarantined with her husband and another couple is filled with Pieces furniture and usually rented out as a “shoppable stay” on Airbnb. Perhaps you’ve seen it on Instagram; it’s filled with curvy, candy-coloured carpets and furniture, like something out of a '60s-inspired millennial fever dream.
“I’m a very visual person,” Kaplan says. “This was only a rental space where we would stay occasionally when it wasn’t rented. We never expected to be here. But it’s been very calming for me to be in this space. The flow is very calming, it’s bright and colourful, the natural light is wonderful.”
Kaplan says she’s been getting a lot more inquiries about buying furniture from the Pieces collection via Instagram and email. “People are working on their homes, it seems, a lot now,” she says. “We have all been so busy. Personally, for me and my husband, life has been non-stop, and for the first time in a few years, we have been forced to slow down. It’s a silver lining and I think the same thing is true for a lot of other people.”
While we can’t all immediately go fill our homes with rainbow rugs and perfect lavender sofas, taking this time to think about personal style, what makes us happy, and what works for us is a ritual everyone can participate in. It’s about carving out a little space for yourself in a world that feels increasingly scary and unrecognizable, even if it’s just a closet, a bathroom, or the long-overlooked slice of earth between your bed and the wall. And since we’re all being our unabashed, unvarnished, and occasionally even unwashed selves during this time, maybe we can also stop pretending that those beautiful mid-century modern couches are actually realistic — or so says tech reporter Taylor Lorenz, who recently tweeted in favour of “bring[ing] back comfy couches.”
Asking whether we’ll still care as much about home offices and bathroom sanctuaries after this is like asking whether we’ll still make banana bread or watch bad TV or stress-knit. The answer is unknowable, it’s both yes and no. But if we come out the other end of this with a greater understanding of the kind of physical environment that makes us feel good, then that truly is a silver lining. “Maybe people will be a little bit more daring, or a little bit more interested in how their home represents them,” offers Zames. Or maybe they’ll just be more realistic about which couches are actually comfortable. Either way, we’ll never look at our homes (or anyone else’s) the same way again.