Book/Website from Maxwell Ryan, 2003/2007

The idea is that the state of an dwelling reflects its inhabitant. Set designers know this implicitly: if you wish to show, perhaps, the mansion of a washed-up pop star Rita Rhinestone (in the opening scenes of a new rom-com), the place might be austerely luxurious in feeling, but it will also show signs of neglect, if not disrepair.  Her long-lost high school sweetheart Tom Docker, (a humdrum widower with three children) will have a suburban home in apple-pie order, even if the walls are covered with kids' crayon drawings and the bookshelves with sports trophies. In reality, the pop star might actually have a cleaner house (she might have a cleaning service and/or just be a neat adult, the widower might not be able to keep house, especially with three kids complicating things), but for dramatic purposes, it's obvious which house is going to belong to whom. If the designer wants to really make it look like Ms. Rhinestone hit bottom, as opposed to simply coming down in the world, the colors of her mansion will be cold and dingy, with blues and purples and stone grays, while the Docker family home will be full of reds, yellows and warm woods, symbolizing their cozy family life and the strength of their love for each other. Meanwhile, her comic-relief ditzy friend might have a cheerful looking apartment, with candy-pink walls, maybe messy, with plastics the visible material, while the antagonist, a lawyer who's after Rhinestone's money, will have a chilly-looking office, orderly, with the supremely cold materials of glass and steel….and so on, until she returns to her mansion with her new family, which, newly restored, now blooms with magenta flowers, golden light and green foliage…

The same is true outside rom-coms: not only are stressed-out people lousy housekeepers, but living in disorder is stressful. People in depressing-looking homes, obviously, tend to be depressed. People whose homes "don't work" and need repairs struggle with 19th century problems in a 21st century world. Not being able to have people over makes you lonelier, even if you think it's easier to 'entertain' in restaurants and short, an unhappy home is likely to make you unhappy.

In this book, Maxwell Ryan simplifies the process of making (or remaking) your flat into a well-working, cozy oasis in the urban wasteland by borrowing ideas from feng shui: your home is a living organism with bones (the basic structure), breath (flow), heart (personalization) and a head (how the place actually works). Step by step, he explains how to identify problems, get into a good relationship with your home, and ends with instructions for a nice show-your-work dinner party. Over eight weeks, and with a lot of work, you'll learn about carb and protein based furniture, making dates with your flat, and a wealth of slightly off-kilter ideas that are both fun and practical. His biggest plus is that he works mainly with smaller (and some downright tiny) apartments, which is downright revolutionary in a genre of books that for years has been notable for catering to people converting 3000 square foot factory floors, Bobos seeking a Cottage Style by way of Pottery Barn, and Yuppies trying to recreate the Ancien Regime with electricity, modern plumbing, and eat-in kitchens with granite counters and islands.

Its downside is that, as with many decorating books, is that it's very good at spending your money for you. As someone on Amazon said, it's very difficult to scale down New York professional interior decorating down to the level where folks with just $14 to spend on advice can reasonably expect to be able to use the ideas. At the far end, as he suggests, remodeling a kitchen is about $25K-$20K, or about half the American median salary, if the landlord agrees. On the other hand, good housekeeping, a supermarket bouquet now and then, and a good home-cooked meal costs nearly nothing, and anyway, no book can substitute for judicious adaptation, which is where the book leaves off and the website picks up.

Yes, the website. Apartment Therapy has been, since the early Millennium, the go-to decorating website, with blogs, RSS, forums, and scads of viewers photographing their before, after, and during pictures with the happy wonder of new parents discussing their first diaper change. A sister site, the Kitchn, deals with cooking, the dining room, and other food-related issues, from growing some to entertaining. Pretty snazzy! As with most of these lifestyle destinations, if you have a question, you can either see it answered, or have the hive mind fix it for you.

Summary: if you like living mindfully, would like to move from dorm room to designing person, and like a little fun in the meantime, you're going to like this book. I do, a lot.

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