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House Thought

by David Sturtz

A few weeks ago I picked up House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live, knowing that with the move to Iowa we were planning to buy our first house. In it Winifred Gallagher pulls together thought and writings from a variety of disciplines (including several authors familiar to readers of this blog, such as Jane Jacobs, Don Norman, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). She steps through each room of the modern home weaving together its evolution, use, and the psychosocial implications of its design. (That sounds much drier than it actually is, the treatment should entertain more domestically-inclined fans of books like The Tipping Point or Freakonomics.)

Taking the kitchen as an example, Gallagher begins by describing the walk-in fireplace of Abigail Adams, follows the fashions and advancements in technology leading to A Treatise on Domestic Economy, Saving Steps (Jan. 1901, Nov. 1901, Nov. 1902, Nov. 1903), and the birth of home economics. On the state of the modern kitchen she writes:

“Despite our increasingly lavish kitchens and array of foods — grocery-industry figures show that stores that sold an average of 7,000 products in 1969 offered 50,000 in 2004 — Americans actually cook less and less. On average, we make only about a third of our dinner entrees, including sandwiches, from scratch.”

In general, the book is a great excuse for introspective thought about the form, function, and psychology of our living spaces. Sometimes it’s nice just to have a book that gives a focal point for thinking things out.

I’ve also enjoyed asking various people in my life to tell me about a place where they remember being particularly happy. Out of that conversation my mother reminded me, “A house without books is like a room without windows.” (Horace Mann). I’m planning for lots of both.

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