9 ways to make any home feel like a summer home
The idea of a summer home was unfamiliar to me as a kid. Most of my childhood summers were spent in my regular old house (or houses, because I alternated between my divorced parents’ homes each week). But as I got older, I was sometimes invited to spend a weekend away with a friend whose family had a cottage by the seashore, or were renting a cabin in the woods.
The phrase “summer home” connotes luxury, and to be sure, it is a luxury to have the ability to have a home purely for summer vacation. But the summer houses that I came to know and love were anything but luxurious. They had thin walls weathered from exposure the elements and smelled like a combination between old wood and fresh air. Bed linens and towels were always mismatched, their once-bright colors faded with use. Sand or mud accumulated in the front hallway. No one got mad if you put your feet up on the furniture.
On sunny days, we’d investigate the shed outside (there was always a shed outside), which contained bikes in various states of rustiness, old frisbees, hula hoops, and torn kites that might, with a little bit of tape and persistence, be briefly coaxed back into the sky. On rainy days, we’d dig through the box or closet full of games, the corners of their boxes torn, trying to find one with enough of the essential pieces to actually play. Internet, if available, was meager, and cell service non-existent. There was no A/C, just old fans, and moths banged against the screen windows at night. If there was a TV (and if there was, it was the old CRT box type), it had a VHS player hooked up to it with seven videotapes on a nearby shelf. At least four of these movies were about summer camp.
In these summer houses, the real luxury was a simpler life, one closer to nature and further from all of the constraints of my usual routines. As a high schooler and college student experiencing these places for the first time, I found these places freeing. They introduced a space between me and the endless striving that defined my normal existence. I often came back awakened to new possibilities for my life, with new ideas running through my brain.
In my conversations with readers about their homes, overwhelmingly I hear one sentiment repeated again and again: the desire to make home feel like a haven, a refuge from the stresses of the world outside. The summer home is a natural refuge, and offers an opportunity to learn about how we create the kinds of buffers and settings that lend themselves to deep relaxation, recreation, and rediscovery.
But what if the only place you’re going this summer is the same place you’ve been — the house or apartment where you’ve been working, sleeping, and doing just about everything else for the last few months? Are there ways to bring the spirit of a summer home into a year-round space?
I think there absolutely are. Read on for nine ways you can make any home feel more like a summer cottage (no musty mattresses or old VHS tapes required!).
Note: For more ideas on making the most of this summer right where you are, check out our free, downloadable guide to having a truly joyful summer at home!
Get rid of the excess
One of the most freeing elements of a summer home is the lack of clutter. Because summer homes aren’t lived in full-time, there’s less accumulation of the stuff associated with everyday life. Kitchens are often sparse, with few single-purpose gadgets. There’s no avocado slicer or microplane grater but rather a haphazard collection of knives that handles most tasks adequately. There’s little in the way of technology, and a limited set of books and toys.
Having less stuff around removes the cognitive load associated with sorting, storing, and caring for these items. It also eliminates reminders of certain roles we play in life that have obligations or stresses associated with them. Not having to look at the pile of bills on your desk each day, or the PTA calendar on the fridge, frees up mental space for other thoughts and ideas.
You don’t have to declutter everything, but pay attention to things that feel particularly burdensome when you notice them out of the corner of your eye. Try putting a reminder about the bills on your calendar and tucking them into a drawer. Take that giant stack of books by your nightstand and pare it back to two or three books max that you think will bring you joy. (Or put all of them away and order up a couple of new beachy reads. The clothes that need to be donated or mended? Again, tuck them in a basket in the back of the closet to deal with in the fall.
While it would be better to deal with these items permanently, we all need a break sometimes, and creating a clean slate, even temporarily, can help you get the space you need to feel refreshed and ready to tackle some of those bigger challenges down the road.
Lighten up your palette
A defining feature of summer homes is a feeling of lightness. (My Design a Joyful Home students will recognize this from the Visual Weight spectrum in the 5-Point Space Breakdown.) This gives spaces an airy, unburdened quality that makes us feel like we have space to think and to breathe.
There are a number of ways to lighten a space, but one of the simplest is color. Lighter colors reflect more light, making a space feel sunnier, even if you don’t have a ton of natural light. Swap out darker accessories for ones in lighter colors, such as washable white slipcovers for your sofa (or even just a sheet draped over) or a light-colored rug. A light tablecloth for your dining table, or even just a few lighter throw pillows (you can just order the covers and swap in the inserts you have), can also help bring a summery feel to a year-round space.
Add beachy patterns
Not all summer homes are near the beach, but their decor often echoes beach culture: colorful stripes and tropical florals. Casually tossing a few beach towels or blankets over your furniture can create an instant summer transformation. Beach or picnic blankets can also make great summer rugs, and depending on what you have on the floor, can be layered on top of your existing ones.
