Ask MR: “How Can I Make a Temporary Space Feel Like Home?”

ask MR graphic

Hello and welcome to our advice column, Ask MR, where we answer your burning questions, hoping we’ll become the ointment to your life rash. Ask us a question by sending one of us a DM, emailing [email protected] with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or simply leaving one in the comments.

“How can I make a temporary space homey? I just moved into a new apartment and can’t bring myself to spend too much on decorating as I know I won’t be here for too long.” —Amelia

Hello, Amelia! Tonight, I’m answering you from my studio apartment, which I have now lived in for two years. It’s been two years, and from the vantage point of my bed, I see more than a few upgrades that two-years-ago-me would have expected to be done by now. (As I type I can also feel the distinct sensation of a white wall that wishes it were lavender glaring back at me from across the room.) Of all the things I’ve ever feared I’d regret doing to a rental apartment—painting walls I can’t take with me; acquiring furniture that might not fit another space—overall, the only real regret I’ve ever sustained was my own hesitation.

When I moved into this apartment, I had no idea how long I’d live here. I still don’t know how long I’ll live here. And except for a very short window of time in the future between “deciding to move” and “tipping the movers,” I never will know. The impermanence of all things—and how that impermance makes every single thing inherently urgent—is a truth so clear it should be banal, but it’s not, thanks to that inherent urgency, which makes it kind of exciting. And scary too, of course.

Already, some of you are like: “Okay… so… temporary wallpaper or…?” I can feel you glaring at me like the white wall! But listen, I have a point! And I plan to make it sooner than two years from now. Instead of encouraging you to custom design a removable wall decal of your childhood cat in profile (which… not my worst idea?), I think it’s important for us to just open our minds to the possibility that you might end up being in this space for longer than you think. And that’s not justification for spending more money—it’s just an argument for more deeply and swiftly committing to making your space into the space you need it to be. If you wait to make your dwelling feel homey until you buy a place, decide to “settle down,” or hit some other abstract milestone, you risk spending a big portion of your life feeling untethered while you wait for your capital-L life to start.

So you want the feeling of home now, but have some logistical barriers: How do you decide what will make the biggest impact? I think I learned a little trick for this when I worked at a shop in the East Village during college. The store I worked at was packed with beautiful things, from hulking pieces of furniture shipped from sleepy towns in Europe to handcrafted ceramics to random oddities picked up at the flea market two dozen blocks away. Every item we sold was objectively beautiful and interesting and would no doubt make any space prettier than it was without it. But being in the midst of all this loveliness for extended periods of time numbed me, to some degree, to its beauty. It made me realize that acquiring a beautiful thing and putting it in just the right spot wasn’t actually enough. The beautiful thing needed to be a conduit to something else more meaningful than aesthetics. I am reminded of this every time I look at an interiors magazine and see a place that has been professionally (and clearly expensively) decorated, but which still looks somehow completely empty.

I spent three years working at that store, idly admiring everything in it, but the best any of it ever looked was when I saw it in action. This happened for the first time when the store owner invited friends over to play charades after the shop had closed. Candles were lit, sofas were leapt from as guesses were exuberantly shared, and everything suddenly came to life, or rather benefitted from its proximity to life, and the beautiful things began to mean so much more—to do so much more. There were a few other times during my stint working at the store—holiday parties, a weekend retreat at the store owner’s house a few states north—when this idea was firmed up in my mind as fact. The key to making a place feel like home is not simply acquiring things that will make it look a certain way, it’s about how those things relate to your life, and how you want to live it.

So, what do you, in your current transitory state (which I am so curious about—I wish I knew more!), need your home to be for you right now? I can tell you that even though there are things in my apartment that, on a visual level, I wish I’d done by now, I still love it, because the things I took care of right away are the things that facilitate the kinds of activities I need to happen in a space in order for it to feel like home. For me, having my favorite books out, and making it easy to reference them—getting them organized, but not in such a fussy way that anyone would feel hesitant to pick one up and crack it open—feels really important. When I’m alone in my place, I need to be able to revisit certain bits of writing I love in order to feel that deep, comforting sensation we are referring to when we talk about “home.” On a social level, I associate home with a bunch of people sitting around a table, various snacks and drinks strewn about, talking late into the night, maybe half-heartedly playing a card game. (I’m pretty sure the opening credits of the original Rosanne are to blame for this?) Anyway, that’s the reason why the first piece of furniture I bought for this place was a big dining table that I knew would give plenty of space for that kind of activity—and then an assortment of glasses and plates to scatter around on top of it.

I don’t know the exact reason why you are certain about the ephemerality of your living situation, but I think that might be the best place to start when you begin to think about what you need—whether its creating a space that supports your reason (like a nice desk and some beautiful pencils and notebooks if you’re studying abroad) or something that gives you refuge from it (like extra-soft, cozy bedding if you’ve temporarily relocated for a job that is zapping you of your energy). Maybe you really won’t be there for long, but—getting back to that inherent urgency—that’s still a great reason to make the most of your time there, in the ways that matter to you. Eventually, this apartment, like my old part-time job, will be a fuzzy memory, and I’m willing to bet your fondest memories will be less about what you put in it, than about what happened there.

Ask MR identity by Madeline Montoya

Mallory Rice

Mallory Rice is a writer who sometimes has bangs and sometimes does not. She was previously the executive editor of this fine website.

More from Archive