inside looking out - suburbia

Geography, Interior Design – and everything In Between

There is more to interior design than ‘beautiful homes’.

People tend to assume that interior design is how it is represented in magazines and glossy coffee table books. That is: celebrity features and high-end, expensive and stylish homes…shops…hotels. 

This does not begin to cover the full remit of interior design as a discipline, a knowledge – or as a designed and lived experience.

geography hong kong density

When I began my PhD in 1992 there was very little academic literature to draw from in the field of interior design.

I had to read far and wide to find ‘others’ out there who ‘thought’ like me – a bit… a lot… or nearly.

My reading drew from sources right across philosophy, anthropology, architecture, sociology, psychology, education, environmental psychology and human geography.

All of these established disciplines could draw from an existing body of knowledge to prove their existence, worth and position.

With interior design I didn’t have that luxury.

What did these writers know and where does it overlap with interior design?

Where does one discipline begin and end? And who says so?

Where do I see interior design?

A PhD is a long process of discovery; an enlightening, exhilarating, daunting – and challenging journey.

At first it seemed that anthropology would have all the answers. 

It deals with cultural norms and forms and is human-centred. But, somehow it did not quite gel.

The academic discipline that resonated with me most – was geography. 

Geography, has various strands and specialist areas that explores different ways of thinking about the land, the natural world, places and spaces – and people.

The work of leading geographers such as:  Yi-Fu Tuan and Anne ButtimerDavid SeamonEdward  Relph  truly inspired me – as an interior designer.

These writers explore spatiality in a way that values feeling, thinking and experience.

They are open to very subtle, very deep, nuances in  spatial experience; the  tacit and implicit the fuzzy and ambiguous.

Ultimately they are looking to understand the phenomenon of a meaningful, contextual and place-based experience.

These writers helped me to find my own voice and position – in interior design.

Interior design is different from geography – but it also fits alongside, within, and overlaps in different ways.

Being able to use established methodologies such as phenomenology draw from such wide-ranging literature gave me the impetus and confidence to position where I see interior design. That is: the realms and reaches of how people ‘experience’ interior design.

This was at a time when human centred design was only just emerging. The language and theory we know today was not quite there yet. Design theory was still in its infancy.

sea and stormy sky geography

That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life. But in a new way.

Doris Lessing

Geography is the bigger spatial picture that connects dwelling to place as an  experience of landscape, urban design, architecture and interiors.

When we occupy space we inhabit it; we live in it physically and psychologically.

We live in the moment but carry with us a wealth of experience ( lived experience) that informs and influences how we perceive and relate to our surroundings.

Through lived experience we develop a unique connection to space that is part of our world view.

We live in a world that is designed ( cities, buildings, rooms, furniture, products). Which in itself lies within designed systems, processes, hierarchies and experiences.

The spatial choices and decisions that we make relate to our place in the world (physically, psychologically emotionally and culturally) from our lived experience.

How does this relate to design?

Our ‘Home’ is situated ‘somewhere’. In a country, a locale, a culture and a community that is shaped by what has gone before -events, wars, economy, religion.

Whenever we leave and come back to our home, we connect the ‘life’ on the outside to our ‘life’ in the inside.  We don’t just close our door and forget about the world outside like it doesn’t exist. 

Indoors, we may hear planes overhead, birdsong, distant traffic and the sounds from a school playground.  

There may be intermittent smells from the local factory, farm, diesel fumes, or the waft of newly cut grass.

We were once children, then through different lifestages adults perhaps living with different people along the way.

We may live with a view of the sea, of the sounds of the city, in small dark rooms, or in the perfect home for who we are now.

All these physical, emotional and sensory experiences (good and bad) situate our experiences as deep and lasting impressions of place, and of home.

A lived experience of home involves conscious and unconscious decisions.

We can objectively weigh up the things we dislike  about our homes (and its location) so we can better enjoy the things we like – and appreciate. 

It’s what we can afford and how we make the best of it.

Proximity to outdoor space, enough space for family members, a supermarket or a bus route nearby may be more important than having an en-suite, period features, and a utility room.

