Hello and welcome to the Vernacular Life podcast, where we talk about anything and everything that goes in our turn-of-the-century vernacular farmhouse. I’m your host, Paige, as usual, and we have a really fun topic today, because I didn’t even really realize this was something I was doing until I got this question specifically.
Now, the question came up from one of the many inquiries of whether or not I’m going to show baby rooms and nurseries and childproofing houses, and that’s just not something I’m going to really do going forward, check out episode 12 if you want to hear more details about that. But it really got me thinking, because at my core, at my heart, I am a very practical person. If something doesn’t work and it’s in my way, that is simply unacceptable, I refuse… I refuse to have something around that serves no purpose and gets in my way and causes problems. Similarly, I really don’t like having things that don’t perform their intended function. If I’m going to buy something and I’m going to put it in my house, it needs to work the way that I need it to work the first time, and that’s pretty much it.
So the question is, how to make a very functional, usable, practical, efficient house that quite frankly isn’t ugly? Because there are a lot of very practical spaces out there, there are factories and production floors, and there’s all sorts of super-minimal ways and styles out there that are touted for being so functional and so efficient, but my densely-packed fancy soul just can’t deal with that, I can’t deal with a room that’s all white and gray and neutrals, I just simply can’t do it.
So how do we make that space that serves a function, and serves a function really well, how do we make that look nice? And that’s what we’re going to talk about today. And on top of this, I don’t want to live in a museum. It’s never been my goal to have a house that is so nice and so pristine that I am terrified to live in it. Now, other people might come over and see all of my antiques and not know exactly what to do with them or where they’re allowed to sit, but once they’ve been over a few times, hopefully they realize that all of the pieces in my house are meant to be used. I don’t spend very much on my antiques and on my furniture because if it gets broken, I don’t really want to be out several thousand dollars. I can buy another chair, I can buy another dresser, I can buy another wardrobe, but in the meantime, I’m going to use the stuff that I have.
So today, I kind of have five tips or rules that you can follow sort of in sequence about how to go about transforming your house into something functional, but also beautiful. We want to create those spaces that work really hard for us, that make our lives easier, that make things run smoother, without sacrificing any of the aesthetics.
So tip number one, and I’ve talked about this before, I can’t remember if it was on this podcast, but it’s a good tip nonetheless, we’re going to talk about it again. The first step is to kind of understand what your aesthetic is. What do you like, how do you like things to look, how do you want a room to feel? And some people would go to Pinterest for this, I don’t, because I think Pinterest is very good at creating cohesive looks for rooms, but they don’t necessarily work in my house.
So the way that I figured out kind of my style, and I still use this kind of in the back of my brain today when I see something and I’m trying to decide whether or not it should go in my house or whether I should spend the money on it, we’re going to do the favorite things challenge, and what that is is you’re going to walk around your house, and you’re going to find 10 to 15 things that you love. Now, when I say “Love,” I mean things that you would fling your body across in a thrift store, or a new store, or an antique mall, or wherever you could find it, fling your body across it to get it before anyone else does.
And I don’t want you to put any thought whatsoever into whether or not these things go together, none at all. You can grab a rustic, primitive candle holder and a modern acrylic side table and put them together. The point isn’t to grab 15 things that look good together, the point is to grab 15 things that light your heart on fire because you love them so much.
Now, once we’ve done that, we’re going to gather all of those things in one place. I like to set them up on the table or lay them out on the floor, or put them on a mantle, kind of arrange them somewhere so you have a little vignette. And the first time I did this on Instagram, what was amazing is that even though people were grabbing things that seemingly didn’t go together, didn’t match whatsoever, different definitive unique styles came out every single time, every time, every single picture I shared, I saw there was a definite style, even with the most unrelated things.
So when you gather these 15 things you like and you put them together, I want you to take a picture of it, because this is your style. You might not know the words for it, you might not have a good Pinterest search term defined for it, but the fact that these are 15 things that you love means that this is your style, and this is kind of what we can use as a baseline for adding anything to the house. So if you see something and you want to know, “Is this going to go with my house? Does this match my aesthetic, or do I just kind of like it here in the store?”
And I’ve done this a lot, where I’m out in the store and I look at something and I’m like, “Do I actually like that? Would that actually go in my house, or does that just kind of make me happy right now?” And I can pull out that picture, and you want to see if the thing you’re looking at would fit with your pile of 15 things. If it does, fantastic, you got a new piece. If it doesn’t, well, maybe this isn’t exactly the right piece you need to take home right now. So that’s the first thing we want to do, is just kind of understand what our style is.
