The open floor plan seemed like such a great idea.
When my husband and I shopped for our first (and only) house, we bickered over which style suited us. He’s Southern and a traditionalist. I’m a California girl who loves wide open spaces. We viewed virtually every house type – brick Colonials, row houses, federal style homes, Tudors, Dutch colonials, bungalows, and modern homes. He liked the brick Colonials best. I loved the bungalows, with all bedrooms upstairs and a large open floor plan on the ground floor, often featuring a cascading flow from the kitchen to the living room to the dining room. A virtual blending together, with no real distinction between the rooms. We ultimately compromised: we bought a center-hall brick Colonial, with the promise that one day (the arguments over when “one day” would come is a story for another day) we would knock down walls to give me the open floor plan I just had to have.
After 6 years in our house, we undertook a major renovation, moving out for 10 months altogether from start to finish with our toddlers ages 4 and 2. We knocked down a number of load-bearing walls and transformed the interior of our traditional brick Colonial into a modern one, where the family room and living room both flowed into an open kitchen, which was anchored by a large wedge-shaped island that could seat 8, even 9 people. Walls of tall windows surrounded our new family room that looked out into our tree-laden backyard.
It seemed like a dream come true.
I had visions of home life clustered around that kitchen island. Our architect Jeff had come up with the wedge design after I asked him to make seating at the island anything but linear. We had to be able to make full eye contact. Commune. Socialize. Eat and talk. I pictured myself cooking while my babies toddled around the family room. My girlfriends and I would drink wine at the island into the late hours of the night. We would host dinner parties where it would serve as the kids’ table, or as the buffet for adults-only parties. As the kids got older it would be a place for them to do their homework as I prepared dinner. For holidays calling for rolled cookies – Halloween, Christmas, Easter, any occasion, really – we would gather at the island with our dough and icing to roll and cut and frost the cookies. Or lay out the pies we had baked. Regarding parties, no more missing out on good conversations and juicy tidbits while I slaved away over the stove, in a galley kitchen, away from our guests. No, with this layout I’d be front and center.
And, yes, all of those things have come to pass, at our multitasking, multifunctional island.
But. After 8 years of living my dream-come-true, I’m ready to concede the drawbacks. They are few but big.
One, the clutter that accumulates on the island (in nanoseconds, seemingly) is an abomination to the senses. Backpacks, stacks of books and papers, music books from drum and piano lessons, lunchboxes, water bottles. Bouncy balls, pens, dead batteries (whose death isn’t apparent until you try to use them) and gimmicky useless rubber items from birthday party goody bags. My own pile of books and magazines and unopened mail. Food, half-eaten. Even worse if the sink is full of dirty dishes, which can be seen from the front entryway. There is no simple shutting of a door or drawer on that mess.
For several years, I patrolled the island rigidly: “Whoever this belongs to, come get it in the next 30 minutes or it’s going into the trash.” I got tired, though, of being the one and only Island Patrol in the household, a thankless task that not only drained my time but also made people unhappy.
I have had to face a hard truth about my beloved open floor plan concept: while it looks stunning in the pages of Architectural Digest or House Beautiful, in real life (in my life, anyway) it often looks like someone lobbed a hand grenade into the space. Even if the kitchen island were clean, say, the wall-less layout permits unfettered views into the dining, family and living rooms – and any clutter therein. It feels like there is no escape.
Two, a multipurpose space begets multitasking individuals. While it seemed so clever to have a space function as both a homework station and a casual dining area, turns out it is often impractical for the kids to clear away their books and papers to make room for eating, especially for lengthy or complicated projects. And, eating dinner at the island (an everyday occurrence) seems to encourage bad table manners. Perhaps due to the informal setting? I catch people eating while simultaneously trying to watch TV (in the reflection of the large family room windows), use devices under the counter, or play with objects found on said island. Eating to me is a sacred activity. Mealtimes are supposed to be times of regrouping and connection, with conversation, however deep or trivial – about the day’s happenings, gossip, gripes (if offered constructively), suggestions, plans, questions to ponder, perhaps even some appreciation for the chef. They are not – repeat not – a time to conduct other business.
But I guess I set myself up – and them – for failure. Transitions have always been tricky for kids, that’s nothing new. Shifting modes in the past was traditionally done by changing rooms – hence why the family room was separate from the dining room which was separate from the kitchen (I get it now!). Creating a flex space in the first place is a form of entrapment, setting them up to succumb to nearby temptations. In a multipurpose setting, it falls entirely to me, rather than the room, to become the enforcer of norms and expectations. And I no more want to be Enforcer of Norms than I want to be Island Patrol.
Three, there’s the psychic clutter, which is almost as burdensome as physical clutter. Psychic clutter is noise pollution from the TV in the family room that drowns out my new age piano music I play to calm my mind. It is kids bobbing in and out of your peripheral vision, try as I might not to see them, as they scream, shout, do cartwheels and kick soccer balls in the house – and chase each other around the island as if on a racetrack. It is never knowing when a gang of dirty boys will traipse through, fresh from a bike ride, and turn your kitchen upside down trying to find the right drinks and snacks.
I know these are all normal scenes and shenanigans associated with child-rearing. What I grossly underestimated was the downsides of seeing – with a front-seat view through my very open floor plan – every moment of my family growing up. The messes they made as toddlers were contained. Heck, they couldn’t even reach the counter to put their stuff on it. Now, they’re near grown, with mouths that argue, electronic devices that never quit, friends who call or visit, and favorite television shows to watch. And I’ve grown. Who knew, for instance, that I would come to try my hand at writing? And writing, I have found, is absolutely impossible with this dream-come-true layout, unless the house is empty. The rich thoughts swirling around in my mind jonesing to be reduced to the page simply can’t compete with the canned laughter from the television, banging on the piano, and my anxiety when someone has left their boiling water for mac-and-cheese unattended for “just a second.”
Maybe boundaries really do serve a useful purpose. I’m definitely rethinking mine. I spent some time this summer sprucing up the basement so that it’s an appealing space – not just for ‘tweens and teens but also for grown men who love to watch sports. It’s my effort to reduce the clutter in my dream space. Next project: creating a room of my own in the attic.