When your house says restore me, you listen! Or at least, you listen as best as you can.
About the Episode:
I have spoken many times about the relationship I have with my house. My house talks to me, and I listen. If you have ever felt like your house “preferred” the chair to be here or there, or if your house “wanted” the walls to be blue, you know exactly what I’m talking about! But if your house hasn’t expressed an opinion, I’m here to help you tune into the vibes your house is sending you.
In this episode, you’ll hear:
- How the history of the house and architecture influence my research
- What happens when a historical house meets modern needs, like electricity and indoor plumbing
- Why there’s no replacement for your gut instinct
And so much more!
Follow me on Instagram @FarmhouseVernacular!
Hello and welcome to The Vernacular Life Podcast where we talk about anything and everything that goes on in our 1906, ’05-ish turn of the century Vernacular Farmhouse. I’m your host, Paige, as usual. And today, we’re going to be talking about something that I get questions on a lot because it’s a phrase and a concept that I can’t seem to stop harping on. And that is the idea of listening to the house. What the heck does that mean? How do I listen to the house and why do I think it is such an important concept?
So, very fun show today, very fun things to talk about, and let’s get started. So, listening to the house, how does this phrase even come to be? Why is this the thing? Well, when I work on these rooms, and I hesitate to say the word design because I don’t really consider myself a designer by any means, like there are some houses that I look at and my brain just goes blank. I’m like, “I don’t know what I would do with your house, I’m sorry.”
But when I decide what this room is going to look like in the end, I always end up with a very strong vision. And it takes a while for that vision to crystallize. But once it has crystallized in the right way, it’s pretty much unshakable. So, the way that that kind of looks and the way that it feels in my head is that I’m looking at the room and I’m trying on different possibilities.
So, I’m trying on different wall colors and different furniture’s places and I’m moving it all around in my head, and when I hit on the correct one, it feels like something in my head screams, “Yes.” And it doesn’t always feel super voluntary. It doesn’t feel like I’m choosing, “I want to paint this room blue because I like blue.” It feels like if you pick any other color other than blue for this room, you are a complete moron because clearly, that is the best choice.
And so, I don’t know if this is just a quirk of my brain or a quirk of my “creative process”, but I have taken to assuming that it is the house talking to me. Sometimes, I’ll bring things in the house or I’ll try something and I’ll say, “The house really doesn’t like that,” or, “The house really likes that.” And what that basically means if the house doesn’t like something is I tried a possibility in my brain and I didn’t get that overwhelming yes feeling. To anybody who doesn’t have this, I’m sure this sounds like absolute crackpot nonsense.
And I am sorry for that because I didn’t realize that not everybody’s brain worked this way until I started talking about it and people said, “Paige, wait, what the heck? What do you mean the house is talking to you?” So, I tried to kind of come up with a three-part system to sort of explain where I think all of this inspiration and all of these ideas has led me and how it kind of got me to a point of being able to “listen to the house”.
I think we need to put another disclaimer in here. My knowledge of old houses and what they should sort of look like ends at about 1920. So, I will get questions a lot about how to listen to a 1980s house, or a 1970s ranch, or a 1930s craftsman, and I am sorry, I wish I could help you, I don’t know. I really, really don’t know. But I do think this system will kind of help you work your way through that. The first step in the system and possibly in any good system is research. Waha, so fun.
This step I find particularly critical in old houses, especially if you’re trying for a sympathetic renovation where everything kind of needs to look oldish or you’re trying to make it look like it might have looked when the house was built. If you don’t know what houses from that time period looked like, you are not going to be able to replicate it well. And that’s where this first step comes in. You need that research, you need that foundation of knowledge of what things needed to look like.
You need that store of images and references in your head, or in a Pinterest board, or in your phone, or you need something. Because especially in modern Hollywood and dramatic adaptations, there are a lot of interpretations of history, shall we say, and they’re not always accurate, they’re rarely accurate. Historical accuracy is just not something that’s super highly-prized in a lot of representations of the past.
Some things are good, but some things are not great. And then, once you hit the industrial revolution, of the turn of the century, you have so many other options. You have different styles becoming popular at different times. So, you can have mid-century modern furniture and then turn around and have French provincial furniture. And you just, it becomes a lot very quickly. So, research and good old-fashioned internet sleuthing elbow grease is the very first part of this process.
And the reason is because you need to know what things look like. You need to know where you’re starting from, what your baseline is before you go changing things. You need to understand what it might have looked like before you can successfully tweak it and take a little bit of an artistic liberty with what you have. Now, how do you dig? How do you get good at this stuff? How do you find this information?
