Aesthetics: luxury or necessity?

I’ve been thinking lately about the effect of aesthetics on our sense of well-being. Is money spent on making a place “look nice” an investment in mental peace? Or is it just another excuse to go shopping?

I started my interest in the aesthetics of environment back in my twenties when home improvement shows began cropping up all over TV. I loved Bob Vila’s Home Again series, and Home Time with JoAnne Liebeler and Dean Johnson. I didn’t have a home to decorate, but I did share a rental home with three roommates. Our modern tastes and tiny budgets were perfectly suited to Ikea and every now and then we’d go blow our money on furniture and spend the rest of the day with the music cranked, assembling stuff and moving it around to give our home a fresher look. After a while the melamine would show its age and the cycle of shopping would repeat itself. I constantly dreamed of having a house of my own one day to paint and decorate and renovate to my heart’s content. 

But later I began to question my values on this: many people around the world live in poverty and/or face far greater challenges in life than coordinating paint colours throughout their home. I began to wonder if my desire to create an aesthetically pleasing environment in my home was a reflection of being born and raised in a wealthy country where basic survival requires little thought, leaving plenty of time to reflect on more esoteric pursuits. Is it really necessary to live/work in an attractive environment to be truly happy? Or was I just a victim of marketing?

Then I read some articles that described the effects of colour, orderliness, and natural light on human emotional states. I learned that the state of one’s environment does affect mood and mental state, and that the optimal combination of these elements is dictated by both innate and cultural tastes. This information also prompted me to view the notion of aesthetics beyond the realm of home decor to encompass many aspects of our surroundings: work, play, our neighbourhoods. For example, the addition of flowers, decorative lampposts, exterior paint and architectural design can transform a bleak and depressing streetscape into an uplifting and hopeful experience even in the poorest neighbourhoods. The choice of colour and light source can actually affect work performance and productivity.  

So if there is a rational, scientific basis for clean aesthetics that involve certain colours, certain kinds of lighting, certain architectural elements (which may vary widely from one culture to the next but retain basic principles of design) then how do those of us wishing to live frugally and avoid senseless consumerism find a balance? Where do we draw the line between creating a peaceful, uplifting, spiritually nourishing environment and simply getting caught up in trends and marketing forces that pushed us to spend money on peach stucco and white tubular railings in the eighties, and granite countertops and stainless steel appliances the 00’s? (sideline: how DO we refer to this first decade of the new century anyhow?) 

Almost twenty years after watching my first Bob Vila show I still don’t own a house, but we’re definitely getting close to that goal. Ideally we’d like to build our own, based on the principles of the Not So Big House. Considering the different elements of a house – the interior, the exterior, and the land around it – drives me to the sort of questions I’ve posed here. I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts on the importance of design and aesthetics and how (or if) they play a role in the Simple and Frugal life.


13 responses to this post.

  1. I hold dear the experience of visiting the home of some friends about 9 years ago. I’d heard they were living in a ‘hut’ off the grid, rent-free in exchange for doing some caretaking on a property. We were invited to their place. We followed directions up a little-travelled laneway, took the lesser fork and parked as advised just before the rickety hand-built bridge. We walked up a path and found their place by shouting and being heard.

    The hut was 20′ in diameter. There were four of them living in it — two adults and two children under 10. Pi r squared gives me a smidge under a hundred square feet. And the aesthetic inside has become a touchstone for me. It was as spare as something that size could possibly be. There was beauty everywhere, from natural materials integrated with an eye to detail and flow. There was almost no clutter. I marvelled at this and my friend explained that they couldn’t own clutter, because they had no room for it, and it was just as simple as that. But the quiet energy of the space was magnificent. Natural and entirely unaffected, it had a few nooks and crannies and the simplest of solutions to aesthetic and decor — a few smooth stones, a rag rug, a plant, a red cloth and a couple of wooden clothespegs. They hadn’t had to work at it much. They just had what they had, and they put it where it needed to go.

    I think that a lot of the time our efforts to find a spare and clean aesthetic are attempts to wrest from 2,000 sq.ft.-plus houses replete with dozens of modern conveniences some of the comfort and simplicity that my friends’ home embodied. In other words we focus on aesthetics because we have monstrous space and monstrous amounts of stuff that there’s no natural warmth and coziness to our living spaces without obsessing over paint chips and upholstery samples.

    My friends now live in a bigger home that they’ve built for themselves. It’s in a state of perpetual chaos because their building is a gradual process. They love their larger space (they now have three rooms!) and don’t miss “the hut” at all. But I do.

    As an aside, are you as appalled as I am that the Not-So-Big-House showhomes are over 2,500 sq.ft.? To me “not so big” would mean under 1200-2000 or so. I think of 2,500 as being a fairly large and small as being under 1000-1200 sq.ft. Our first house was 920 sq.ft., with a 340 sq.ft. unfinished basement. It seemed quite big for three of us. We’re a family of 6 in 1600 sq.ft. now. Now this is a small house. My middle daughter pines for this house. Take a peek at the interior shots!


