When I set up my very first office, I bought a modern glass-and-steel desk. It seemed clean and orderly. The problem was that I’m not clean and orderly; the desk quickly became heaped with papers, pads, pens, books I planned to read, and books I had already read and marked my place in with leaves, sticky notes, ribbons and other bits of detritus. My office looked messy—and not a comfortable kind of messy. When I moved to the house I live in today, I bought a new wooden desk. It quickly became heaped with the same stuff. But weirdly, on the new desk, it all looked like it belonged there. That same mess now looked good.
That’s when I realized that I needed to get in touch with the way I work and the way I live and find the beauty in that, rather than make my house conform to some external idea of how things ought to look. That wasn’t easy, because the house I grew up in was extremely messy. The dining-room table was always piled high with bags and baskets, books and clutter. There was an antique couch in the living room so completely covered in coats that I think I saw it twice in my life. And above it was a large and mysterious hole in the ceiling. The upstairs bedrooms were characterized by piles of clothes—ones that no longer fit and ones that needed repair, ones that had been inherited and ones that simply needed to be put away, except that there were not enough drawers in the world for all of them. One section of a porch was buried under garden supplies, another under art supplies, and my sister and I filled the rest with our toys. As a kid, when running through the house, I knew which piles to jump over. And while I have lots of good memories of growing up in that house, it wasn’t a decorating style I wanted to embrace.
But I am not exactly the tidiest person either. Luckily, certain aesthetics reward a bit of clutter. Although I don’t want to be drowning in it, I am a person who likes stuff and likes to have that stuff on display. I want the rooms of my house to be comfortable spaces where my six-year-old and his friends can chase one another around, bouncing on the couches as they go, and the cats can curl up wheresoever they like. But I don’t want things to be so comfortable that I have to sacrifice my love for velvet and leather, artwork and easily damaged and lovely objects. The challenge is threefold—creating a beautiful space that can still look pleasing with a little mess while remaining a space that can be lived in—sometimes even aggressively lived in.
Which is why, when I first read about hygge, the Danish term for a particular texture of wholesome coziness, I was immediately attracted to it. Here in New England, our winters are long, and even our springtime veers toward the chilly. Candles, natural materials, textures, music, and hot drinks? Sign me up! And it made me think about how I wanted my own house to feel—welcoming and warm and only slightly sinister—and what I’ve done in an effort to achieve that.
In the past few years, I realized I wanted to have a stocked larder, like a hobbit. In fact, I made a list of things that I supposed hobbits had on hand and then expanded it to include my modern tastes. I bought a separate freezer for the purpose of keeping glass containers of soup and sauce at the ready. Other things I wanted to be sure I had plenty of: tea, coffee, milk, seltzer, crackers, cheese, apples, bread, spices, and preserves. That way, even if guests drop in unexpectedly, I can still give them a pot of tea or coffee, and some snacks for elevenses.
I also have collected a horde of blankets and pillows. Not only are they helpful when there’s a chill, but pillows are such a good way to add personality and opulence to any space. Velvet and tapestry pillows evoke the folkloric. Modern pillows can add some pleasurable juxtaposition. And I can change things up when I feel restless.
And I have a lot of quirky stuff. Weird pottery acquired from art students, full of faces and eyes and wings. Spiky chandeliers. Bat chandeliers. Chandeliers in the shape of astroglobes. Not necessarily hygge and not necessarily comfortable to everyone, but things that make me happy.
I’ve tried to acquire things I loved, even for unlovely tasks. The first time I saw a beautiful old apothecary bottle used to house dishwashing soup, I was pretty amazed. Getting to reuse old things—and sometimes free things—in unexpected ways makes everything feel more special. When I was in France, I brought home the little clay pots that supermarket yogurt came in and used them as cups for my kiddo. When I needed a towel rack, I found a vintage brass one with swinging arms that was easily cheaper than buying a brand new one. In my younger days, when I was moving into a first apartment, I haunted flea markets to find old red pressed-glass goblets, worn wooden chairs, old bookends with knights on them—things that made the space feel personal to me. And I had the added pleasure of knowing that I was saving the stuff from being tossed out.
What has let me live comfortably is remembering that nothing is too precious. My couches are covered in a sturdy and easy-to-clean velvet. My dining table is coated to resist water damage. The coffee table in the living room is inset with stone. The rugs on the floor washable. But just as I’ve come to be accepting of a certain amount of mess, I’ve also become accepting of a certain amount of damage. That stone inset in my coffee table wound up cracked down the middle, but it’s still beautiful. Old wood acquires scratches. Paper yellows and tears. Marble becomes stained. Fabric thins. And sometimes it’s all the more lovely for it. Perfection isn’t nearly as interesting nor as comfortable.
Find Holly Back on Instagram @blackholly.
What an amazing house. Holly Black is one of my favourite Authors and I certainly enjoyed reading this article.
Holly resides in quite an opulent style house which she considers modest, but for one who creates the insides of castles, and walks with Princes it may seem this way. She puts forth a practical streak as the couches are treated with velvet, the tables unbreakable and chip free and no cleaning floor. It is quite delightful and I too, love her writings and enjoyed reading the article. In this realm she could create and this she certainly does.
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