Because the internet is extremely vast, and it is extremely dense, and there is so much information out there. So, how do you find good information, and then once you do, how do you store it? Well, storing it, I don’t really have a good answer for you because it tends to be just stored in my brain, but Pinterest is good out there if you want. But as far as where to look, I have a lot of different places.
House listings are honestly one of the best, and especially, if you can look at very inexpensive houses, like you go to Detroit or other areas that there are a lot of old houses that were very inexpensive, a lot of times, those houses will not be touched inside. They will not have been messed with, they will not have been modernized, or flipped, or upgraded, so you can get a good sense of what a 1902 house inside would have looked like.
And if you look at a thousand of those, you’re going to have a pretty good idea of the range of what is acceptable in a 1902 house. It’s okay, it’s hit or miss. And it really depends on what’s available on the internet and for sale right now. So, on top of that, there’s a lot of blogs out there. I will leave a link of some of my favorites or some of the best resources, I should say, in the show notes, farmhousevernacular.com/podcast. People ask me if there’s a book or of all encompassing one place that they can learn all of this stuff. And the answer sadly is no.
It much like if you were trying to learn about feet, because that’s apparently the only example that my brain can come up with right now. If you just wanted to learn every thing you could about feet, you can’t get all of that in one place. You’re going to have to look at maybe a pedicurist book and a musculoskeletal book, and you’re going to have to look at a book on shoes and ergonomics and all of this stuff. Because there’s just so much to know, you can’t possibly get it all in one place, but you have to start somewhere.
And if you want to talk about a book that actually is good to start with especially for house exteriors, Field Guide to American Houses is the old house bible. It’s the best, the single greatest book that is out there for identifying the time period of a house based on the exterior. And then sometimes, you can find these websites of archive pictures that are actual pictures taken in 1902, in 1905, and if you dig through enough of those, you will find interior pictures.
If you haven’t picked up on this, this is not a glamorous job. This is like a hobby. This is something that you just have to be looking all the time and gathering as much information as you possibly can. Now, in addition to finding out what they looked like, it’s really good to understand how rooms were used. Because if you are trying to force a modern use into a historical room, you’re probably going to run into some issues.
And the best one I can think of is master bathrooms. Master bathrooms these days, if you took all the fixtures out, could be a whole another bedroom, between the jet jacuzzi tub, and the dual walk-in shower, and the double vanities, and the separate room for a toilet, and then maybe another room for a bidet, these are enormous rooms. And that is just not really something that was done 120 years ago. Even in places that did have large bathrooms and very spacious bathrooms, those were attached to extremely grand, spacious buildings.
So, it would not make sense for this little farmhouse to have a bathroom that was 10 x 15 feet. That just doesn’t make sense. So, I’m never going to be able to make a room like that look historic because it’s so far removed from the function of bathrooms back in those days. You’re not only looking for what things look like, but you’re also looking for how they function. Now, if you do enough of this and if you gather enough information and you collect enough resources, then you will be able to kind of understand where the lines are.
You understand what the different trims look like so you know how you can kind of fudge them a little bit. You understand what the bathrooms look like so you know where you can sort of change things and move things around to keep them historic but still interesting, okay? For example, if we look at beds, a lot of the beds of 100 years ago, 120 years ago, the biggest they had was a double, not even a queen, but a double.
And my husband is six-foot. I like to sleep, pose like Superman so that is just not compatible with a double bed. We’ve slept in double beds. It’s a very unpleasant sleep for both of us. So, we know that that’s an area that we are just going to deviate from history and purely go for more function. Our bet as a king, we’re very happy about it. Essentially, in this research stage, you just need to get enough of a baseline so that you can make a reasonable estimate as to what the house would’ve looked like.
This is the first step of listening to it. You need to understand what it is, what it was before we can start asking it what it wants. The second part is the inspiration. So, we’ve done our research, we’ve done all the stuff that actually was historically factual, and now, we’re going to go for a little bit more of an opinion situation, and that is in this inspiration.
Now, I don’t typically use Pinterest for whatever reason. It’s just, it’s never stuck with me. I try but I just don’t see things represented there that really speak to me and that really inspire me. But it is an absolutely outstanding place if you have no idea what you want. If you’re like, “I don’t know if I want a black living room, or a white living room, or no living room, or a shower bathroom, or a tub bathroom.”
If you have no idea what you want, Pinterest is a really good place to just start finding things that call to you. I do have Pinterest boards and I have used them for some of the rooms in this house, mostly to get color inspiration. Now, the way that I use Pinterest is I don’t go looking for rooms that I want to recreate. I don’t say, “This is what I want to start with.” I don’t say, “This is the room I want to end up with,” no matter what.
