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Lauren F. Winner


Getting Comfortable

Houses the offer "prospect and refuge."

Sometimes, you walk into a building and you just feel at home. Maybe a family from church has invited you to a dinner party—you don't know the hosts very well, and you've never been to their house before. But you feel right at home, right away. There's something comfortable, relaxing, and inviting about their space.

Winifred Gallagher's smashing new book, House Thinking, helps explain why some spaces feel inherently homey to us. Certain spaces make us feel at ease, and others do not. "Unfortunately, most of our information about the home comes from profit-driven experts, media, and merchants, who insist that how our houses and apartments look is more important than the less commercial but more crucial issue of how they make us feel." Approaching our houses from the vantage of evolutionary psychology, she argues, can help us make better decisions about simple things like arranging our furniture—and those decisions can go a long way toward making us more comfortable, more at home.

Her book walks readers through a house, room by room. I found that Gallagher named many of my inchoate desires, things I intuitively wanted from my house, but didn't know how to articulate.

You might have felt at home as soon as you entered those aforementioned acquaintances' house, for example, because of their entryway. Many houses and apartments try to save space by doing away with an entryway. Gallagher argues that these poorly planned entries, which "dump you right into the living area," leave people feeling awkward or uncomfortable, while houses with a defined vestibule or entry hallway help people transition from the chaos of the street to the more interior space of the home. "A good entry tells you that you've left the mad world behind for the private haven, and invites the expectation of pleasure to come."

Gallagher is, in some ways, riffing on the insights of Christopher Alexander (to whom, it seems to me, Sarah Susanka also owes her greatest debt). In his controversial classic ...

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