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.