Three ways your home can change your life
Have you ever had a really good roasted chicken?
Maybe it was served to you in a restaurant, the skin golden and crispy. Or maybe a friend cooked it for you on a Sunday evening over a bed of carrots and onions. If you’ve had one, wherever it was, the response it elicited was probably a strange mixture of delight and disbelief. This is… chicken?
Really good roasted chicken has been on my mind lately, in part because Albert has been making Aran Goyoaga’s transcendent buttermilk-brined version (from this cookbook), and in part because a good roasted chicken is a little bit like the way I feel about having a joyful home. (Stay with me here.)
When your home is just a place you lay your head at night, it’s like the rotisserie chicken you pick up in the foil bag from your local market. It’s nourishing. You feel full after you eat it. It tastes fine.
But a really good roasted chicken feels like a secret. Juicier than duck, cozier than steak — a great roasted chicken beats the pants off a whole bunch of fancier meats. It’s the kind of meal you’d serve to a king, if one decided to grace your table, but you’d also happily eat it every day if you could. A home like this isn’t expensive or luxurious, but it feels so good that you can’t imagine needing anything more.
Now, if you haven’t had a really good roasted chicken (and if this is you, you really should try that buttermilk-brined version I mentioned above), you might wonder what the fuss is about. It’s not lobster. It’s chicken. And the same is true of the kind of home I’m talking about. It might not look that different on the surface, but it makes daily life feel brighter, smoother, effortless.
It’s hard to explain just how much this can influence daily life. But since the pandemic started, all the joys and struggles of our home are magnified. A cramped kitchen can be tinder box for arguments. A peaceful bedroom can be a haven from the world. In our home, both Albert and I have noticed how small decisions have played a surprising role in our well-being during the months of staying at home. The yellow bench in our bedroom, though often piled with laundry, is a sunny beacon on mornings when we wake before dawn (that’s every morning!) to take care of Graham. The bright blue rug in our living room, the green chairs in the dining room, the plants scattered throughout the house — these things on their own aren’t major, but they bring a brightness and a buoyancy into ordinary activities like having lunch or watching TV. And when I remember what the house was like without them, the different in feeling is dramatic.
To better illustrate the changes that can happen when you bring a little joy into your living space, today I’m sharing three transformations from students in my Design a Joyful Home course. In these before-and-afters, you can see not just how these students made their homes more vibrant, but how the changes they made influenced their daily lives.
In my Design a Joyful Home course, I encourage students to start with one room and transform it fully, rather than doing multiple rooms at a time. Seeing one space finished can build your confidence, and help create momentum in a way that doesn’t happen if you have lots of spaces 75 percent done. The transformations featured here were all done during the pandemic, and with an eye toward keeping costs down. Only one of the three features a renovation, so if you’ve been thinking about making some changes to your home, but have constraints like a tight budget or a strict landlord, I hope these give you some encouragement and inspiration.
And if you’d like a jumpstart on your journey to create more joy at home, my free workshop The 5 Secrets of Designing a Joyful Home is now open for signups! In this workshop, I share strategies and tools for getting a fresh perspective on your space and getting clear on the steps to take to create a space you’re excited to live in, every single day. It only happens once a year in January, so I hope to see you there!
Create a heart for your home
When Jennifer Knight described her living room before its transformation, the words she used were “perfectly functional but not particularly joyful.” With its color palette of beiges and browns, and walls devoid of art, it had a kind of nondescript feeling, with little to catch the eye or stimulate the senses. “As a result,” she says, “our living room was a place we used solely to transit from the front door — not a place we were drawn to for our moments that matter — family time reading and playing together.”
Sound familiar? This is the kind of thing I see happen in homes all the time: a space that has all the necessary practical components, but doesn’t end up getting much use. When this happens, we often fault ourselves. Why don’t we ever spend time together at home as a family? We might even wonder if there’s something wrong with us because everyone seems to retreat to their bedrooms as soon as we walk through the front door. But often, the reason has little to do with family dynamics, and a lot to do with spatial ones. When the heart of your home is lackluster, there’s little to make people want to be there.
Before the pandemic, this is the kind of issue that many of us easily overlooked. As Jennifer says, “We were your typical on-the-go family with small kids racing from activity to activity with little time spent in or thought given to our home.” But being home all the time, it becomes noticeable when something is “off” in our homes, especially in such a central space.
This is one of the benefits of designing with joy in mind. Joy attracts. It has a magnetic quality that draws people toward it. One of the most important jobs of a family home is to create opportunities for people to be together and enjoy each other’s company. If that isn’t happening in your home, it might be a sign that the heart of the home needs a little more joy.
For Jennifer, the quarantine months offered an opportunity to get clear on the aesthetics of joy that most resonated with her family: energy, abundance, and play. Working within the constraints of the Covid-19 pandemic, she set about incorporating these aesthetics into her space. “I wanted to create a space (on a pandemic budget) that would feel playful and energizing for our kids but with an element of sophistication for the adults (so it didn’t end up looking like a preschool classroom). The result is what we’re calling mid-century modern meets Rainbow Brite.” She used a colorful, patterned rug, posters from their trips to Paris, and lush plants to warm up the room and make it an energizing, whimsical space that her family could enjoy on a daily basis.
