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“Fridges should be manufactured with expandable doors,” my wife suggested one evening as she tried to affix a note with a magnet to the crowded surface of our refrigerator. As two very busy academics with two active teenagers, managing time in our home required an almost military efficiency. My children are grown-up now and have their own places, but back then we were endlessly trying to catch up with one another’s schedules: Driving the kids to school, after-school sports and social activities, respecting community and social obligations, attending medical appointments and parent-teacher interviews, keeping up with household chores like grocery shopping and laundry pickup—altogether, it didn’t seem to leave time for much else.

Today’s increasing pressure on the family schedule is a result of several factors, among which is, paradoxically, the home itself. The gradual expansion in the size of homes and their amenities in the 1970s drove their prices up and necessitated two incomes for their purchase and maintenance. The subsequent return of women to the labor force restructured household responsibilities and priorities. With both parents working, the family’s basic daily chores now had to be compressed into the weekend and a smaller number of weekday hours—Mom or Dad were simply not there full time to look after household necessities. Every time slot before the beginning and after the end of a workday had to be taken advantage of. And the internet made it even more tempting to put aside family responsibilities and focus on work.

Eventually, I realized that I was whisking through some of life’s events too quickly. I began to regard time as a commodity, and I tried to find answers within the realm of my profession—design—to the challenges I faced at home.

So how does one make use of the few precious minutes that we have to spare for a family get-together during the day? We can start by altering family behavior, reshaping priorities and placing human relations at the top of the list. And proper design can help.

It begins by establishing comfortable spaces in which family members can sit together. For example, once it’s been decided that breakfast together is important, a cozy dining area adjacent to the kitchen is conducive to pleasant talks about the coming day. Having it properly lit with a serving counter nearby so that everyone can remain seated can make a difference. In the very same space, dinner can take place to the sound of soft music. Alternatively, families can revive their old, forgotten dining room and eat there daily.

The home’s decor and accessories can also be made to foster strong family relations by serving as a reminder of roots and times past. As I make my way through rooms, I walk through time. It’s not a house I’m traversing, but a life: the recorded memory of moments, days and years of the people who live there. When I began to design, I concluded that homes are as much about memories and aspirations as they are about walls and shades of paint.

Homes are the backdrops of our lives. When children go out into the world, perhaps to form their own families, they can always turn back to that collection of memorable images and use them to build their own homes.

Speculative builders refer to homes as product. Whereas homebuyers see their lives unfolding in residences, builders have a nearer horizon: They have to sell and build quickly and move on to the next project. Handing over the keys to a buyer is their ultimate goal. A model home—the showcase of a new development, like a new model in a car dealership—must therefore look good. It ought to draw a “Wow,” make an unsure buyer fall in love at first sight and edge out the competition across the street. A hotel-size kitchen with stainless-steel appliances will be an anchor; a spacious marble-tiled bathroom with trendy fixtures and a Jacuzzi will be an attention grabber. It’s all a question of first impressions.

Despite my experience working with builders, I’m often uneasy when I have to present my design to one. I know their critique will be harsh and thorough. The success or failure of their investment, I feel, rests on the shoulders of my design. Throughout our discussion, the ultimate user of the design—the homeowner—is faceless and referred to as a client.

“Homes are as much about memories and aspirations as they are about walls and shades of paint”

I parked my car near a newly constructed house in a barren development and stepped into a very cold January afternoon. It was a Friday, and I could tell that the builder’s office receptionist was eager to end the week. The months of January and February are traditionally the busy season in the home-building business in North America, since people tend to buy houses for summer occupancy. The number of sales during these months determines the year’s overall activity. So designs are rushed, finalized and made ready for buyers to see and purchase.

From inside the office I could hear one end of a heated telephone conversation. It sounded as if Jack, the builder, was in the midst of an argument with his banker about interest he was being charged on a line of credit. He wasn’t likely to be in a good mood when he saw me.

The call finally ended. Jack stepped out to instruct his secretary, noticed me, and asked me to come in. He was an experienced builder who built primarily for the move-up market—those who had sold their first small house and were buying a bigger one. He referred to his homes as Buicks: large, comfortable, yet not too expensive. This time though, he was about to start a housing development made up of entry-level homes that would appeal to young couples with a modest income. I’d been recognized for my expertise in designing affordable housing, which Jack wanted me to apply to this project.

