This year, more than ever, the spaces we call home have become our sanctuaries. Emma Johnson meets Michelle Ogundehin, author of Happy Inside: How to Harness the Power of Home for Health and Happiness to talk about creating places that shelter and soothe
“As far as I’m concerned, the primary purpose of home is to be your safe place in the world. It’s only when we feel strengthened and supported by our environment, that we can become our best selves.” (Michelle Ogundehin)
Man’s home might have always been his castle, but a woman’s home has always been her sanctuary. Home is somewhere we can rest, create, work, keep our family safe, feed our loved ones, shelter them from the weather, offer comfort in hard times and celebrate in good ones. Inviting people into our homes is an act of wonderful generosity, while retreating to our homes when we are sad is an act of considerable self-love.
Throughout the pandemic sweeping the planet this year, we have all had to spend more time than ever in our homes. They have had to function as so much more than they used to – becoming office, playground, nursery, classroom, gym, restaurant, cinema and yoga studio. They’ve become multi-faceted spaces, in which we spend all of our days. And, as we’ve lived in them, we’ve seen their flaws.
“The many things the apartment leaves to be desired—cheap fixtures, landlord-beige walls, and an ancient tile kitchen floor that never quite looks clean—have become unavoidably obvious to me as I’ve sat inside of it for the better part of this year,” says Amanda Mull, writing about her lockdown experience in The Atlantic recently. “And the longer I sit, the more the flaws taunt me. “
The scrutiny our homes were under forced many of us to make changes, redecorating, painting rooms, fixing things, building sheds and so on. But the impact of these changes wasn’t just cosmetic. As we started to invest in our homes, not just financially, but emotionally, we started to acknowledge how important they were to us. “Of all the things that I’ve done to better my apartment, soothe my anxieties, or occupy my time during the pandemic, nothing has worked quite as well as replacing my kitchen faucet,” says Mull. “The project cost $75 and took about an hour – but installing it was a reminder that there are still some problems that can be solved by one person wielding the right tool.”
Fixing, cleaning, tidying, window-dressing, renovating, refurbishing, replacing, upcycling. These nesting instincts – which for decades have been buried deep under deadlines, pressure, climbing the career ladder, balancing the books and keeping up with Jones’ – came bubbling back up to the surface as we sought solace and comfort in the confusing, changing landscape of a worldwide pandemic.
In retreating in this way, we all realised how valuable the spaces we live in are, and how much more attention we need to give them. “I think lockdown has proved without a doubt that happy home-making isn’t frivolous,” explains Michelle Ogundehin, whose beautiful book Happy Inside: How to Harness the Power of Home for Health and Happiness was released in April this year, just in time to guide homeowners through creating spaces that nurtured and soothed.
And in this act of nesting, we realised something really vital. That not only are our homes something to be cherished. They are something even more important than that – they are shelter, sanctuary, safety.
In parts of America, lockdown was known as ‘sheltering in place’, while elsewhere we created ‘bubbles’, all encouraged by entreaties to #stayhome. Wherever we were, encased in our four walls, we formed safe spaces that protected us from the outside world, offering sanctuary – somewhere to go when there was nowhere else to go.
“What surrounds you can make, or break you,” says Ogundehin. “After all, during lockdown, did you feel safe and supported, or trapped and suffocated? The good news is that you can reverse engineer this power, mastering yourself by mastering the space in which you live. In this way your home can become your most powerful ally, your secret superpower in an increasingly uncertain world.”
Heart of the home
Ogundehin’s book is one of the first to find a balance between interiors and wellbeing. Organised into sections that focus on things such as energy, air, nurture, welcome, intention and retreat she takes you through creating a home that is safe and supportive in many different ways, including many you might not have thought of.
One whole chapter is dedicated to removing as many harmful toxins from your home – from changing your candles to soy, filtering your water, investing in green plants, ‘veritable air-cleaning ninjas’ and using non-toxic cleaning products. “Research shows that the air inside the average home is often more polluted than a busy street corner outside,” she says. “It’s a shocking reality caused by a build-up of common toxins and allergens that are either evaporating from our furniture, dry-cleaning and paint, or being emitted by pets, and common household products. So, one of the absolute best things you can do for yourself at home is to freshen the air.”
Another chapter looks at flow – suggesting replacing sharp-edged tables with round ones and ensuring the hallway is always clear of mess; while she also tackles the tricky topic of clutter, storage and possessions. According to Ogundehin, it’s space not size that is important. Even in the smallest home, if you are mindful of your possessions and think about flow and energy, you can still be thoughtful with the space you have. Get rid of multiples of things you have, fruit bowls you don’t like, anything ugly or broken. If you are keeping something for sentimentality, consider whose sentiments you’re meeting here – yours, who has to live with it every day, or someone else’s. This is your home, you can have it in whatever you want.