Because to me, that is imposing your will, and your opinion, and your desires way too strongly on the house. And the house, just in my experience, is not going to take kindly to being manhandled in such a brutal way. So, when I go to Pinterest, I am looking for pictures that have the atmosphere that I want when my room is finished. In the show notes, I will leave links to some of the inspirations for the dining room and for the kitchen. And you’ll see, it’s not always, none of them look like the finished rooms.
But to me, there are elements in all of these boards that have something that calls to me that I want to try to emulate in my finished room. If you look at my board specifically, you will notice that they’re pretty maximalist or not necessarily maximalist in terms of the number of things but in terms of the amount of drama that’s packed in, so usually there’s a lot of molding, and a lot of wood, and a lot of rug.
It’s just very heavy, everything looks very visually dense. It’s very busy with things. I don’t do the clean minimalist, very neutral. It doesn’t bother me, it’s just not what I want my house to look like. When I walk through my house, I feel like I’m walking through a jewelry box, and I love that about it. It makes me happy, it makes me feel good and excited inside to see all of these beautiful things. Like, “That’s what I want my house to look like.” And there is also an element of cartoonishness about my house.
I look at a lot of houses, especially houses where they do tone-on-tone woodwork where they have the wood the same color as the walls and the doors the same color as the woodwork, and they have very sleek, modern furnishings that maybe are the same tone. And I look at all of that and I think it is so beautiful and I do love how rich and opulent it feels. But whenever I go to try to implement it, there’s just an element of whimsy that I can’t help but put in.
Like I’m sitting here in the master bedroom right now recording this, and I’m looking next to my door and there is a drawing of my college cap bow that a follower sent me once, and there is a vase with peacocks on it, full of peacock feathers. And I find that hysterical. I find that to be just very silly, and whimsical, and kind of like fortune teller caravanish. And that is an element that I just like in my rooms. A lot of times, when I’m looking for inspiration, I am looking for things that have a similar sense of whimsy, or of bright colors, or of drama, it’s all elements of things that I like.
But nothing in my Pinterest boards will typically be like, “That is exactly what I’m recreating.” So, the point of this inspiration stage is that you’ve already saturated your brain with everything that’s related to the research portion. You know what it was supposed to look like. You know the Victorians had patterned carpet, and patterned wallpaper, and patterned ceilings, and lace, and patterned chairs.
You know that they were pattern on top, pattern on top, pattern. And then you look at your inspiration and you know that you like neutral, cool colors, or you know that you like music box, jewelry box drama like I do. You basically know what the past ideal is with your research and you know what your perfect future ideal is. And so, that’s step one and two. Step three is about marrying the two.
This is actually where a personal preference comes in. Because as much as I say, “Listen to the house,” what I think that actually means is to listen to the depths of your soul. Because I get a lot of DMs and a lot of them are questions like, “Paige, I have this room and I want to paint it a color. And I’ve got some samples and I really just don’t know what to choose. Can you pick a color for me?” On the receiving side, this is a very hard question for me to answer because I don’t know you, I don’t know what you like, I don’t know what vibe you’re going for in this room.
I don’t know what you’re trying to feel, I don’t know what you’re trying to emulate. So, I have a hard time just picking a color off of a screen and saying, “Yep, this is 100% the one to go with.” But what I have started doing, and it has worked every single time I’ve done it, is I say, “Here’s the deal. You’re showing me four colors and you’re asking my opinion. And I would suspect that that actually means that you know which color you want but you feel like you shouldn’t go for that one.”
You know that you want to paint that wall dark blue, but you feel like you shouldn’t because it’s too dark or it’s too vibrant. Or you know that should paint every service in that room white, but you feel like you shouldn’t because it’s just too stark, or too sterile, or too clean. You know what you want to do, but something in your brain is telling you that that’s not quite right. And so, you’re not trusting the gut that you have about what you actually want your room to look like.
And so, you’re coming to me with a DM to say, “Paige, will you please pick for me?” Whenever I send this to people and I say, “You already know what color you want. You’re just looking for me for confirmation. So, pick the one you want and paint it.” Every single time they come back and they say, “Paige, you were completely right. I wanted that dark blue, but I was a little bit too scared, but I did it and I love it.” Or, “I wanted this dark green, but I was a little bit scared, but I did it and I love it.”
Or someone painted a room really dark blue and they had a room that was really dark green next to it. And they were like, “Is that a problem?” I said, do you love it? Do you feel like it’s a problem? Does it bother you?” And they go, “No, absolutely not. I think it’s amazing.” And that’s literally it. That’s the end of the discussion. Because at the end of the day, you pay rent on your place, you pay your mortgage, you are the one who pays to live there.
