Identity, the home, and minimalism

I’ve been catching up with episodes of the BBC’s Thinking Allowed podcast recently and, this morning, as I caught the train, I found one in particular to be very interesting. The whole episode is dedicated to The Flaneur – Walking in the City. In the first part, host Laurie Taylor discusses with his guests everything from the role street lighting has played in the development of ‘urban strolling’, through to the ways that particular flaneurs would navigate cities.

However, it was the second part of the episode that intrigued me most. Lauren Elkin, author of a new book entitled Flaneuse: The (Feminine) Art of Walking in Cities sought to reclaim the term ‘flaneur’ and situate it in a more modern context. Laurie Taylor picked out a particular part of her work, commenting:

I just love the little thing you pick up on with Virginia Woolf writing about how inside the house our identities are constantly being confirmed by all of the material around us. Outside we leave that shell of identity behind and we expose ourselves to the world.

That notion of identity-confirmation is fascinating. I’ve always found it curious that we put up photographs of ourselves in our own home – especially those of our children. It’s like we’re constantly reminding ourselves of who we are and what we do. For me, it’s a similar thing with books: I buy in hardback the ones that have had most influence on my life and display them in prominent places around the house.

I’ve spent the last year setting up a consultancy business and splitting each week between London and my home in Morpeth. In many ways, therefore, I’ve been setting up a new identity. I’ve found it interesting that, despite having a home office separate from our main house that’s set up entirely for me, I’ve come to prefer working within the house. Reflecting on this in the light of the episode I’ve just listened to, it’s clear that I’ve been making a subconscious attempt to move on from my previous role (where I worked predominantly from that home office). Different identities require different kinds of spaces, and vice-versa.

One other thought struck me as I listened to that particular segment of the episode: I’ve always been attracted by the idea of minimalism as a design statement. In fact, our new loft conversion — which, as well as our bedroom and en-suite — has a small room that I spend more and more time these days could definitely be described as ‘minimalist’. The whole third floor is spartanly furnished in a monochrome colour scheme, meaning that, for me, it’s a space into which I can project my inner life, rather than confirming a way of being that went before. In other words, minimalism can be a conscious way of bringing in the new. It can lend some ‘breathing room’, both physically and psychologically, allowing identities to emerge.

I wonder if we allow ourselves to do this enough? We recognise that when we take a new job that involves us physically moving home, that there is an important psychological element to this. This is why we don’t just choose the house which is closest to our new location of work. For those staying put physically, but moving on mentally (like myself), maybe it’s a good idea to consciously create liminal spaces — perhaps through the use of minimalism — as we construct new identities?