Home is a place where we can take pride in our own spatial interventions, our choice of décor and abilities in DIY.

We shape and impose, create and develop our homespace to suit our needs. 

We surround ourselves with personal, intimate belongings  – from furniture to art, clothing to knick-knacks. 

And so when we engage with our homes it is because we appreciate the value, comfort (and luxury) of living somewhere that is more than just a shelter.

Cultural and human geography identifies closely with people’s connection to the land,  to the spiritual and psychological aspects of rural identities and shifts in population. It looks at rootedness and place but also at everyday practices and changing experiences. 

Wherever that place may be –  tundra, rain forest… suburbia, high-rise flat.

Geography considers what it means to live in that place (and time). It  examines the ways in which people respond to, and absorb, the qualities of that place through culture, social practices and localised  experiences. 

Anyone At Home

Stories  featured in Anyone At Home  are clear examples of where location, setting, landscape, space, place – and time – reflect geography as lived experience.

My premise is that design is an implicit element of that experience.

farmer and dog geography

The story of the part-time farmer, born and raised where he still lives today, shows a strong sense of rootedness to place. 

 His father and siblings  live in a local radius  and his children nearby. He is the third generation working on this farm but he and his son also have to work out (and away).

The family home, he designed and built himself.

In applying his practical (and design) skills he could take pride in his ability to create a home for his family. He recognises that today younger people build their homes twice the size. Because they have very different design and spatial aspirations. 

This farmer appreciates what it means to live in the heart of the country.

He values the sight and sounds the first swallow, the cuckoo, the quietness, the moon and stars. The family keep chickens and grow their own vegetables. When they cut their own turf, they make it a party.

At a deep sensory level, he can distinguish the particular smell of  turf from this local area.

He acknowledges that local folklore is still a feature of how people everyday life.

Used to country living the family plan their time so that they only need to do a weekly shop. They observe how people in town shop more often – because it is more accessible.  

His family have all grown up and now there is just the couple left at home:”It feels very strange“. 

Through lived experience of this place he recalls how it used to be. There is: less noise at home, less fighting about what to watch on TV, less comings and goings.

And yet the house is still the centre and focus of family life – more recently as a venue for a small family wedding party held strictly in accordance with Covid restrictions.

holiday home geography

From the land to the sea. People are drawn to live in places where they can work – or be inspired.

Even a temporary situation, such as a short-term let, can shift how people think, and behave.

Proximity to the sea can release creative juices, to change how people see their world – their current and future life. 

Another story links geography and design to explore what it means to uproot from your home country and move to a different place.

One woman who took that chance was drawn to live in a house by the sea.

Her recent bereavement brought with it the realisation that for her the cosiness of home and community will never be the same. But it is also a release, and can open up opportunities.

In England, Covid lockdowns created an increased demand for country living pushing local house prices up.

Moving to Northern Ireland, where house prices are generally lower, meant she had the money to buy her dream home. 

view from window

For this artist, the local geography, the changing landscape, sea and skies and her garden has inspired her painting.

It has brought new life to her art, her sense of colour and creativity. 

Isolated at first by lockdown, she notes there are marked differences between living in England and Northern Ireland. Physically, villages in Northern Ireland are not as pretty, or as old as they are in England. However, she finds people in NI less reserved.

It is a different way of life.

We speak the same language but the culture, towns.. are different. The way things work is different.

Her home is more than just four walls and a garden.

It is more than just a small dot on a map.

To familiarise herself with the area she drives around to discover how her home connects to other places. In this way she experiences, and makes sense of the local geography.

The landscape is similar to her childhood experience of the Menai Straits so it doesn’t feel strange. It feels like home.

Her deep-rooted sense of ‘place’ is what clinched the decision for her to re-locate.

When she saw her new home for the first time:  it was: “ …the feel of the place as soon as we walked in.”  

To “feel” a place, and have that sense of belonging, is a visceral connection that outweighs more rational decisions – and/or logic.

Why would someone want to transform a run-down space into a place that to live?

