What makes a house a home?

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By Garret Eakin


Perhaps it was the cabin fever or the review of potential houses for my daughter or the new residential commission for a family in Riverside or all of the above that got me thinking what makes a house a home. 

From my intimate studio with two walls of Lannon stone contrasted with a pair of walls perforated with six generous windows washing the room with glorious sunlight — I gave this some thought. 

My space is functional, equipped with black iron book shelves, a simple desk and patterned linoleum flooring. A couple of cushy linen lounge chairs and a coffee table welcome guests. Color comes from the books and views. What makes it personal is the modern art, my brother's stick art, a beautiful canoe paddle reminding me of trips to the North Woods, and the volume of Blues music. 

This is a comfortable space with balance and character contributes to its personal sense of home. 

Curb appeal, or first impression, is almost instantaneous, eliciting a positive or negative response. Ego tells us whether you could picture or afford to live on the street. Some places just feel 

like home. What do the neighbors' homes look like — are they cared for, are they attractive, do they express a sense of pride? I always needed to live on streets with names I liked: Lincoln, Webster, Woodbine, Berkshire. 

On entering Wright's Winslow house (currently for sale) in River Forest, one experiences, simultaneously, a grand and intimate series of spaces. The eloquent foyer contrasts with an arcade of eight slender columns with arched spandrels. Three broad steps up complete the composition; we are focused on the horizontal fireplace with its bands of Roman brick, flanked by upholstered sofas. The home is locked into my memory by this indelible sequence. 

In a loft in New York, meanwhile, Julianna Margulies, star of The Good Wife, and designer Vicente Wolf have created a home which she says is "about being a mom, a wife and a friend." The unpretentious suite of rooms maintains a balance of functional and eclectic furnishings. New and old, modern and antique, personal and designed create a comfortable apartment. In this month's Architectural Digest, Margulies says, "Vicente has this way of making spaces beautiful but homey, modern, and useful." Don't we all want this balance?

In architecture school, we were taught to be modern and not get stuck in history. Yet the truth is, the majority of our housing is traditional and needs to be modernized to satisfy our changing needs. The contrast between the old and new creates an opportunity to make a house a home. 

Kitchens seem to be updated the most often. As the heart of the house, the layouts have become more open in plan so they flow to the family room, dining room and patio. This center of activities is a powerful magnet in the new or renovated home. Opening it up has become an integral strategy to home-making. 

To celebrate this elevation of function, the rooms have become larger in size and volume, more elaborate in detail and containing the most professional equipment. To make it a part of the house, it should be respectful of the original plan and style to avoid feeling dated. 

"Do not keep anything in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful": William Morris. To be surrounded by beauty is a compelling goal, expressing who we are through personal choices. Color and material selections can be very charming, shaped by personality, taste and history. The simple application of color has the power to reinforce or destroy, emphasize or balance objects in space and create tension or calm immediacy in a room. 

Billy Baldwin said, "Comfort is perhaps the ultimate luxury." It is both simple and complex. Domestic comfort is achieved from an intricate mix of attributes, i.e. convenience, efficiency, ease, warmth, pleasure, beauty, privacy, materials, intimacy, personality and scale. 

Too much of any one of the ingredients and the recipe is unbalanced and uncomfortable. 

Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, preservation commissioner and an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.

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