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Architecting happiness

Working on home improvement projects

We moved to our current house in Oakland in November 2021 and over the last few years here, I’ve been slowly transfiguring each space in the house to better fit our needs and whims.

The first year was just focused on outfitting the place with basic furniture. We arrived to the house with barely anything, no dining table or chairs or couch or rugs. Sitting there the first day in camp chairs on the bare wood floor, we looked like squatters in our own house.

empty-house This was a friend’s extra TV. We borrowed it so we had something to do while we sat in our empty living room.

Dru and I had come back from a year living abroad in Japan in September 2019 and moved straight into a shared home with friends that already came partially furnished. We had brought very few things with us to Japan in the first place since international shipping was so expensive. And the basic everyday necessities we did collect over the year abroad, we eventually donated or sold in a second round when we moved back. The only furniture piece I made painful effort to keep was a beautiful Muji kotatsu table, unavailable anywhere outside of Japan. The table was carefully wrapped in layers of blankets and bubble wrap before being packed into a shipping container to be sent overseas back to America.

kotatsu My reward for paying the exorbitant international shipping fees is a cozy place to sit during the winter. Dru and I frequently fall asleep with our legs under the table.

So after living with friends for years (a true blessing during the pandemic lockdown), we now had empty rooms to fill on our own. I started to furnish and design our rooms slowly and carefully. I realized we could live happily with minimal things after moving to Japan and back. And the right aesthetic and function for piece itself was important, since living in a pre-furnished rental was actually quite annoying. I couldn’t get rid of that lamp or side table that didn’t work for my daily usage.

But over the last few years, our homes have become more than just where we live and sleep. Working from home made it necessary to have a well-designed home office, and even now most workplaces that have resumed working in office still allow a few days of working from home. Rooms not only needs to be a functional place but also enjoyable to be in for hours at a time. I learned this the hard way after neglecting to invest in my office for years during the pandemic. I could see the blank and uninspired wall behind me on every video call. Books and computer cables were piled everywhere on the floor. All of the disorganization and emptiness sapped my energy and creativity.

The spaces we live in do really influence us. As Alain de Botton writes in The Architecture of Happiness,

In essence, what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of visions of happiness.

So we have been slowly but surely changing our surroundings to better support who we want to be at home. Multiple furniture arrangements and room configurations have been tried. Walls have been painted. Many DIY projects of various sizes and ambitions have begun, only some completed. I feel like we’re only beginning to see the shape of our “vision of happiness” as the decor start to harmonize with the quirks of this 100-year-old building.

dru-diy Dru mounts a hidden wood shelf behind our couch for storage and setting down drinks.
fireplace-paint Painting the fireplace a subtle shade of gray really helped break up the unrelenting whiteness of this side of the room.

Check out the posts below for more details of our home projects:

“The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

This article was last updated on 3/10/2024. v1 is 720 words and took 2 hours to write and edit.