Americans are often surprised at the spa culture in Europe – shocked or amused at the nonchalant nudity, suspicious of the decadent frequency of visits, and confused by the open-ended format of lounge-sauna-lounge-sauna. Minimalist design reigns. The ubiquity of water and the prevalence of natural and classic materials in the design choices encourage disconnection from technology and with it, the anxieties of daily life melt away. Our adventures into spas in Germany and Belgium during our last year in Europe introduced us to new heights of relaxation and release.
We lamented the lack of analogous models of retreat in the United States.
And pledged to make our next home feel like a spa.
New home: incidental minimalism
When we first took the keys to our new rental in Chapel Hill, the house felt so empty.
Our voices echoed off the walls, and we swept dust bunnies across the vast wood expanse of floor. Floor to ceiling windows showed us treetops, pine and hickory. Privileged voyeurs, we watched the barred owl, and the cardinals, the titmice, and chickadees as they flitted and hopped, or just sat stone-still high in their perching places. Storms thundered, and the falling rain overflowing the gutters seemed so close, the booming voice of the sky so near, so pressing. We watched out the windows as the sky flashed and the water fell outside and the silence inside filled every empty corner of the dark rooms around us.
Living in this cavernous house wasn’t comfortable. Our Craigslist futon was our couch was our bed, lumpy and too short for our feet, prone to tipping over if you rolled out of bed the wrong way. We stacked ourselves awkwardly onto the futon and dreamed of having mixing bowls, dressers, more than two plates.
We couldn’t wait for the day when our household goods would arrive, carrying the comforts of a familiar life from our familiar former home, soon to be transplanted into this vast new space. These things would make us happy, and our lives would feel whole again.
Almost two months after moving in, our household goods were ready for delivery. I was nervous.
By this point we’d bought a full size bed and become accustomed to camping out in our home. Our two plates. The empty built-in bookcases all around us. Because we didn’t have our TV or speakers, we read books and listened to the chorus of crickets, impossibly loud, as the southern sky grew dark. Evenings we spent building a doomed little garden below the tree canopy. We’d named our WiFi “Woodland Retreat”. We took up little space, lived simply, breathed in deeply.
Then the movers arrived.
They unrolled long mats to protect the floors. It felt like they were rolling out the red carpet to welcome honored guests. The first box came in, and the second. My stomach sank as the windows were covered with a third, eighth, fifteenth cardboard box. Hours dragged on. Surely, we didn’t have much more? An abundance of storage space at our last home had apparently masked our habit of severe overpurchasing. A second truck, then a third. Wide open floors became littered with cluttered heaps and finally gave way to treacherous walkways through cardboard mountains. I desperately tried to remember what filled the boxes, but couldn’t come close to accounting for the volume.
The movers left, and we were alone, adrift in a sea of stuff. The smell of stale paper and old clothes filled the corners of the room.
Missing minimalist design: fighting for the emptiness
Stifled by the sudden change in living conditions, we felt intimidated by the dusty boxes, the musty air. I don’t remember where we slept that night, or if we washed our sheets. This feeling of suffocation only got worse as we unpacked box after box, unearthing some treasures, but mostly just stuff. Some of it was nice stuff, stuff we really liked. Some of it was stuff we tried but weren’t able to get rid of in Germany. Finally, the largest category was just Stuff That We Had. Multiple bottle openers, two sets of dining room chairs, maybe too much clothing, certainly too much decor. Items that stirred deep memories from past lives that we hadn’t yet conjured the courage to go through, heavily sprinkled like cinnamon over the overly buttered toast of our material history.
We longed for the open, free feeling of the empty home we had lived so uncomfortably in. Sighing, we dreamed of the minimalist design of the European spas that had made such an impression on us. In waves we addressed our clutter, sometimes attacking brutally, sometimes succumbing to life in a cardboard jungle. Trips to the recycling center and Goodwill, over and over. Endless arrangements to meet Craigslist and OfferUp buyers. As we slowly found new homes for our excess, I felt a weight lifting off of our home, off of our lives.
I began to appreciate like never before the luxury represented by open space. Minimalist spas emanate luxury by expressing an abundance of space, itself an expensive commodity. By setting aside space for air and movement, not a practical, minutely appointed workspace, but a beautiful and comfortable space, a space just to exist and stretch and breathe and expand — ah! Can you think of anything more luxurious?
Moving Forward with Minimalist Design
Three weeks later, our home is still overcrowded.
But it’s becoming more spacious and comfortable by the day as we continue to cultivate our home into a space with just the right number of things. Just the things that meet a need and also make us happy, which is a surprisingly small portion of what the movers delivered. And we’re finding that so many, many things that fit perfectly and filled a need in our last house just don’t work in this new place. Built-in storage in this house render a lot of our organizational pieces obsolete, so for better or for worse it’s goodbye to those.
As we continue to get settled in this house, I’m determined not to overdecorate. The house is so deliberately designed already, with big windows and attention to materials, that a minimalist design mindset will serve to enhance the home’s character rather than supersede it. Anyway, what could I hang on the wall that will be more beautiful or uplifting than the treetops outside the window?
The next time we move I will breathe more easily, feel lighter. I already do.