Do-it-yourself design

Before buying more stuff, learn to manage your consumption, apartment therapists urge.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At a time when many people her age are pulling up stakes and traveling the world, Amber Nussbaum is spending her Saturdays at home, cleaning and arranging her 1,000-sq.-ft. house. The recent college graduate scours yard sales for mid-century modern furniture. She regularly visits design websites for new ideas.

Ms. Nussbaum is one of the many Americans who have made "nesting" a top priority in recent years. Whether it's a reaction to feelings of insecurity brought on by the war against terrorism or the lure of low-interest loans to upgrade the kitchen, Americans spent $155 billion on home improvement projects in the past year, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

But while many pick up trendy magazines like "Dwell" and "Oprah at Home" and watch hours of reality-TV shows focused on home renovations, one interior designer is sounding an alarm. Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan says the rush to Home Depot, IKEA, and Pottery Barn has superseded knowing how to live well in our homes. We are "hypernesting."

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"In place of creating a healthy home, we are trying to buy solutions and cram too much into our homes," he writes in his how-to book on interior design. "Most of us aren't in need of more organizing; we need to manage our consumption, let go of our stuff, and learn how to restore life to our homes."

In other words, turn off the TV, take time to empty your closets and make repairs, and try cooking at home more often.

While Mr. Gillingham-Ryan has regular clients in New York City, he has packaged his railing against excessive home consumption into a book, a website with an interactive online community, and now an online class (the next one starts this week).

"Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure" (Bantam) aims to change our living habits as we strive to change our living spaces. Its related website (www.apartmenttherapy.com) highlights design ideas on a regular basis and a blog where readers can collaborate and commiserate on do-it-yourself design projects.

What's immediately noticeable about the soft-spoken Gillingham-Ryan, who lives in a tiny 265-sq.-ft. apartment with his wife and new baby, is his choice of words. He refers to a home as "a living organism" and describes broken chairs and dripping faucets as "wounds." He implores you to consider wearing "house shoes" and burn only naturally fragrant candles.

But this gentler touch is making a difference in the lives of city dwellers crammed into small apartments. It prompted one client to gratefully refer to the designer as her "apartment therapist." It stuck.

Gillingham-Ryan concedes that his process, which seems part project management part self-improvement, takes longer than if he simply assessed a living space and then dictated his own ideas in the manner of a traditional interior designer. Instead, he coaches people to identify what about their home isn't supporting their lifestyle and then provides an eight-step process for making changes.

"The goal is to create a nice big mess and then be able to finish it, and that's really satisfying," he says.

Despite his emphasis on apartment and city living, the eight-step "cure" is good for any size home, he says. It centers on two approaches. The first, "deep treatment," focuses on making necessary repairs, throwing things away, and rearranging furniture for better "flow."

If you are among the minority who have already transcended clutter, the author's second approach, "one-room remedy," is structured to lead you through the update or redesign of one room, within a budget.

Part of the process includes regularly filling an "outbox" with ugly or unused belongings. But sorting through piles of accumulated things – and the memories and questions they stir up – can be tough.

Enter the online community.

Participants in the online class regularly post comments detailing their challenges or offering tips, for instance, on where to buy fresh flowers (a class assignment) or where to find a good contractor if they live in the same city. The message: You are not alone.

Nussbaum, a graphic designer, is a regular on apartmenttherapy.com. The foundations of her home may be anchored in Norfolk, Va., but its heart and soul belong to New York City. It is small, sparsely furnished, and carefully laid out with midcentury modern furniture and splashes of color. She was thrilled to find others online with her same aesthetic.

"It does help to have other people going through the same thing," she says. "You might be excited to [get going and] paint a wall, but first you have to make repairs or file papers."

Gillingham-Ryan typically posts online twice a week to keep the group focused on the task for that week or to answer questions. But mostly he lets the online community share ideas, which supports his philosophy that everyone can learn to make good design decisions.

Jonathan Boorstein, a freelance writer in New York City, says even though he already had blueprints in hand for creating a new workspace in his 550-sq.-ft. condo, he needed an extra nudge to see it through to completion, especially since he had no place to eat. His work was flooding his dining table.

Following Gillingham-Ryan's eight steps during an online class meant Mr. Boorstein first had to tackle a few things before assembling his new office. For example, he discovered he had about 40 magazine subscriptions floating into his home where he has lived since 1978. (He ended up canceling half of them.)

As he directed unread periodicals, furniture that needed to go, and old files into his "outbox," it grew to an enormous size. He gave it a name, "Leviathan," and sought advice from classmates on how to get rid of it.

"Other how-to [interior design books] don't tell you how to pull suggestions together to make a comfortable living space," says Boorstein, who has completed a master's thesis on interior design books. "By focusing on comfort and ease [Gillingham-Ryan] allows people to take some of the design decisions into their own hands." He says he now cooks and eats at home much more often than he used to.

Learning how to make those decisions, instead of relying on a professional interior designer, helps give people a greater sense of control in their homes, Gillingham-Ryan says. And once a sense of control is restored, people are more likely to cook and invite people over.

"Your home is the center of your life; you are grounded in your house," says Nussbaum, who also plans to join the October online class. "So if your house is more healthy, your whole life will be more organized. I think it really does make a difference."

Eight steps toward home

Interior designer Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan encourages his clients to follow an eight-step process for starting and finishing home projects. Here is his plan for a "one-room remedy" (fixing up one room in your house or apartment):

Step one: Spend some time determining your style. Visit your favorite furniture or design stores and collect images of products you like. Set your budget.

Step two: Using graph paper, map out the floor plan of how you want your room to look. Pay attention to "flow." Avoid pushing furniture against the walls and making the TV a focal point. Create a shopping list of things you'll need to purchase.

Step three: Research what kind of furniture or appliances would work well with your style and fit your space. Figure out where to buy these things and who can help install them.

Step four: Interview and select a contractor, and book a date for the work to be done. Select a date for a party to show off your new room to friends.

Step five: Decide on the detail work, finalize your selections of furniture and paint, and figure out how much of the work you or a contractor will do.

Step six: Finalize the lighting and begin the renovation. Try to stay calm.

Step seven: Clean up and restore order to your renovated room. Arrange furniture, lighting, electrical cords, and art.

Step eight: Add final touches and prepare to wow your friends with a housewarming party.

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