If you want to start small, consider layering in prints with items like tea towels or napkins, or a set of reusable enamel or bamboo plates designed for eating outdoors. (I happen to love these.) As I shop for my nursery, I’m also discovering that swaddle blankets are an affordable way to add a pop of summery pattern to a space. (For example, this orange-striped swaddle from Clementine Kids is $18 and could be draped over an end table or a ladder for a joyful pop.)
Let the air in
Summer homes often have a porous quality. Their uninsulated walls are more open to the elements, and are often cooled by breezes, which bring in the scents of nature outside, and occasionally a (less welcome) 6-legged critter or two.
If you live in a climate where you can forgo A/C, try turning it off and sleeping with the windows open. (Add a fan if you need to.) And if not, look for ways to bring the scents of nature into your space, perhaps through a summer-y scented candle or a bunch of fragrant flowers.
Maximize your outdoor space
Summer homes are designed for a life lived primarily outside. If you have outdoor space, now is a great time to maximize it. This doesn’t have to be costly, but adding an umbrella or awning for shade, comfortable seating, and lighting can be a worthwhile investment in turning a disused patio or roof into a joyful place to spend time.
Even a tiny bit of outdoor space is worth exploiting. When I lived in Paris for a summer, I stayed in a tiny attic apartment with a diminutive balcony. There was one window box, and I planted it with herbs and edible flowers. The apartment had one small foam chair, the kind that folds out into a single mattress for guests, and each evening I would drag it outside and sit there with a glass of wine and my journal, writing and people-watching until the sun set.
And if you don’t have a balcony or a fire escape? Consider portable ways to create a joyful outdoor space in a park. This might mean a kit with a bright picnic blanket, citronella candles in mason jars for light, a colorful thermos for a cold beverage, and a couple of outdoor cushions to lean against while reading or chatting.
Flip your closet
Packing for summer vacation involves a certain amount of editing. You can’t bring your whole closet, so you have to pare down to the essentials: shorts and t-shirts, maybe a few light sundresses and a jean jacket for chilly evenings. Peering into a closet and seeing only what you need is strangely freeing. You’re not burdened by all the heavy winter sweaters or the buttoned up work clothes.
One way to replicate this feeling while staying home is to flip your closet. Space-starved apartment dwellers are used to having to swap summer and winter wardrobes and store the off-season items. But even if you have the space, tucking heavy clothes out of sight helps focus your attention on the here and now.
And while you’re at it, consider taking a break from your full-length mirror for a few weeks, by either covering it up or tucking it out of sight. One of the joys of a summer vacation off the grid is the freedom to pay less attention to how you look. Summer homes almost never have a blowdryer, and full-length mirrors are rare. (In fact our house doesn’t have one at all, because I like the freedom of living without it.) I find that spending time in places like this quiets the unconscious background noise in my head that hums with judgments about my body and how I look. Having time away from all that reminds me just how present it is most of the time, and frees me to think about other things.
Hide your work
What do you usually see on the bookshelves of a summer home? Romance and mystery novels, and maybe a few old classics — the kinds of books read purely for pleasure. There’s no business or self-improvement content, which might invoke feelings of guilt or pressure. To bring this into your space, simply tuck serious tomes out of sight, or at least take books you were “supposed” to read awhile ago and put them in a closed cabinet. (Better yet, if you’re still not excited about them, now might be a good time to donate them!)
And if you’re working through the summer, find a way to tuck your work out of sight at the end of the day, on weekends, and especially during a staycation. If your desk is out in the open, try putting your laptop and papers in a basket so that you’re not reminded of everything you have to do while you’re off-duty.
While it’s always an adjustment at first, the lack of TV at a summer home usually ends up being one of its most joyful qualities. Without the ease of being able to sink into the sofa and binge-watch, evenings always turn to more memorable activities, such as playing games or doing puzzles, lingering over a long dinner or an outdoor fire, or watching the kids stage a play or sing songs.
As with your mirrors, try covering your TV (or TVs if you have multiple) for a period of time. Make sure to stock up on a few new games or a fresh deck of cards, or think about fun conversation topics (we have a few ideas, here!) to pass the time.
Name your house
It might seem silly, but one charming feature of many summer homes is that they have names, just like boats. These names often evoke pleasant weather or natural imagery, such as “Fairwinds” or “Swept Away Cottage,” and in a subtle way, they set the tone for your experience of the place.
To bring this whimsical spirit into your own home, give your home a joyful name. This is a fun one to involve kids in. And if you’re up for it, paint a sign for your home too, one you can hang in your kitchen or outside if you choose.
If you’re interested in creating more joy at home, I hope you’ll join me for a free live workshop coming in January 2021 called The 5 Secrets to Designing a Joyful Home. You can sign up for the waitlist here. And for more ideas on how to have a joyful summer wherever you are, check out our free resource, A Joyful Guide to an Unconventional Summer, which has more than 70 ideas for safe ways to find play, adventure, and celebration this season. You can get it right here.