inside looking out - suburbia

Geography, Interiors – and Everything In Between

Way back in the early 1990’s, interior design featured widely in magazines and coffee table tomes. The emphasis was on nice pictures, descriptive writing and glossy features on beautiful homes/shops/hotels. 

As a designer, I knew there was much, much more to interior design than ‘beautiful homes’.

The output of this kind literature did – in no way – reflect the complexities of interior design as a thinking discipline – or experience.

geography hong kong density

When I started my PhD ( 1992) on high density housing in Hong Kong there was so little to draw from in interior design I had to immerse myself in the ideas, thinking, theories, methodologies and positions of more established disciplines.  

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

So many directions to go… so many ways of seeing: 

What did these writers (in different fields) think about… know about?

Where does one discipline begin and end?

What lies in between?

Established disciplines could look to a body of knowledge to prove their existence, worth and position. In interior design, I didn’t have that luxury. I had to create my own sense of where interior design stood against, within and alongside, other academic disciplines.

Looking back, for all that this long process of discovery was enlightening and exhilarating, I had a nagging sense that much of what I was reading – abstracted, theorised and analysed to the ‘nth’ degree –   was very, very removed from ‘real life’.

Academic texts can be very dull and heavy-going.

They are written for ‘rigour’, rather for ease of communication or accessibility. The preferred use of stats, charts and tables with an odd grainy black and white photo I found very off-putting.

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

It dealt with culture, norms, and forms and overlapped with interior design in terms of its human-centred approach. But, as it turned out, the academic discipline that surprised and inspired me most – was geography. 

Geography, through its various strands and specialist areas, covers many ways of thinking about land, the natural world, places and spaces. 

And, it was the work of leading geographers –  Yi-Fu Tuan and Anne ButtimerDavid SeamonEdward  Relph  – that truly resonated with me, as an interior designer.

They explored spatiality in a way that was loose and  fluid; valuing feeling and thinking. They were open to exploring  very subtle, very deep, nuances in  spatial experience  – tacit and implicit, fuzzy and ambiguous.

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

Drawing from their more open approach to research I could explore the context of interior design in a way that was creative and to discover where, and when, it might fit ( and overlap) with other disciplines.

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 as the bigger spatial picture connecting dwelling to place through our   experience of landscape, urban design, architecture, interiors – and rooms.

When we occupy space, we inhabit it; we live in it physically and psychologically. We live in the moment but we carry a depth of experience that informs how we perceive our surroundings. It is our sense of ‘place’ that creates a strong emotional connection to space.

‘Home’ is situated ‘somewhere’ – in a country, a locale, a culture and a community. We don’t just close our door and forget about the world outside like it doesn’t exist. Whenever we leave and come back to home, we connect ‘life’ on the outside to ‘life’ in the inside.  

Indoors, we may hear planes overhead, birdsong, distant traffic and the sounds from a school playground.  There may also be intermittent smells from the local factory, diesel fumes, or the waft of newly cut grass. It may be a room with a view, and dazzling light – or not. These identifiers (good and bad) situate that experience as a deep and lasting sensory impression of that place, of that home.

A lived experience of home may involve major and subtle decisions where we weigh up things we dislike  about our homes (and its location) so we can better enjoy the things we most like – and appreciate. 

The proximity to outdoor space, family members, a supermarket, a school or a bus route may be more important than having an en-suite, period features, and a utility room.

Our 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, art, clothing to knick-knacks. 

And so, when we engage with our homes 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 looks at what it means to live in that place (and time)  and the ways in which people respond to, and absorb, the qualities of that place through culture, social practices and localised  experiences. 

Anyone At Home

Looking through the stories  featured in Anyone At Home there are clear examples of where location, setting, landscape, space and place 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 developing his practical (and design) skills he could take some 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 different design and spatial aspirations. 

This farmer appreciates what it means to live in the heart of the country: 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 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 seem to shop more often – because it is more accessible.  

Now that his family have all grown up there is just the couple left at home:”It feels very strange“. 

Through his lived experience 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.

In a totally different story and setting the sea is always big draw. It can radically change how people feel about where and how they want to live.

holiday home geography

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 exposes what it means to uproot yourself 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.

Losing people close to her brought with it the realisation that the safety and security and cosiness of home and community will never be the same. But, it can also 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; her sense of colour and creativity. 

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 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.

To 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, and what they have to offer. 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 that sense of belonging, is a connection that outweighs more rational decisions – and/or logic.

It can be difficult to ‘imagine’ how to go about transforming a run-down space into a place that you would want to live.

To think about re-designing it to suit you must assess what can be changed – and what cannot. It comes down to budget, planning laws, location, style, upheaval, time. But, before that, there has to be a connection, and a desire – as well as a creative motivation to make changes.

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, so 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: “ I just felt as soon as I saw this house I had to live here- even though it was a disaster.’ 

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

At night there is complete darkness…but in daylight, as the sun moves around she felt:  ‘ it was like I had built the house for the sun’. The benefits of living in the country: “ we can’t see anybody, and nobody can see us. We can have parties here and nobody complains.”

pots on stove window outside

She acknowledges that country living can be more expensive; you have to drive everywhere and an old house needs constant upkeep. People moving from the town have not all adapted to country ways, so there is not the same sense of community as there might have been in the past.

Her sense of ‘rootedness’ to this place is 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.

In her story, one respondent  clearly recalled the past in the present; 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 it more than just a building; it is a meaningful 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.”

In this story, creating a home was about using the space to maintain  a personal and deep connection to the past. For her, there are particular objects that add a depth of  feeling to her everyday experience – that only close family would ever know.

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 would tell their story with a strong sense of reflection of their life lived in the family home.

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.

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. 

white fireplace and flowers

Her health had affected her mobility, but her pride and dignity meant she wouldn’t  use her rolator outside of the home. Adaptations to the home would undoubtedly make things easier for her,  but she decided 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, those values will change.

Community can pull, and 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 being raised 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 changes how the area looks, and 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.”

From gardening to interiors this respondent acknowledged that local people take great pride in the area –  and in their homes. 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.

Politics is never far from geography. 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 chose 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 and recognise how chores help connect her 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 full social experience of living in a different place. It 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  which made them think about how they lived before –  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 – maintaining 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). When it stands in a cluster within a temporary /semi-permanent encampment it assumes a different connotation. 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 – but I introduce it here to bounce off the ideas situated in 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 focus 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 a standard of living and to realise 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.

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