And the second tip, that you can kind of be doing at the same time, is to build the function that you want using what you have first. Because a lot of times, how we think we use a space, and how we think we use a room, and how we think we solve a problem, isn’t actually how we really use that room, or how we really use that closet, or how that problem will actually be solved. So this is kind of a trick from engineering, and it’s so fun. I talk about engineering a lot, because I am an engineer by training, and I haven’t had an opportunity to flex that part of my brain in quite a while, so bringing it up again in terms of organizing your house or solving problems, it just makes me so darn happy, I can’t even stand it.
So this trick is relating to solving problems, because if you have a problem in your house and it is a functional problem, so maybe you always have laundry on the floor, or maybe you always have dishes in the sink and they’re never clean, you have some problem about the functionality of your house that you just can’t seem to get a handle on. So before we even start solving the problem, we need to ask ourselves, how will we know when that problem is solved? And this seems like a very obvious question, but the more complex the problems get, the harder this can be to answer.
So for example, if I have laundry always piling up on the floor in my bathroom, how would I know that problem is solved, or what behavior would I want to see in order to make sure that that problem is actually solved? And this is your opportunity to do a little bit of brainstorming, and you can actually write all of these down. If you want to do this as a journal exercise, absolutely go for it. Our problem is laundry on the bathroom floor. What are some possible outcomes that we would like?
Well, really we just don’t want the laundry in a pile on the bathroom floor anymore, and we know that problem would be solved if there are no longer piles of laundry on the bathroom floor. So what are some ways that we could do that? Well, we could maybe yell at whoever is leaving the laundry on the floor and say, “The laundry basket’s in the closet, take it over there,” which is honestly not my favorite solution, because it involves a lot of effort and a lot of conflict, and I just don’t really have energy for that.
So I actually had this exact problem, and you can see I saved some Stories to my highlights over on Instagram, exactly what I’m talking about with this, but we have a basket in the closet, and we were still ending up with towels and work clothes and all sorts of dirty laundry just piling up in one specific spot in the bathroom. Now at this point, I’m not even thinking about how to make this look good, right now I’m just annoyed that the laundry is piling up, and I want it to stop.
So what I did is I took a laundry basket that we have, very ugly laundry basket, plastic, does not match my bathroom aesthetic at all, and I put that laundry basket in the spot in the bathroom where the piles of laundry kept happening. And this is just a test, we’re just seeing, we have a functionality problem and we want to try to solve it without spending a whole lot of money first, because the function has to come first in your house, the aesthetics will come second. So I put this plastic laundry basket there, and within a week, there was no more laundry on the floor, nothing, not even a little bit. One simple fix, and I completely eliminated the problem, because I didn’t necessarily care about the laundry not being in the bathroom, I just didn’t want it in a pile on the floor. If it was in a pile in the basket, no problem.
So I ran this for about three weeks, just to make sure that all of the laundry would stay in the basket and stuff wouldn’t kind of creep over, and I just wanted to make sure that the solution totally worked, and this is exactly what you do when you’re trying to solve problems on a manufacturing floor. You will do something that is inexpensive and quick to see if your idea even works, because a lot of times, the ideas we have about how to solve something don’t actually solve the problem, so this very clearly demonstrated to me that the problem would be solved by putting a basket in the bathroom to catch laundry.
Now, that is the problem-solving aspect, we kind of have the two halves of our equation. We have figured out our style, because we have our 15 things in a picture, we know what we like, we know what looks good to our eye, and then we have addressed a problem and come up with a solution that seems to work okay, but it’s not very pretty. So what do we do next?
Well, the third step is to upgrade your functional system, and this, I think, is really the step where all of the magic happens. This is where you get a super-functional house that also happens to be beautiful, and that is by looking at the solution that you came up with. And maybe it wasn’t even a laundry basket, maybe you didn’t have a laundry basket to spare, maybe you just had a cardboard box, or maybe you are revamping your pantry and you don’t want to spend $1,000 on clear acrylic jars yet because you’re not sure if you’re even going to like it, so you use empty delivery boxes, or you use shoe boxes, or you just tape out an area on the shelf and say, “This is where all the pasta goes.”
So we’re working with this kind of rudimentary, rugged, not super-sophisticated, not super-aesthetic solution to the problem that you have, and then once you have a solution that has solved the problem, and how do we know it solved the problem? Because the problem doesn’t keep occurring. You come up with your solution that successfully fixes the issue that’s bothering you, then in step three, we find an aesthetic upgrade.
So in my case, I want a more attractive laundry basket. If I know that that laundry basket is going to be out all the time, I know it’s going to be visible all the time, then I definitely want to spend the money to find a beautiful basket that fits more with the aesthetic of my bathroom than a plastic laundry basket. But because I’ve already done the experiment of fixing the problem and finding a solution, I feel much more confident in spending a little bit more money on something that looks really nice, because I know that it’s not going to be a waste of time, and this is why you don’t want to see a problem and then immediately think up a solution and run out and buy the prettiest version that you can.