To think about re-designing a home with no electricity or running water you have to be able to assess what you can do with it.

There is a budget, planning laws, location, style, disruption and time to consider.

But before that, there has to be a connection and a desire. There has to be a creative motivation to to want to take on and make changes. You have to have a vision and a strong desire to make it work.

geography of country living

Living in the  country surrounded by nature is very different from city living.   

One respondent said what motivated her was the ‘solitude’  of country living. Her children wouldn’t have to:  ‘ live near the road breathing in fumes. I wanted them to go out and play.’

An old house with no electricity and only cold running water is not for everyone.

But, she instantly ‘knew’ this was the right house for her. She explained: “ I just felt as soon as I saw this house I had to live here- even though it was a disaster.’ 

The house became a project  of love, to restore an old run-down building and turn it into a family home using re-purposed materials.

There are benefits to living in the country.

We can’t see anybody, and nobody can see us. We can have parties here and nobody complains.”

At night there is complete darkness…but in daytime, as the sun moves, around she feels:  ‘ it was like I had built the house for the sun’.

pots on stove window outside

She acknowledges that country living can be more expensive; you have to drive everywhere.

An old house needs constant upkeep.

She notes that people moving from the town have not all adapted to country ways. There is not the same solid sense of community as there might have been in the past.

Her sense of ‘rootedness’ to this place is very strong.

When she goes away: There is nothing better than coming home. I just love being here.”

Memories of living in one place for a long time can create a sense of belonging and connection.

When talking about her home one respondent  clearly recalled the past in the present.

That is: who she was, how she lived and how that has changed over the years. 

love suite display cabinet

Everybody moved in around the same time – within 2 years… Absolutely fantastic place to live. But sadly, there are no children now…”

“This is my space and this is me. And even though we have had problems in our family to cope with, we are happy here.”

A deep attachment to a home makes the space more than just a building; it is a meaningful lived experience.

That is especially true if you have lived somewhere a long time. 

I would find it very hard to live somewhere else and go past here and see someone else living here.”

For her, creating a home was about using the space to maintain  a personal and deep connection to the past, and to family..There are particular objects that add a depth of  feeling to her everyday experience.

Something that only she and close family members would ever understand.

This is my mother in law’s dining table…. that’s another thing I treasure.. How many people have sat at this table, and how many have eaten off it.. “

Understandably, older people tell their story with a strong sense of reflection of their life lived in the family home.

Again through bereavement, one  respondent – now living alone –  recognised how her needs had changed.

She no longer had any use for many of the things in the home.

white fireplace and flowers

The house was so full of people. You look around and you see all these dishes and stuff and think… what am I going to do with it? I don’t need it.” 

Ageing has affected her mobility, but her sense of pride and dignity means she wouldn’t  use her rolator outside of the home.

Adaptations to the home would undoubtedly make things easier for her,  but her decision was that it was not  worthwhile.

My daughter was saying why don’t you put in a wet room? But I said I couldn’t be bothered. 

Over the years she observed that younger people living nearby were prepared to make radical changes to the original layout of the home. But for her: “When you get older you wouldn’t be bothered changing it.” 

A design solution comes from design decision-making.

When a decision is made not to proceed to a solution it is because it is out-weighed by other, stronger factors.

Before making that decision people have to ‘believe’ that the ‘rewards’ will be more than the upheaval to their existing way of living.

At different stages of life our values will change.

Community can be a strong pull to keep people together.

For some it is what makes the home a home.

Good neighbours and family living near-by creates a very strong connection to place.

Even the memory of living in what was clearly a very poor housing standard (and over-crowding) can still be recalled with some affection. 

fireplace with mirror

“When I was growing up there were 11 of us living in a two bedroom house.” 

A happy childhood raised in a close-knit community is a profound  and meaningful experience.

Re-development of an area may change how the area looks and improve the quality of housing but it is the people who generate that sense of community and   neighbourhood.

It’s a good wee street… good neighbours around us. Everybody’s just happy being here.