Of the final design, Jennifer says: “Our living room is now an inviting, vibrant space that allows us to indulge in our moments that matter most—reading and playing games together as a family. We joyfully spend hours a day in this room and it now truly (and finally) feels like home.“
One thing I especially love about this transformation is that Jennifer achieved a dramatic result without painting her walls or changing her floors. For many renters, painting is simply not an option, and this room is a powerful illustration of how much you can change the feel of a home while working with the space you have.
How does the heart of your home feel? What might happen if you brought more joy to the center of your space?
Transform an ordinary routine into a joyful one
While some of the moments we spend in our homes are naturally joyful, like the ones Jennifer was trying to maximize, others are just… not. Chopping vegetables, folding laundry, taking off shoes and coats — depending on the day, these mundane tasks can range from being humdrum to downright tedious.
But designing with joy in mind can put a new perspective on these ordinary moments. What if you took one of those little routines and made it an occasion for delight?
This is exactly what Brittney Perry did with her hall closet. In her before photo, it looks like a typical storage space, overflowing and uninspired. But when she thought about how she wanted it to feel, she came up with the image of an after-school snack. “A sweet surprise,” she says, “a bit of nourishment and energy.”
How do you make a closet feel like an after-school snack? A strip of wallpaper with a playful pattern turns a storage space into a room, while a peg rail helps keep it functional and orderly, without being overwhelming. Describing her room after, Brittney says that the space now feels “sweet, organized, cheerful, utilitarian” to her and her family. “Truly a joyful space.”
My favorite part of this transformation is the way it influenced daily life in Brittney’s house. As she writes, “I LOVE that my kids say, ‘to the butterflies!’ whenever they’re taking off or getting their shoes.”
It’s a small thing, but small things that are repeated every day have a significant impact. It’s not just a more joyful space, it’s a joyful ritual, a banal moment that has become a burst of delight. Through this lens, the size of the space you transform truly doesn’t matter. Even a tiny space like this one can have a meaningful effect on the texture of daily life! And in fact, sometimes starting small can help you build confidence and momentum for bigger changes down the road.
What’s something you do every day? How could you transform a space (even a small one) to make this routine more joyful?
See yourself in your space
Becca Schulman Havemeyer is no stranger to renovations. As a real estate developer, she has plenty of experience designing and fixing up homes for other people. But with resale in mind, usually her design choices stick to the safe side, with finishes that are likely to appeal to a broad audience.
And this was even true of her own home. As she says about the before photos of her kitchen, powder room, and entryway, “These spaces didn’t reflect myself or my family. They were vestiges of the very tasteful, but less fun design style of the previous owner.” If you’ve ever rented, or lived in a home you haven’t renovated — and I’d guess that this includes most of us — then you know the feeling: a bit like you’re living in someone else’s house.
But you don’t need to change everything in a space to make it feel like your own. With her daughter’s bat mitzvah coming up, and plans to host a whole lot of family and friends, Becca decided to embark on a mini-renovation to bring a little more of her and her family’s “cheerful, unique style” to their space.
Her goal was to create a space that felt light, airy, and spacious, so she painted the cabinets (white above, light green below), put a skim coat of concrete on the countertops to lighten up the dark stone, and replaced the dark backsplash with an affordable geometric wallpaper.
Becca was lucky to get the heavy lifting on her kitchen done before the worst of the pandemic hit in March. Still, her plans to celebrate her daughter were upended. But while they haven’t been able to welcome family into their space just yet, they’ve had plenty of time to enjoy their redesigned spaces. As Becca says, it’s a “happy, comfortable kitchen that we’ve gotten a lot of use out of while cooking at home so much during the pandemic.”
Her entryway and powder room gave her a chance to bring contrasting elements and feelings into her space. Inspired by her love of Liberty prints, she chose an ebullient floral pattern for her hallway, and balanced it with a more spacious print for the bathroom.
One of my favorite details throughout these spaces, which I didn’t notice the first time I looked at the photos, are the light fixtures. The kitchen pendants remind me of upside down ice cream sundae cups, while the bathroom fixture looks like a wave, and the entryway flush-mount has a floral quality that echoes the wallpaper. Even though the feeling of each of these spaces is different — the entryway energetic and abundant, the kitchen and hall bath spacious and airy — small details like this create a throughline that carries Becca’s personality throughout the space.
“I love these transformed spaces because I know they completely reflect me and my family,” Becca says. “There isn’t a kitchen, powder room or entryway in the world that looks exactly like these ones and that feels like such a victory, to tap into my own style and embrace it, rather than go for something that is more universally accepted.”
As Becca points out, having a space that reflects your unique style can be confidence-inspiring. It reminds you of your own natural creativity. Living in a space that reflects your personality can also help you feel more rooted — like this is your place in the world, a place where you belong — something that is especially welcome in turbulent times.
What part of yourself would you like to see reflected in your space?
If you’ve added joy to your home, how has it affected you? I’d love to hear about how the changes you’ve made have influenced your life.
And if you’re looking to create more joy at home, I hope you’ll join me this week for my free workshop The 5 Secrets of Designing a Joyful Home. I’m offering multiple time slots. Click here for more details and to sign up!
Images: courtesy of Jennifer Knight, Brittney Perry, and Becca Schulman Havemeyer. Becca’s after images by Joyelle West.