After a brief greeting, Jack cleared his wide desk as he pointed to my roll of drawings and said, “Let’s see what you have for me today.” I unrolled the plans, and began to describe the layout of the two-story-plus-basement townhouse I’d designed. I animated my description by walking him through the unbuilt home as if he were a visitor. He listened to my explanation, cutting me off at times when he thought I’d taken too long. It felt as if his mind was still in conversation with his banker.

“What’s the unit’s overall area?” he asked. I told him. He pulled out a smartphone from his pocket and punched in some numbers. “Too expensive,” he said. “I’ll have trouble selling such a product in this site.”

That took the wind out of my sails—I’d been hoping to get his approval so that I could prepare the construction documents. Now I might have to begin my design all over again.

“What can we take out to make the home smaller?” he asked.

There was silence. Sitting there, mulling over the plans, we pondered which functions we could do without. “I can shrink the kitchen and the main bathroom a bit,” I proposed.

“You’re kidding. Kitchens and bathrooms are my real-estate agents,” he said.

“I can reduce the parents’ bedroom area,” I offered.

“The parents are paying for this home. Don’t start with them,” Jack responded quickly. “Maybe you can shrink the living room and knock off the dining room,” he suggested after a moment of silence. “In our home,” he continued, “hardly anyone ever sits in the living room, and the dining room is never used.”

“What about holidays and family gatherings?” I asked.

“What’s the point of keeping valuable space for events that take place only once or twice a year?” Jack said, dismissing my argument. He glanced at his watch and suggested that I reconsider my design and we meet the following week.

On the drive back to my office, I reflected on Jack’s comments about the living and dining rooms and his suggestion to do without them. Are these rooms really needed?

New lifestyle trends have shifted traditional family schedules, and for many people today, it’s hard to find time for a formal meal in the dining room on a weeknight. Setting the table, carrying the food there, taking time to discuss the day’s events, cleaning up and moving to the living room for coffee and dessert while listening to music—that all seems like an evening from a long-gone era.

In his book A History of Domestic Space, Peter Ward points out that the living room, which was also called a parlor, salon, sitting room or front room, was once the place where the family met acquaintances and presented itself to the outside world. It was the home’s most public space. This was also the room in which a family would display their material accomplishments and treasured mementos. Paintings, family heirlooms, silverware and photos were hung on walls and put in glass cases. According to Peter Ward, a piano was also common in middle-class homes in Europe and North America: It was a mark of culture and a signal of wealth. Musical and vocal talents were highly valued, and playing for guests was part of formal hospitality. Extended family members or visitors would gather after dinner to chat, play cards and listen to music played on the piano.

The dining room likewise used to serve a formal function. Its seating arrangements signified the family’s hierarchy; the two heads of table had more comfortable chairs than the ones alongside. In the 1960s, family dinners provided an important social function, creating a formal setting for family exchange, reflection on the day’s events and a forum for a get-together. More than just a room to house the table and chairs, the dining room became a bonding place. Families would discuss—or often debate (this being the ’60s)—important matters before Dad handed over the car keys to a teenager of driving age after dessert. At family gatherings, guests would continue to sit long after dinner ended to talk, giggle over photos or simply catch up with the events of each other’s lives.

The mid-1980s saw families and lifestyles transform. Households became smaller and children grew up. It became hard to fill up the empty chairs around the Baby Boomers’ tables, and thus the dining room’s decline began. Its former glory was restored only a few times a year, its charm being revisited on Thanksgiving, Christmas and other special occasions.

The use of space at home has also become gradually more decentralized. Do we really need to retain a separate room for an occasion that may occur only once or twice a year? Shouldn’t the current trends dictate a new priority list in how homes are used? In many homes today, the dining room has taken on new roles: kids use the large table surface to do homework; Mom or Dad sets up a computer in the corner to run a freelance business; receipts and bills litter the table at tax time. With the increase in the number and nature of tasks that a modern family has to perform, the dining room often becomes, at least temporarily, a substitute for a study.

The living room has experienced a similar fate with the rise of informality. A regular weekday or weekend visit by extended family or acquaintances became a rarity. As the price of sound systems and televisions went down, they appeared in several rooms, and no longer did the family need to gather in the living room for entertainment.