“The path to peace is not found through possessions,” Ogundehin reminds us. “It’s found through health, happiness, friends, food and family. If anything can be taken from these recent times of turmoil, it should be this.”
When it comes to creating a sanctuary, Ogundehin says that this is about creating harmony throughout your home, not just in select corners or rooms, so that your entire home can be considered your retreat. “Sanctuary is solace, quiet and calm in the eye of the storm. A retreat in which to restore and rejuvenate mind, body and soul. And home can be all of these things with careful consideration for everything that surrounds you, alongside an attitude of conscious curation.”
Of course, each room in the home has an important role to fulfil, from the kitchen which tends to be about creativity, heart and health, to the bathrooms which form important parts of our morning and evening rituals and the home office which needs to offer some kind of physical separation from the day to day of home life. And don’t forget the less used or considered spaces which are actually incredibly important. The entrance hall, for instance, needs to function as a conduit to both the calm inside, and the pace of the world outside. Think both about how you feel as you leave, as well as how you arrive. “Is it emblematic of you? Does it signal who lives here? Or is it a tumble of coats and piles of post. Your first impression on stepping over your threshold has the power to affect your mood, so how do you want to feel?”
In creating a sanctuary, the bedroom of course is one of the most important rooms in the house. Keep furniture here to a minimum, armchairs just invite piles of clothes, says Ogundehin. Think about the view from your bed, keeping bold design for the headboard and the wall behind your bed, while also think about lighting, soothing colours and if the space lends itself to your morning ritual – do you do yoga each morning? Then you’ll need floor space and a rug to do it on. Do you read each evening? Then you’ll need a calm light to read by which doesn’t over-stimulate the brain.
Spaces for everyone
Ogundehin also talks about creating sanctuaries for children, ensuring they have space to create and grow in their own home, not separated from the ‘adult’ spaces, but a vital part of them. It is an art to find harmony together, but it can be done. “I’m really uncomfortable with the idea of keeping children separated from the main body of the home in any way. After all, is it not their home too? A few storage baskets can easily deal with stray toys, and personally, I love to decorate with children’s artwork. I’ve even professionally framed some of my favourite pieces from when my son was very young. It has such a joyful naivety to it. Plus, don’t underestimate the boost to your child’s self-esteem to see their nascent creativity honoured in this way.”
Colour and texture
Choosing a colour and texture palette is also a really important part of creating cohesion in your home. From a set of core colours, with added accent colours, and then a combination of humble textures, favoured materials and signature finishes, as well as wood, tiles, stone and flooring, Ogundehin seamlessly explains how to create a palette that reflects not only your personal taste but which is inspired by things that make you feel relaxed, inspired and calm.
“Your home is the place where you can truly be yourself without fear of judgment, surrounded by the things, colours, materials, finishes and furnishings that have personal meaning to you,” she says. “It’s only when we feel strengthened and supported by our environment, that we can become our best selves.”
In a nod to this idea, Ogundehin also says that we must consider each of our senses, throughout the home. From smooth door handles and cool surfaces that feel nice to touch, to the smells from diffusers and the taste of food cooking in a cosy kitchen, as well as the sounds of birds and nature through open windows or the quiet burble of classical music from the radio. Be mindful of how everything in your home stimulates the senses, and that it’s creating positive feelings, not ones of overwhelm or stress. Need some quiet? Turn the radio off? That scent giving you a headache? Blow the candle out. Hate using that cutlery because it jabs your hands? Get rid of it.
The story of your sanctuary
The meaning of the word sanctuary is a refuge. A place that can rescue us from persecution or protect us from danger. While the persecutions and dangers of the world outside may have changed over the centuries, the importance of the space beyond your front door has not. As Ogundehin explains in her last chapter on ‘acceptance’, we must allow honesty and truth into our homes, to ensure they are places where we do not have to pretend.
“We must have a desire to wake up and listen to those internal narratives that push us where we do not want to go,” she writes. “Bearing honest witness to our journey and thereby owning our personal stories is the only way to be truly ‘at home’ with ourselves, and thus able to further enrich our lives with the creation of a space that fulfils our real need and expresses our true character.”
The endurance and challenge of lockdown has shown us that home must be a place of solace, openness and support. It cannot function as a sanctuary without these things. It is not just physical, but about the space for self that we create in our home.