For a person who has spent more than a decade writing and thinking about homes, “home” hasn’t always been a happy place for me. That, I suspect, is the case for many more of us than we would like to admit. I have moved so many times in my life, lived in so many places, that I know the essence of home life is in the people, and there, things don’t always go according to design.
This past year, I got divorced and my children left for boarding school. For seven years before that, I had been living in Kerala with my kids and it was, mostly, the best home life I have had. In that time, the design of my house wasn’t what had made it home, it was my children playing football in the house, thundering up and down the wooden floors, sounding like their eyeballs were on fire; it was “dance-party” evenings when one child would DJ and the other and I would dance-fly around the living room. It was the hours together in the kitchen, trying—and failing—to make Cantonese soup dumplings, it was the bedtime routine and the cuddling, the fights and make-ups. It was love. As architect Peter Zumthor writes in his book, Thinking Architecture: “Architecture… has a special relationship with life. (It is) an envelope and background for life which goes on in and around it, a sensitive container for the rhythm of footsteps on the floor, for the concentration of work, for the silence of sleep.”
So, I knew their departure would feel like butchery. I knew I would have to create a new place where I could heal, a new world for this brand new form of myself. When I returned to my gorgeous Kerala house, everything still looked beautiful but its soul had left the body. Everything was too big, too perfect, too still. I hadn’t really created it in my reflection and for the years I spent with my children, I had never noticed or understood or even cared about how it had all come together. It took their absence for me to really think about how I wanted to live.
A home’s interior design is a delicate compromise between pragmatism and aesthetics. Get this wrong and spaces become either ugly-practical or far-too-perfect. Many luxury homes are guilty of being made for editorial coverage rather than the muddle of daily life. On the other hand, a La-Z-Boy is great, except please, not in the living room—you should spare your guests and the space its hulking bulk.
Aesthetics is a tricky, subjective topic. But when it comes to designing a home, there’s one rule above all else. Figure out how you want to L.I.V.E. For, while the joy of a home is about people, and people are unpredictable, the way the home is designed can still be a powerful force that brings them together or keeps them apart. The elements of that acronym—light, intimacy, vocation and entertainment are particularly powerful deciders of the way a space is negotiated. If you are in the process of designing a space or thinking of it, think of these elements, as broadly or as minutely as the space demands.
Light: The quantity, quality and direction of light determine the colour, layout and lighting design of the home; it also impacts the way you mark out spaces for specific activities.
Intimacy: What is the level of intimacy the people living there want? Do they want to eat together or in separate quarters? Years ago, I went to the home of a celebrity interior designer and she complained her kids were always doing their own thing and she hardly saw them. I remember thinking that perhaps the fact that the eldest two of the three each had a floor to themselves, where they could easily live as if in their own apartments, may have had something to do with the disconnect.
Vocation: We are today in the post-covid interior design era. A home now must account for the possibility of work life taking centre stage in some part of the space. Where will that be? And, most importantly, what will sit behind you when you are on a Zoom call? That deserves some thought.
Entertainment: How we entertain ourselves or others is a significant element to consider. How would you like your friends to gather? Do you want them around the kitchen, or do you prefer the service spaces to be separated? Are you a small-dinner party-thrower? Would your friends sit cross-legged on the ground if they need to? Small spaces naturally force people together, and large ones need a reasonable number of folks to create the mood of a successful evening. Some of us prefer more solitary pursuits like gaming but then the space must essentially be built to store, display and use the accoutrements of that passion.
The process of figuring out the design of a home is, therefore, one of introspection. As much as it is an act of looking outside and around you, it is also a process of looking within, to the person you are and the way you like to live. The colours, textures, materials and objects come only after you understand yourself, how you would like to be and with others around you.
In this, the first column of Art Décor, let me give you an example of how I went about it, starting with light. My new little pied-à-terre faces east but sitting behind several buildings and with cage-grill windows covered by plants, the light is melancholic. The first decision was a wall colour that wouldn’t make the space more mellow. A cream base in a mellow flat would have made the space look like it sported a sepia filter. Apply large swathes of different shades of the base colour you like and see it at different times of the day so you know how it will look natural and artificial light. That is how I started.
The process evolved into an inspection of the minutiae of movements and rituals of my daily life. How did I want to occupy the space? What sort of room would work for both my children and my guests? The objects and décor would be the result of these considerations.
Mind you, as you change, so will your living space. My new one is built around this newly single woman, and how I wish to live. For now, at least.
Manju Sara Rajan is an editor, arts manager and author who divides her time between Kottayam and Bengaluru.