The composition of a typical household has also changed. Families made up of stay-at-home mom, working dad and two or three kids no longer dominate the demographic pie chart. The share of what demographers call “non-traditional” families in the population has grown. There are more single-parent families, more same-sex couples with or without children and more singles than there used to be a decade or two ago.

In the future, with expected growth in apartment living and the shrinkage of the average household size in the city, small will dominate. The introduction of micro-units (less than 50 square meters [500 square feet]) in cities like New York, London and Vancouver marked the disappearance of the dining room and the slashing of the living space. In addition, coffeehouses styled to look like a living room with sofas and fireplaces have become the meeting place of choice for younger apartment dwellers.

Yet, living and dining rooms still play an important role in the lives of residents. They are as much social and cultural icons as they are functional spaces. As my conversation with Jack the builder demonstrated, both the social perception of and economic justification for a formal living or dining space is undergoing re-evaluation. But as current lifestyle trends result in greater family seclusion, it’s important to have uniting symbols.

The dining room represents such a space. Whether it’s once a week or several times a year, eating there can put people in a festive mood. Wearing our Sunday best and eating comfort food off the “good” dishes in a formal setting constitutes a ritual we should not abandon. On special occasions and holidays, it’s the room where relatives from near and far congregate. Like the best suits we don for special occasions and jewelry we wear once or twice a year, the dining room is a space to keep. And even when it’s not being used, the formal setting, with the table in the middle and chairs all around, sends a clear message about the institution of family.

The living room should continue to play a similar role. After-dinner conversations in a relaxed setting—such as sitting in an armchair or on a sofa while listening to quiet background music—is a sign of civility we seem to have lost. Both living and dining rooms can be gathering places for families. The spaces could be transformed, perhaps, but their original purpose should remain intact: comfortable rooms that provide a transition between the world outside and within.

Back at the office, I unrolled my drawings again and thought about what Jack had said. I saw his point: too large a home would be too expensive and wouldn’t sell. So I decided to shrink all the space equally but keep, albeit transformed, the living and dining rooms. Luckily, he saw my point.

"A regular weekday or weekend visit by extended family or acquaintances became a rarity."

With living rooms and dining rooms becoming less important, the kitchen has become the home’s social space. The open-plan concept has taken on a new meaning and has turned the entire floor, or most of it, into one large area with several functions feeding into the kitchen. Kids’ homework, home accounting, watching TV, entertaining friends and reading all take place in this once humble space. Ironically, the preferred 21st-century home layout mirrors the ones of the settlers starting their lives in North America—the one-room house.

Turning the kitchen into the family’s social center necessitated further upgrades in appearance. Manufacturers didn’t miss a beat. They paid more attention to form and design, calling in top industrial designers to turn bulky appliances into design masterpieces. Clad in stainless-steel facings, black edges and digital readouts, appliances took on a slick personality. Despite our reliance on ready-to-serve meals, homeowners have been willing to pay for the ability to prepare gourmet dinners at home on special occasions.

Blame it on our lifestyles, technology or plain consumerism, but society has changed and people’s eating habits have changed as well. Many people have gradually disengaged from cooking their own food—the most human and potentially rewarding of tasks. Burgeoning frozen-food sections and the birth of the fast-food chains were testaments to the fact that North American households had shifted to convenience food. Few peel tomatoes to make Grandma’s lasagna; instead we thaw a frozen meal and serve it in minutes. Even that American icon, the burger, is now sold frozen in a bun with condiments. Large, once-a-week shopping has also expanded pantry space. Frozen-food storage has required larger fridges, and a separate freezer in the basement has been added for long-term storage.

Ready-to-serve frozen food benefited from the invention of another appliance: the microwave oven. It was invented in 1946 by accident when Dr. Percy Spencer, an American, tested a radar-related tube called a magnetron. During one of the experiments, a candy bar in his pocket melted. Further testing made him realize the significance of his invention.

Information appliances have also expanded the home’s time and space to allow occupants to be anywhere, any time. They have brought slices of activities into the home that used to be carried out in other places not so long ago: A bank, a library, and a travel agency are some of the establishments that we used to visit in person during daytime hours and that we can now access digitally from home. We can see and speak with strangers and loved ones, tour places anywhere in the world in real time and choose our preferred type of entertainment from the comfort of our sofas. Yet at the same time, to some degree, they’ve detached us from these places; we no longer need to patronize them in person.