It doesn’t matter what I think of your room. It doesn’t matter what your neighbor thinks of your house colors. It doesn’t matter what your in-laws think of your house colors. It does not matter what anybody else in the universe thinks of how you decorate your house. I inadvertently climbed up on top of a soapbox here, but now I’m standing here so we’re just going to stay here. Your house is the place that you come to relax.
Your house is your sanctuary. This is where you do your hobbies. This is where you spend time with your loved ones. This is where you snuggle your pets, and where you take up new hobbies, and where you watch movies, and where you take warm bubble baths, and where you get dressed up to go out to dinner. And then when you come home and you’re exhausted from being in your high heels or your uncomfortable suit all day, you kick it all off and you come into your house and this is where you can just be.
So, whatever that looks like in your house is the right answer. And listening to the house, I get a lot of satisfaction out of making this house look the way that it looks. I really enjoy because I feel like I’m respecting the house, I feel like I’m honoring his history, I feel like I’m trying to do him justice in a way that he’s never really had justice done to him. So that, I really enjoy that aspect of it. But there are so many other ways to respect the history of a house and not fight with the house and still make it look the way you want.
Because in my experience, if you have a house that you are fighting with too much, maybe you’re trying to impose something that you don’t really want or maybe you’re trying to impose something that just isn’t compatible with the function of that house. And so, we have to step back a little bit and say, “Okay, is there another way that I can do this? Is there a way that I can like this better? Is there a way that the house and I can be happier?”
Because ultimately, we’re not renovating our houses for Instagram pictures, and I say that as this is my job. We’re not renovating our houses so that people can come over and say, “Wow, you have a beautiful house.” If you want to do that, more power to you. Unfortunately, I’m sitting over here and I can’t relate. Because I live in my house all day and my family lives in this house all day, and this is where we come to be ourselves. And so, whatever the house looks like, it should completely reflect who we are and who I am.
So, listening to the house involves researching so that you are familiar with what the house could look like, with what the house should look like, with what the house did look like and then, adding the inspiration on top of that so you can see where those overlaps are between everything that you love about what rooms can look like and everything that the house could have been.
If you can find those overlaps between the research and the inspiration, and then add a touch of your personal preference on top of it, voila, you’ve listened to the house as far as I’m concerned. And ultimately, at the end of the day, like I’ve been saying for the last five minutes continuously, you need to love where you live, you need to love your space. If loving your space is not attainable to you, then it needs to not cause you stress, needs to not be something where you feel like you have to be someone when you come there, when you go into your rooms.
When you walk through your house, it should feel like an extension of you in the best way possible. And I think listening to the house is the combination of making sure the house feels like you, maybe specifically buying that house because it matches your personality, and then adding your own personal touch and personal flavor on top of it.
I feel like if you do those two things, you do the research, you do the inspiration and then you pay attention to what you really love and just go for it every time with the bright paint colors, or the neutral paint colors, or the crazy rug, or whatever it is that your little heart is screaming, please, please do. Do that and you will end up with a house that you love. I think that’s all I have to say. This is kind of a shorty little episode. Cats are looking at me because I have been talking emphatically and very passionately about this for a while, because I just think it’s so important.
People don’t do the things that they want to do that make them happy. And sometimes, it’s just the silliest little things that make people happy that they don’t do because it’s just like, “Oh, should I or shouldn’t I?” And I know this feeling.
I know this feeling because every time I paint one of these rooms in this house, I get terrified that I’ve missed the mark, and I’ve painted the totally wrong color and it’s too dark, and I’m going to hate it and it’s going to look awful. I get scared every single time. But I have never regretted any of the very dramatic choices that we have in this house. Never, not once. They light me up. I walk into my dining room and I’m like, “Uh, this is just the best room.” And I walk into my kitchen and I’m like, “Man, look at this yellow, this is so good.”
And I go sit in the study and it’s just like, “Oh, this green is going to give me a hug and I’m going to take a nap right now.” And then I come into the blue bedroom and it’s just like, “Oh, this is so soothing and stately,” and like, “I’m sophisticated now.” And then, I walk into my neutral halls with my ridiculous amount of things on the walls and I’m just like, “This looks like my brain but on a wall full of gold frames.”
And I think it’s just the best thing ever. So, even though this is an episode about how to listen to your house, it’s really an episode about how to listen to your heart for lack of a less hallmark way to wrap this up. You just need to do what you want in your house. And researching what the house used to look like and adding some inspiration on top of that, that will give you the confidence that you need to make whatever choice you want in your house.
Whatever it is, I hope it makes you extremely happy, because we all need to be happy in our houses. So, I think we will call it there for today. I hope that made sense to you. I hope maybe you have a little bit more information and inspiration about how to go about listening to your house and picking things that you just absolutely love. I’ve loved having you. Thank you so much for hanging out and I’ll see you next time. Bye.