Many of the re-developed housing estates in Northern Ireland were specifically designed for security purposes. According to one  respondent :  “...with a lot of alley-ways that were one-way… it probably stops joy-riding.”

Choosing to live in this same area where you were born and raised, shows a strong sense of connection to community and place. But it is not all rose-tinted glasses, people can still see both the good and the bad: 

“I’m very proud of the area….There can be some fluctuating anti-social issues. It’s still an area of multiple deprivation as well. But, there is still a sense, a real good sense, of community pride.”

This respondent acknowledged that local people take great pride in the area -in their gardens, in their interior design.

She also appreciates the  convenience of location; proximity to the city centre, and walking distance to amenities where she has a foot in both worlds

Where there is geography – there is politics.

In turbulent times people may be forced to leave their homes, their families and countries  behind in order to survive – or to give their children a better life.  

Hong Kong has recently gone through a difficult transition of power, heightened tensions and a very changed political arena. 

One family who recently to move to Australia greatly appreciated having so much more space than they would in Hong Kong – a bigger home, and a garden. They also discovered a new-found love for DIY.

Chores help to connect the family to their home.

I wanted them to make something… to create a sense of belonging so they can be proud and tell other people: I painted my room, my own room”

boy painting wall

Moving to a new country – just as Covid hit – meant this family did not get the immediate full social experience of living in a different place.

This meant they had to spend more time together and adjust to living in a colder climate, and a culture where “ in every house in the street… they all seem to spend Sunday gardening.”

As immigrants from a high density environment they are dealing with a very different spatial experience. 

This makes them think more about how they lived before –  both culturally and physically.  As they adapt to living in a new environment they can appreciate how lucky they are. But when watching the news  from back home, they still feeling ‘guilty’ for leaving.

When you leave you are not part of it. I want to be part of it, if I can. But I can’t because I am here now. 

Through technology people can still be ‘present’ in one country, while living somewhere else.

Hong Kong families  living in UK are able maintain a close connection to Hong Kong (life, work, news, people, business). Getting up at 4am and working until 1 or 2pm they can continue to ‘work’ in Hong Kong-time, while their families live in local time.

Family life overlaps through night/day, day/night over dual time zones. They have the best of both worlds.

They can hang on to what they know, while adapting to a different way of life – spatially, economically, educationally and culturally.

In Hong Kong   we only had two rooms and it was so small. Here, I can shut the door and read some books… they still have their own space to do their own thing. We are very grateful for that.” 

Of course, when you can move your ‘home’ to wherever you want to be – in the case of a caravan – you open up new geographies and new freedoms.

black and white view of caravan interior

You wake up in the morning, open up and then you’re looking at this glorious view… if it’s lovely weather, sit outside, eat… nice glass of wine, watch the sun go down with friends.”

What’s not to like?

A caravan has many of the comforts of home – in a very compact space.

It is mobile, so it can stand alone ( pretty much anywhere). Whenever it stands alongside others within a temporary /semi-permanent encampment it assumes a different connotation.

However, as a long-term ‘temporary’ dwelling it switches from being a home designed for ‘freedom’ to a home of limited choices.

Another way of seeing…

With its world-wide view, Dollar Street, is a wonderful website that connects us – as humans to humans – to think about how things are for us, by thinking about the way things are for other people elsewhere.

Its geographical reach is more than I will ever achieve – 50 countries, 260 families. I introduce it here to bounce off some of the shared ideas from Anyone At Home.

Dollar Street is where economics meets culture meets lifestyle in the home – but not as a glossy coffee table book.

In this very simple format the aim is to expose the economic aspects of dwelling as a direct comparison of wealth, income and possessions.

We are born into a country, a culture and an economic position that will ultimately shape the opportunities that we have – or as we see them.

For some it will be harder than others to raise their standard of living and to realise their dreams for a better life.

Dollar Street is the perfect example of how and where academic disciplines can overlap in a sweet spot, communicated in a way that will resonate with everyone.

But it also reminds us that design is simply how we live… in the context of the decisions made for us – and by us – and everything in between.

All photos taken from stories in Anyone At Home

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.