Making the Artful Home

I’ve heard my mother describe Mrs. Brenner’s home so often I feel as if I have been there.

But this home of wood floors and lace doilies and ticking grandfather clocks existed in a quiet southeastern Pennsylvania neighborhood in the 1970s—several decades and thousands of miles away from me. If I can’t perfectly imagine the country kitchen, the overstuffed furniture, or the dish of chalky pink mints on the table, I can imagine the feeling of that house.

Mrs. Brenner was my mom’s neighbor when she was in first grade. Mom says she didn’t visit Mrs. Brenner often and didn’t live in that neighborhood long, but Mrs. Brenner’s house made a lifelong impression on her. She tells me she’s been trying to find and replicate that feeling ever since—the feeling that accompanies the smell of fresh coffee and something baking. You can’t put your finger on what makes a house open its arms and pull you close. Mom says there was something in that house that was absent from hers, and it felt like it had been there forever.

The Art of Homemaking

Eleanor Roosevelt famously pioneered a new era of homemaking during the Great Depression, heralding austerity in the culinary and domestic arts. Her bland White House menus of boiled potatoes and low-cost prune pudding disappointed diners and the president alike. But her goal was admirable: prove that low-cost food could be palatable, boost local economies by celebrating American cuisine, and marry homemaking to the realm of science.

Eleanor’s experiment was, in some ways, years ahead of her time. The local food movement today eschews imported luxuries in favor of in-season produce and sustainably-farmed meat. But Eleanor’s goal missed an important element of the human soul, one tied so closely to our pursuits of shelter and sustenance that it survived even the harshness of the Depression. Food and home mean more to us than calories and adequate shelter; we crave that inexpressible comfort that Mrs. Brenner’s home and simple cup of coffee had. Homemaking is scientific, but can’t be reduced to a formula.

Imperfect Beauty

To the unpracticed eye, the comforts of home are hardly noticeable. The things that make a house a home aren’t flashy or fashionable; they don’t call attention to themselves. But their lack is always noticeable, even if we don’t have the words to say what’s missing. Eleanor Roosevelt sought to make homemaking economical by removing the luxury that she knew was inaccessible to the average American, but she forgot that the comforts of home are at once fiercely economical and deliciously luxurious.

Eleanor’s vision of the scientific homemaker is somewhat of a reality today. We homemakers—no longer only women—are often college-educated, and for the most part well aware of the nutrition behind our food and the contents of our household products. And as our housing prices rise and our wages stagnate, we are familiar with forgoing luxury. But my generation is perhaps even more epicurean than our parents, and we’re still searching for that feeling of home.

I find myself thinking more about Mrs. Brenner’s house lately now that I’m a parent. My mom accomplished her goal of mimicking that “forever” feeling in my childhood home (even without the grandfather clock), and I still associate security, comfort, and beauty with that brick farmhouse in rural Idaho.

As a millennial parent, I face the pressures of a demanding peer group. We think we need more, and every walk through the mall reminds us how woefully short of the Pottery Barn showroom our houses and apartments fall. But we came of age during the most dramatic economic collapse since the days that Eleanor served broiled kidneys on toast. Can we also move away from unnecessary luxury, but keep the comforts of home?

Here’s my challenge to myself and my peers: let’s find beauty in the simple home, and art in the science of homemaking. The artful home is far from perfect; it’s the antithesis of the trendy, white-washed showroom. The artful home houses chipped coffee cups in out-of-date cabinets and dollar store frames on thrifted nightstands. It also houses laughter, late-night glasses of wine, hard conversations on the patio, and countless hours of beautiful everyday life.

We can give our children homes that celebrate beauty and reject overpriced “perfection.” We can embrace the art of the everyday in our homes, creating the timeless warmth of a well-appointed house without the trends of the showroom.

Emily Fisk

Image by mairinha via Pixabay.

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