In recent years, the layouts of homes have made them thoroughly public places. A great number of intimate and private places have been lost. The transformation took place when—in the name of style, convenience or space—functions were combined and the open-plan concept thrived. The space that has seen the greatest decline in intimacy is the bedroom, where a TV has become an indispensable feature. Quiet time for reading or conversation that was once part of the ritual of changing gears at the end of a hectic day is now filled with more digital or electronic appliances instead. By the same token, those appliances have also contributed to segregation within the home itself. Household members are now being engaged with more time-consuming tools. Time spent in face-to-face conversation seems to have diminished.

The telephone was the first appliance to open the home’s communication avenue and alter home life. I wondered how the telephone, besides being a technological breakthrough, had affected domestic design since its introduction. How had it influenced community relations? What’s next in the relationship between the home and those appliances?

When Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876, he changed the nature of human interaction overnight. The ability to reach someone at once and carry on a live conversation over a wire rendered written messages sent by snail mail obsolete, to a certain degree. Instant communication was born and, along with it, instant exchange of news and ideas.

Like other great inventions that preceded and followed it, the telephone was first viewed with skepticism—early forecasters even argued that it would never take off since its initiators wouldn’t be able to find enough single women between the ages of 16 and 20 to operate the manual switchboards. Only a few envisioned the effect that the telephone would eventually have on home design and life in the following century. When it was first introduced, the telephone was placed in the hallway or the living room, close to the entrance. Given its sporadic use, it was initially enclosed within a cabinet. Only years later would it be hung on the wall and, later still, stand alone.

The ring of a telephone disturbed routine family activities and attracted immediate attention. People would gather around to find out who called and what the message was. Party lines meant that people could listen to their neighbors’ private conversations. The telephone also marked the beginning of the blurring of the line between home and work in the modern era: In the years that followed, as services expanded, the same lines were used for homes and businesses, allowing people at home to receive after-hours calls directed to their offices.

The introduction of telephones also transformed the residential street and the front porch. Whereas face-to-face encounters had served as the main mode of communal social contact, chatting in person became less necessary when you could talk on the phone with a neighbor across the street or acquaintance across town.

Over the following decades, as telephone technology transformed from manual to automated switchboards and hardware and service costs went down, a telephone extension in other rooms appeared. Some people installed a second line, enabling household members, often teenagers, to conduct extended conversations from the privacy of their rooms. With these clear demarcations within the family, phone calls within the home turned from a public into a private affair.

Then in the 1950s, the installation of jacks throughout the house enabled people to talk on the phone while preparing dinner, watching TV or working on a school project. Cordless communication in the 1990s encouraged mobility from room to room. A person could now verify information or check a reference without saying, “I’ll call you back.”

Similar to the telephone—which has generated advantages at the same time as contributing to societal losses—the introduction of computers brought the very same ambivalence. Just a few years after their introduction, they had a tremendous impact on the domestic realm.

The late 1990s saw great speculation about the relationship between the home and its environment in the digital age. The term cocooning was introduced, forecasting that relationships between the home and outside services would be handled mainly by computers. Forecasts turned out to be exaggerated, yet the basic infrastructure remained intact.

The location of computers in homes has also changed along with their increasing importance. They were first put in the basement when they were used for hobby or play, moved to the study when they became a sophisticated typewriter and relocated again to the children’s bedroom desk when they became more versatile. They then turned mobile with the introduction of the laptop and Wi-Fi.

More than just a technological and communications breakthrough, the computer marked the start of the knowledge revolution. From the comfort of domestic spheres, it permitted access to huge stockpiles of data at an enormous speed. Wireless technology and the introduction of smartphones coupled with the proliferation of the World Wide Web widened this convenience, further blurring the line between the home and the world outside.

If the telephone reduced the need for face-to-face contact and contributed to the erosion of the front porch, computers and smartphones became the porch. In fact, they became the public square.

It is hard to predict what kind of digital devices will be invented and what their future effect on the domestic environment will be. However, we can rest assured that in the roller coaster of ongoing consumption, more is in store for us. If recently introduced gadgets are any indication of what is coming, we are in for an exciting ride, whether we like it or not.

Copyright 2015 by Avi Friedman.
Republished with permission of Véhicule Press.

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This story is from Kinfolk Issue Eighteen

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