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Words From The Woods

To Begin Again

The following essay first appeared in

Furniture and Home Fashion

This is Innermost House, my home in the mountains of Northern California. It is the latest of many very small houses my husband and I have occupied over twenty-five years, each to make possible a simple life of reflection and conversation. I am delighted to accept K&A's invitation to write about the house for their audience of design professionals— and a little terrified!

My husband and I have lived full time at Innermost House for six years. The house is about twelve feet square, and there is no electricity. Yet we live a life of luxury here. The greatest luxury in life is to live with what you truly love.

I am often asked why we choose to live in so small a space. We have always lived for a certain intensity of experience that simply proved to require a special kind of room, and we have recreated and refined that room many times for ourselves and clients. It was only through many moves that the rest of our houses largely fell away. We didn’t need the rest any more, and we didn’t want it. This house in the woods is the smallest of all our homes, and the simplest, and the happiest.

Everyone lives in a house with rooms in it, but Innermost House is a room with a house around it. That’s what makes the difference. We didn’t make our way here from house to house to house; we made our way to this house from room to room to room. The house is like the fire we live around— move it close together and the flames flare up, spread it apart and the fire goes out.

The living room is the heart of the house, our innermost room where my husband and I spend most of our time and where we receive our guests. It is about eleven feet deep by seven feet wide. On the east wall of the room is a small fireplace set a foot above the floor, with a hearth extension of bricks projecting into the room. On the west side is a wall of books. Between these walls of hearth and books, our two low chairs sit facing each other a couple of feet apart. Everything about the space is conceived to make an intensity of conversation possible.

I know that sounds strange in a world where conversation seems to go on all the time every day. But pause for a moment and try to relive the single most moving and meaningful conversation you ever had, perhaps with someone you loved and have since lost. These are the conversations we all remember. They are the conversations that change our life.

Now consider, how would you design, build and furnish a room so that those conversations could happen every day? How would you live so that your life could change a little each day in a way you would always remember? That is the question we asked of every detail of Innermost House, and we are still asking.

The fireplace is where our conversation begins, as it began a million years ago when human language and domesticated fire were born together. The fireplace is the original small house. After all, what is a cave or a tipi or a wigwam but a big, enclosing fireplace? The fire is our link with the wild. Gazing into the flames seems somehow to release our dream life into words.

The books complete the circle of conversation on the other side. They are our link with the world. All of our books have been carefully chosen over the years as contributing something essential to the Innermost Life. It’s strange that it was not until I saw them all together, illuminated here by the fire at Innermost House, that I realized near every one was first written by firelight. In some way they represent the last light cast from that first fire at the mouth of a cave.

For months after we came to this land, my husband and I sat around an outdoor fire, pondering our first steps toward making a house that might take its place among these aged trees and keep peace with them. Innermost House slowly built itself around that fire.

Now it stands in the woods as the living remains of the redwoods from which it was built. You can almost count the growth rings from the outside walls to the inmost pith. And if the walls appear black with wet and age, the heartwood still is alive and fresh. It is alive from the inside out, as are all living things.

To simplify does not mean to step down or accept less, it means to begin again. If there is a secret to designing for the simple life, it is to begin at the beginning, begin with the seed. To begin from the outside and work your way in will never end in real simplicity, it can only end in the death of the living tree.

How do you design a living thing? In truth I cannot say. I only know that we cannot live without design in our modern world, that no profession stands so near to daily life as that of the designer, and that to design for true simplicity means somehow to plant a seed at the heart of a life and encourage it to grow.

There are many challenges a person confronts in seeking to live a simple life. I suppose the greatest of these is intimidation. I cannot tell you how many years I hesitated before venturing to cook over coals in the fireplace! Yet it proved far easier and more satisfying than cooking with any ordinary oven or stove. I am grateful for such fine things whenever we travel, but then I am in a different state of mind. I live much as others do when we are away, with electricity and computers and appliances. But not at home.

Someone observed once that Innermost House is so small there is no room to change your mind in it! Still when I look back upon our path toward the simple life, I think nothing was so essential as doing just that— changing our mind. The simple life is a changed mind grown out into a changed life.

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