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Designing for friends in the single life

An ode to being single, to building a home celebrating that independence, to putting together things that are meant for people who are there for connection rather than mere theatrics

The kitchen shelves are filled with different sets of glasses for friends
The kitchen shelves are filled with different sets of glasses for friends (Manju Sara Rajan)

I have been reading Amy Key’s Arrangements In Blue. The subtitle is ‘Notes On Loving And Living Alone’. The poet-author explores the layers and meanings in a life that is lived as a single woman, setting her entire narrative against the backdrop of Joni Mitchell’s iconic album, Blue

The author never married, and, in fact, hadn’t been in a serious relationship since she was 22—she is now 44. It is a beautiful book about a woman’s journey to creating community and purpose beyond marriage and child-rearing. The part that resonated with me most is how in her investigation of living alone, the theme of home takes on so much significance.

She grew up in a household of seven—five siblings and parents—in a chaotic, unhappy family arrangement. In that situation, and in the anticipation of a future with a romantic partner, she began collecting the elements that would make up her ideal perfect home. Buying cutlery from a charity shop, puttingaway things that would eventually sit on the shelves and spaces of her dream space. 

As her romantic aspirations are stalled, she realises her anchor and role as a homemaker wouldn’t be as a mother, wife or even girlfriend but in creating a space for the communion of friends. The kitchen, the dining table, and the act of sharing with friends would take the place of a romantic partnership.

While much of the author’s history is not like mine—I have just stepped out of a very long marriage and have two children—what stood out was how even when her romantic life doesn’t go according to plan, like me, her home still became a space of selffulfilment and joy.

Loving living alone—that is not something we expect of women, particularly if you happen to be divorced, which is still seen as a horrible wound in our society, even though many of us feel freer, more at peace and fulfilled for not being in an unhappy union. In March 2022, I made an entry in my five-year diary about a home that I hoped to manifest.

It was the Constitution that I hoped would govern my domestic life as a single woman. And like Amy Key, a keystone was the assembly of friends. “It will be an open house,” I wrote. “A place where friends are welcome to drop in, always have a place to stay, there’s the smell of coffee in the morning, mingled with the scent of dhoop.”

A year and a half later, my mostly for-one-person apartment’s kitchen shelves are filled with different sets of glasses for various types of alcohol, more collections of cutlery than anyone would deem necessary, and the refrigerator contains a vulgar amount of kombucha, wine and beer, for guests. Before my first dinner party, I asked my friend Sunita Namjoshi—the powerhouse behind the Yamini brand of fabrics— who hosts a dinner practically every week of the month, what I needed to buy and how much. 

In the married version of my life, everything was a joint decision and its scale and resources were far more vast. This was going to be entirely different. It was thrilling to know it would be my way, that everything would project my world view and its welcome to my friends.

In Kerala, I can hold dinners for even 100 people; in Bengaluru, my flat can take a crowded 14. I often find myself watching my friends and how they negotiate, adapt and move around these homes of mine. Now that I spend most of the year living alone, except for the times when my children are home from boarding school, work and hosting are the two activities that govern every design decision I make. Thanks to the design of my Bengaluru flat, which is owned by a friend, I have a vast larder that looks like my single-person home could feed 20 people at any given time.

The seating in the living room is a sofa from Phantom Hands and it can take four friendly people at a single time. Then I have lots of bamboo stools spread through the space for folks to perch. In this new space of smaller scale but greater emotional ambition, everything is placed around hosting, but informally. It is so because I find many of them prefer it that way, and, as a single woman, my friends have become both my chosen family and the bedrock of my daily life.

At 45, it is maybe unbecomingly exciting to position these relationships of choice at the heart of my home design. But that’s how it is, and I am never more content than when there are conversations, clinking glasses and music concerting together on an evening. 

This is an ode to being single, to building a home celebrating that independence, to putting together things that are meant for people who are there for connection rather than mere theatrics. It is a prayer of hope, that building a life of joy can be done with some practice, even discipline.

If, like me, you are suddenly building anew, for whatever reason, then my most important piece of advice would be: pay attention. Pay attention to your own particular habits and celebrate them. Celebrate them by buying the things that reflect those peculiarities—if you like doilies, do doilies, if you like cottage-core, go cottage-core. One of the first things I bought for myself when I was setting up my kitchen was a set of three thali plates, because I have always liked its no-nonsense linearity. It isn’t cool or chic but it appeals to my practical, order-loving Virgo mentality. So there are three, for my kids and myself.

If the communion of friends is important, then pay heed to how they like to negotiate your space and design thoughtfully. Celebrate the ones you care about by having the accoutrements at hand when they are over—like the perfect whisky glass for that friend who likes a single malt.

For me today, work and friends take a central role, except for the moments when my children are home. Then the axis shifts to the space they are comfortable with, which is our home in Kerala. Their personal spaces are triangulated now between that large countryside home and their parents’ individual flats in the city. The way my boys move around my flat, I can tell they are not quite at ease. It’s too small, not filled with as many of their mementos as they would like. But that’s okay. It is okay for a woman to create her world for herself, in her fashion. Too much of ourselves is given away to our dependents, from kids to parents. Instead, doing it for my friends and for myself feels like a radical form of self-love.

Amy Key quotes a line from Joni Mitchell’s My Old Man, in which she sings, “the bed’s too big, the frying pan too wide”, when her lover is away. My kingsize bed feels just right because I can take up all the space I need in it, and the frying pan is always full, because there are always friends to feed.

Manju Sara Rajan is an editor, arts manager and author who divides her time between Kottayam and Bengaluru.

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