The wabi-sabi house – leaving well alone

It’s better to work with a house as it is than to try to turn it into something it isn’t.

I was thinking yesterday about wabi-sabi, as I was writing a review of a book (to come shortly), and it made me think of my parents’ house and what a lesson it was to me in interior design. For all the wrong reasons.

The house was a council property, built in 1947 and designed by some enlightened architect, who got the entire housing estate right.

I didn’t know how lucky I was, growing up in that house. It wasn’t large, but it was designed in a spacious way. It was brick-built, with solid internal walls. There were big casement windows everywhere that opened out fully. There was crosslight. There were French windows in the living room, giving out onto large gardens and – in our case – woodland right down one side, as we were the last house in a cul-de-sac.

Downstairs, a front door flanked by a frosted glass window that flooded the hallway with light led to stairs to the upper floor and a corridor to the kitchen, and a built-in rack for coats. The kitchen was a masterpiece of design – a coal-burning stove in one corner, raised on a stone dais; a big ceramic Butler sink with teak drainers; a huge north-facing larder with real stone shelves for keeping milk and butter cool (this was in the days before many people had refridgerators).

A door led to a rear corridor and thence to a room that most people used for storage or as a workroom (later, with increasing prosperity, for freezers etc, and later still my father made his wine in here). In front of it was the coal-hole (we still ran on coal then – several tons of it a year), and a cubbyhole for the bins. There was also an outside loo, so you didn’t have to stomp upstairs in your wellies. This section had stable doors, though most people closed it off with full doors. 

The living room, like the whole ground floor, was tiled in terracotta and black tiles, laid in a square pattern, and the deep windowsills were terrazzo. All the doors were panelled oak.   

Upstairs, two large bedrooms overlooked the street, with a small back bedroom and a bathroom (cast-iron bathtub) overlooking the garden, all with large casement windows. A massive cupboard for storage was built-in at the top of the stairs, and another, with slatted shelves, was built in as an airing cupboard over the hot water tank in the bathroom. Alcoves in every bedroom were big enough to take wardrobes or to build in closets.  

Add the huge attic, and you can see how much space there was in this small house – a workshop, storage for bikes, two toilets. But of course, my parents, being aspirational like most people, proceeded to mess it up.

The first thing I remember them doing was ripping out the Butler sink. Who could have told them then that these ‘stone’ sinks would one day be so desireable, along with the sturdy brass taps they loathed? In went the shallow stainless steel sink with built-in drainers so beloved of the 1960s (I assume the teak ones went in the fire…). In place of the old wooden worktop, they installed a yellow laminate work surface – laminate being the fresh new thing. Because they’d turned the kitchen around, you now couldn’t reach the windows to open them.

The larder, designed to keep food cold, became home instead to the spindryer (no tumble-dryers in those days) and storage for mountains of crockery, which was always glacial (they did, at least, keep bread in here, where it wouldn’t spoil). Meanwhile, they built a cupboard above the fridge, in the alcove opposite, and kept the canned food and baked goods here, where they suffered from the warmth rising from the heat exchanger. 

The kitchen was designed to eat in, near the small coal stove, but instead, my mum and dad set up a huge oak dining table in front of the French windows in the living room, blocking both light and access to the garden. I barely saw those windows open twice a year (in fact, for most of my life they were painted shut). In every place, in every room they placed huge, unwieldy pieces of furniture that you had to squeeze around, and the outside loo was usually home to a lawnmower and completely unusable.

The tile floors, of course, to them were a sign of poverty, so in the living room they laid wall-to-wall carpet. But they couldn’t afford a good wool carpet, so it was an acrylic carpet of unimaginable awfulness – a cream background with a screaming floral pattern.  Nor did it actually meet the wall at one side, so they shoved in another bit of carpet that didn’t match. Later, they would replace this carpet with one even more vomit-inducing, in shades of green and orange. In the hallway, the carpet that covered the tiles was protected in turn with a plastic runner that transformed the corridor into a slipway – lethal on a wet day. In the kitchen, the ceramic tile was covered with floral lino, and then with vinyl tiles in blue and black. 

The green and orange carpet in the living room which they laid in the 70s matched the new wallpaper, which was a design of huge green circles in vertical rows – as big as a dinner plate – and, naturally, in wash-down vinyl, as if a house was something that has to be steam-cleaned every five minutes to keep it hygienic. This replaced the simple whitewash with which the house had been supplied and you can imagine the effect of all these enormous patterns crowding in on one another.

Meanwhile, the windowsills became home to pot plants by the dozen, blocking the light and shedding leaves everywhere and making the windows impossible to open. Conforming to the social norms, the three-piece suite (which they retained even when there were only two of them in the house) took up almost the entire floor space.

While downstairs was cluttered beyond belief, especially after my parents began to collect antiques in the late 70s, the upstairs remained almost hostile in its bleakness. Freezing cold for much of the year (no central heating in those days), it did have carpets (though no underlay, as they couldn’t afford it), but my parents never had more than a bare lightbulb handing from the ceiling in their bedroom. I don’t even remember a bedside lamp, though I’m guessing my mum must have had one. Upstairs was not somewhere you hung around – I used to put my clothes in front of the living room fire for the next day, so they’d be warm enough to get into. 

It pains me now to think how different the house might have been if my parents had been able to accept what it was instead of fighting it. To have a few simple, plain – perhaps country – things rather than aspiring to middle-class tastes that they could only fall short of. If, basically, the interior had been more wabi-sabi.

Imagine it with those simple, tiled floors in place, and a few scattered rugs, with rough-plastered walls, with bleached floorboards upstairs and an iron bedstead (instead of my 70s divan with its plastic-covered headboard). With the storage used properly and all the remaining spaces left empty.

The truth was, the house had a wonderful Vermeer-like simplicity about it that my parents just couldn’t recognise (and nor, as a child, of course, could I). I’ve seen it since in Lutyen’s houses and Tudor houses and in farmhouses all over this region of France, houses with an enormous comfort and quietude about them – settings for the fabric of life.

The key elements are that everything is well-made and fit for its purpose, and our house fitted that bill. It used good and honest materials that needed to make no apologies for themselves – brick and stone, terrazzo and tile, wood and glass. There was masses of storage and room to build in more. Above all, it had the two most crucial components any house requires – space and light. But my parents squandered it like many people, by stuffing their home with clutter that they spent their lives cleaning and manoevring around and insuring and repairing. In later years, it was more museum than house and it felt to me as if the house owned them rather than the other way around.

The house is now in other people’s hands. I haven’t seen it in decades and I only hope that it is faring better under new ownership.

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