One of the most meaningful activities we are ever engaged in is the creation of a home. Over a number of years, typically with a lot of thought and considerable dedication, we assemble furniture, crockery, pictures, rugs, cushions, vases, sideboards, taps, door handles and so on into a distinctive constellation we anoint with the word home. As we create our rooms, we engage passionately with culture in a way we seldom do in the supposedly higher realms of museums or galleries. We reflect profoundly on the atmosphere of a picture, we ponder the relationship between colours on a wall, we notice how consequential the shape of the back of a sofa can be and ask with care what books really deserve our ongoing attention.
Our homes will not necessarily be the most attractive or sumptuous environments we could spend time in. There are always hotels or public spaces that would be a good deal more impressive. But after we have been travelling a long while, after too many nights in hotel rooms or on the beds of friends, we typically feel a powerful ache to return to our own furnishings, an ache that has little to do with material comfort per se. We need to get home to remember who we are.
Our homes have a memorialising function, and what they are helping us to remember is, strangely enough, ourselves. We can see this need to anchor identity in matter in the history of religion. Humans have from the earliest days expended enormous care and creativity on building homes for their gods. They haven’t felt that their gods could live just anywhere, out in the wild or as it were in hotels, they have believed that they needed special places, temple-homes, where their specific characters could be stabilised through art and architecture.
For the Ancient Greeks, Athena was the goddess of wisdom, rationality and harmony and in 420 BC, they completed a home for her on the slopes of the Acropolis. It wasn’t a large home – about the size of an average American kitchen – but it was an exceptionally apt and beautiful one. The temple felt dignified but approachable. It was rigorously balanced and logical, serene and poised. It was its inhabitant artfully sculpted in limestone.
The Greeks took such care over Athena’s temple-home because they understood the human mind. They knew that, without architecture, we struggle to remember what we care about – and more broadly who we are. To be told in words that Athena represented grace and balance wasn’t going to be enough on its own. There needed to be a house to bring the idea forcefully and continuously to consciousness.
Without there being anything grandiose or supernatural in idea, our homes are also temples. It’s just that they are temples to us. We’re not expecting to be worshipped; but we are trying to make a place that – like a temple – adequately embodies our spiritual values and merits.
Creating a home is frequently such a demanding process because it requires us to find our way to objects that can correctly convey our identities. We may have to go to enormous efforts to track down what we deem to be the ‘right’ objects for particular functions, rejecting hundreds of alternatives that would – in a material sense – have been perfectly serviceable, in the name of those we believe can faithfully communicate the right message about who we are.
We get fussy because objects are, in their own way, all hugely eloquent. Two chairs that perform much the same physical role can articulate entirely different visions of life.
One chair by the Swiss 20th century architect Le Corbusier will speak of efficiency, an excitement about the future, an international spirit, an impatience around nostalgia and a devotion to reason. The other, by the English 19th century designer William Morris, will speak of the superiority of the pre-industrial world, the beauty of tradition, the appeal of patience and the pull of the local. We may not play out such precise scripts in our heads when we lay eyes on the chairs; but just below the threshold of consciousness, we are liable to be highly responsive to the messages that such objects steadily and perpetually beam out to the world.
An object feels ‘right’ when it speaks attractively about qualities that we are drawn to, but don’t quite possess strong enough doses of in our lives day to day. The desirable object gives us a more secure hold on values that are present, yet fragile in ourselves; it endorses and encourages important themes in us. The smallest things in our homes whisper in our ears, they offer us encouragement, reminders, consoling thoughts, warnings or correctives, as we go about making breakfast or do the accounts in the evening.
Because we all want and need to hear such different things, we will all be pulled towards very different kinds of objects. There is a deeply subjective side to the feeling of beauty. However, our conflicts about taste are not arbitrary or random, they are grounded in the fact that the kinds of messages we benefit from being exposed to will vary depending upon what is tentative and under threat in our own lives.
The quest to build a home is connected up with a need to stabilise and organise our complex selves. It’s not enough to know who we are in our own minds. We need something more tangible, material and sensuous to pin down the diverse and intermittent aspects of our identities. We need to rely on a certain kinds of cutlery, bookshelves, laundry cupboards and armchairs to align us with who we are and seek to be. We are not vaunting ourselves; we’re trying to gather our identities in one receptacle, preserving ourselves from erosion and dispersal. Home means the place where our soul feels that it has found its proper physical container, where, everyday, the objects we live amongst quietly remind us of our most authentic commitments and loves.