Sometimes this doesn’t work. Sometimes you need the baskets, or you need the shelves, or you need the cabinets in order to get your organization in place, but more times than you think, you don’t actually need all that stuff first. I know that this has solved the problem, so I can go out and spend $40 or $50 on a very nice, beautiful, luxurious laundry basket that will go in my bathroom, because I know the problem is going to be solved.
This is how we have designed and built pretty much this entire house. We start with what the room actually needs to function, not what I want it to look like, not trying to recreate something I see on Pinterest, I think about how I need this room to function. For example, in the dining room renovation, I knew that a big storage hold I had in my life was that I have all this décor, and it’s glass candlesticks and brass candlesticks and colored pressed glass bowls, and just pretty décor things that really don’t serve much of a purpose, but I just think they’re attractive and I want to store them somewhere. I had nowhere to store them, they were overflowing my china cabinet, they were taking over everywhere. Every time I’d see one, I would be like, “Do I buy that because it’s really pretty, or do I not buy that, or…” I didn’t have a good solution.
So when we designed the dining room, we specifically built a chimney closet on the side of the chimney that holds all of that décor, and if you just walk through the dining room, it seems just like a very charming addition to that room. It’s, “Oh, what is this?” “Oh yes, that’s our chimney closet that holds all of our décor, that holds everything that we need seasonally, or everything that I just think is pretty.” It seems very charming and like it’s just part of the house, but it was put there very specifically because I needed that room to fill that functional purpose.
When you’re building up these functional rooms that also happen to be aesthetic, you really aren’t going to be able to build it to its full glory on the first go, you’re going to have to start kind of basic, and then add things as you need them. So if you think about furnishing a bedroom, what does a bedroom actually need? Well, the most basic thing it needs is a bed, right? If you’re going to sleep there, you probably need a bed in the bedroom, what a novel idea.
To make it a little bit more functional and a little bit nicer, so you maybe have a place for a lamp or glass of water, or to charge your phone, each side of the bed should have a nightstand, right? So that’s like bare minimum, basic function that a bedroom needs to have, so you would start with finding a bed that you like, and this would be a case of I wouldn’t buy a cheap version first. If you know that you’re going to sleep here and you know that the solution to sleeping in your bedroom is to have a bed, I would go ahead and buy the nice bed ahead of time instead of trying to find something that upgrades.
Once you’ve solved the first issue of a bedroom, of having a bed and having nightstands, what else does a bedroom need to do? Well, it needs to store clothing. Okay, that’s a whole ‘nother problem to solve, so then you can start looking at how much clothing do you have? Is it mostly hanging storage, or is a lot of folded storage? Do you need additional closet space? Where would you put that closet space? And from there, you can kind of start building the function out from what you actually need in the room.
And this kind of brings me to the fourth point that I think is really helpful with this type of house, and this type of thought process when putting things in your house, it is to buy used, and that’s my fourth tip, buy second-hand, buy consignment, and some of this might just be coming from me being a fairly frugal person, I don’t really like to spend money unless it is super, super worth it, and I don’t like to spend money on things that I know I can get something equally functional and equally good quality for less money.
So the benefit of buying second-hand is that if you are trying out these solutions as your house evolves, because your house will continue to evolve. Every stage of life is going to have different functional requirements, so learning how to be functional and be intentional about what you’re putting in your house will serve you from now until the end of time. So when you’re buying second-hand, to me, it feels like much less of a risk to try these things out with a Facebook Marketplace piece, or with a Craigslist piece. It just feels like it’s not going to be as big of a deal if the solution that you think works doesn’t work. And this is specifically how I will furnish any kind of children’s rooms, or anything going forward.
Tiny little sidebar rant, the baby industry is a very large, very lucrative industry, and is full of advertisements and companies telling you all sorts of things that you absolutely have to have in order to do a certain thing. And for that matter, it’s not just the baby industry, it’s every industry right now is just oversaturated with this idea that you need more and more and more and more and more, and that’s going to solve your problems, instead of looking for solutions to the problems, and then finding things to fit them.
So as I need children’s furniture, as I need different storage pieces in some of these rooms, I’m going to be following this exact process. We’ll use a changing table, for example. You look at Baby Mart, or whatever area or store is now selling all of these things for furnishing out nurseries, you look at them, and they’ll have a changing table, and what does it have? Well, it’s approximately waist-height, it has some storage underneath, it has some shelves or some drawers, it has maybe a pad on top that’s curved or kind of containing in some way, there’s maybe a little bit more surface area on top of the table so that you can put things to the side that you need. All of those are functions of a piece that aren’t necessarily restricted to a quote-unquote “Changing table.” And I look at most changing tables, and I think, “That’s expensive, that’s all particle board, and that’s ugly, and I don’t want it.”