  2. A smidge under 400 square feet for the hut. Sorry! Don’t know what I was typing!


  3. Posted by ruralaspirations on July 5, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing that great story! I, too, was shocked to find that the NSB houses were about 2500 sq ft. Yes, I find that very large.

    Our family of four lived the last three years in a 950 sq ft apartment. It didn’t feel small. Now we live very comfortably in about 1300 sq feet (upstairs of house) and there is a large room downstairs (probably about 300 sq ft) that nobody uses much and we could easily do without. We’ve already decided that our “dream house” should be well under 2000 sq ft. Definitely makes it less expensive, too.


  4. Although I am certainly not the designer this info. certainly has me thinking now.

    Great job on this post.


  5. I have been concerned with aesthetics of living for the past 50 years, and have followed the development and vagaries of design and fashion during that time. From experience, I have decided that the tools and implements we use to perform our tasks of living need to be well made, of durable materials that take punishment well and few in number. I have never spent money on decor. A handful of marigolds picked on a walk by a roadside, placed simply and unaffectedly in a glass jar of the ‘correct’ proportion ( determined by my eye) is by far more pleasing to me than an elaborate arrangement of hot-house flowers in an expensive crystal vase.
    We live in an 800 square foot house, with an added 300square foot studio, and nothing comes in which cannot be useful and also be simple and durable. It need not be new, because sometimes the story attached to objects with past history is lovely to meditate upon, whether these objects are a drill-core sample with beautiful mineral colours, used to keep papers in place, or a hammer which has been used by many others to build with.
    Too often, modern aesthetics have a n underlying commercial component. Shown as examples of beauty are things which stimulate our desire for acquisition. Thus, most of what we live with are variations of cookie-cutter notions of beauty. G


  6. I think there is value in aesthetics. How a place looks does affect my mood and ability to concentrate. Of course, every thing in moderation, right. The need for an orderly, cheerful home has been taken to an extreme with focus on decorating, re-decorating. For many people – including my previous self – decorating is a hobby, an excuse to buy new stuff and get rid of old stuff. I don’t think we need to go that far but we also don’t need to abandon aesthetics entirely to live a simple, meaningful life.


  7. I think you can have a beautiful, well-decorated home without constant shopping or spending a lot of money. There are so many people that already do this for you – and you can get their unwanted items at yard sales and thrift stores. It is amazing to me how quickly people get rid of perfectly good items just to go out and buy the latest trend – and the one they have is still in fashion. I am convinced you can have both – a great looking home and frugal spending. You just have to keep your eyes open and your mind open.


  8. I love this topic! For many years, I avoided the aesthetics, thinking it was too much waste to buy things. But your environment is important. It makes a difference how things look. Just getting rid of clutter makes a huge difference. The way they cleaned up the NY subways and majorly reduced crime just by improving the aesthetics is my favorite large-scale example of this.

    You can have simplicity and aesthetics at the same time, I believe.


  9. Ya, I think simplicity is an aesthetic. I really like the idea of a room with just a few good items in it, and lots of space around them so they don’t get lost in the clutter. That’s not to say a person needs a lot of space, but rather, fewer things in the space. I know my mind is definitely affected by the things in my space and the space around my things 🙂


  10. I was surprised to find my house is “smaller” than the NSBH plans!
    I try to remove clutter and keep color the pleasing item in my house. A little color here, a little color there. I can never stage things correctly.

    As for sq ft needed? That’s a toughie. My husband is 6’1″. He grew up in a 4 bedroom colonial in Metro Cleveland. He is still shocked by the short ceilings in New England (7.5ft) and often feels trapped from the height. I think there is more than just sq ft that goes into a good design.

    I would consider color in your design of any room. I think that makes more sense than almost any item you can buy…


  11. Posted by Superman on July 10, 2008 at 8:40 am

    I think you can separate the warm buzz you get from aesthetics into (at least) two parts – the bits that are innate, like the vase of fresh marigolds mentioned by an earlier poster, and the bits that are culturally learned, which would be like the stainless steel appliances Mr Rennie wants to sell you. 🙂


  12. We’ve been pondering this question as well, and have let go of about half of our framed art in recent months as well as many of our small decorative knicknacks. When we’ve owned our own home, it has been easy to incorporate beauty during remodeling projects by using creative paint techniques or materials (often reclaimed). I’m moving towards wanting less and less single purpose belongings so I expect more art will be on its way out. As I sit here, I see artistic touches on belongings that have uses other than beauty, such as the sponge painted wood bookend, the glass brick bookends, the small woven basket holding my pens and pencils, and the small mosaic end table I made years ago. “Functional Art” is what we call these things.


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