So instead of buying the exact piece that you think you’re looking for, I’m going to try to break it into the functions that I’m looking for out of that piece, and only respond to that. So instead of a changing table, maybe I can find a dresser that sits at roughly waist-height, and maybe I can find something to go on top of it that could serve as a changing pad. This is how I’ve done everything in my life, so it’s really not a surprise that I’m doing this differently, but I think that there exists a sweet spot in the market, and it’s really hard to find, and I think that’s why a lot of people don’t know about it.
There is a perfect sweet spot that blends price, attractiveness, and functionality, and if the whole market is 100%, I would say that these perfect sweet spot products are less than 2%, they’re really, really hard to find. And you hear a lot of times people say, “Oh, it’s like I’m a form over function person,” or “I’m a function over form person,” and I’m just a firm believer that if you get out of the box a little bit, if you step away from needing a changing table and instead need a changing station, if you open up your mind a little bit, you open up your options a little bit, you can land on something that is beautiful, that fits your aesthetic, that is perfectly functional, that is exactly in your price range. And the result is that your house will feel like yours, it will feel beautiful to you even though it’s serving an extremely practical purpose.
If you walk through our house, if you look at what we have, almost everything serves a function. I’m sitting in the master bedroom right now, because that’s where I record these. We have a giant, beautiful, circa 1880 wardrobe that holds all of our hanging clothes. We have a gorgeous cherry 1830s four-drawer dresser that holds everything that we need to have folded. We have this beautiful black cherry king-sized bed. They’re all functional, there is no difference between a lot of these pieces and things that you could buy at Ikea or at a big box store. They function exactly the same, but with a little bit of time, a little bit of effort, a little bit of diligence and just the want to have a beautiful house, you can get the same function, but way prettier.
I could talk about this forever, because it just… It makes me sad when I see people who feel like they have to be resigned to having something in their house they don’t like, because there’s no other option, and that’s why I wanted to talk about this, because if you can pull the function that you’re looking for out, and then look around for other pieces that will apply that function the same way, you will get whatever you want, I promise.
And this brings us to the fifth point, arguably the most important point that we’ve talked about today, and that is to be patient. In finding things second-hand, and in most of life, I guess, you can find it quick, you can find it cheap, or you can find it good-quality, and you’re generally not going to get more than two of those. If you do, it’s a very rare occasion. If I needed something to work quickly, if I needed a dresser really fast, if I needed a bed really fast, I would buy something from Goodwill or online that was very inexpensive. I would do that because I need that function served quickly. But if you can hold out, if you can wait for a little bit, if you can keep your eyes out, if you can keep your imagination open, if you can keep your creativity out there, looking for things that will solve your problem, and if you can just wait a little bit, you can find some of the most incredible pieces.
This house, it’s kind of funny, because for quite a while, I was in the process of upgrading pieces. I’d been collecting things for a while, and just getting rid of some things that I kind of liked, but would want a little bit nicer or better in the future, and now I’ve been collecting things for roughly seven years, somewhere around there, and on the first floor of this house, there’s almost nothing I would upgrade. I mean, a few art pieces here and there, but for the most part, I have found unicorn pieces that are the perfect blend of functionality and of aesthetics, but it’s taken me seven years to build a house that looks like that, and we were starting from my first solo college apartment.
I was convinced that I was a mid-century modern person, I was trying to make that very minimal black and brown and white aesthetic work for me, and it just didn’t, so I’ve had to replace all of those pieces that I thought I was interested in, all of those pieces that I thought really spoke to me, with these 1830s to 1890s antiques that I just love, but it takes time, it takes time to find those pieces that will perfectly give you the aesthetics and the feeling and the functionality that you want.
And that’s why I kind of consider this a hobby, because if you’re just a very practical person and you just want it to work, and you really don’t care if it’s all cohesive, then just save yourself the headache and just go buy something new, or buy the first thing you find on Facebook Marketplace, there’s literally nothing wrong with that. If you just need it to function, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you want it to function but also be beautiful, just give it some time. I promise, as long as you have done the analysis, for lack of a better word, to make sure that whatever you’re buying is actually going to solve your problem, just wait. You’ll find the beautiful pieces, you’ll find the pieces that will speak to you and will transform your house into not only something that is unbelievably functional and works really hard for you, but also into a space that makes you happy and makes you calm, or inspires you, or excites you every time you walk in it.
So those are kind of five tips, or a little bit of a guideline or path that you can follow to figure out how to make your house both super-functional and super-aesthetic at the same time. So, I hope that was helpful to you, I hope you enjoyed that. Definitely give us a follow on Instagram @farmhousevernacular, because I am ramping up more of these kind of engineering and efficiency talks over there, and having a really good time with it, so definitely check us out there, check us out on YouTube, and then you can also hear more resources and anything else we have in the show notes, which is at farmhousevernacular.com/podcast. Thank you so much for listening, I’m so glad we had you here, and I’ll see you next time, bye.