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Simplicity and Peace

Simplicity and Peace

The connection between the spaces we inhabit and our emotional health, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Marie Kondo.

Carolyn Stewart
Originally published January 8, 2021

In 1939 Loren Pope, then a twenty-eight-year-old copy editor for Washington, D.C.,’s Evening Star, wrote a letter to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright asking for a house that Pope, at the time, could not afford. “There are certain things a man wants during life, and, of life,” Pope wrote, “material things and things of the spirit. The writer has one fervent wish that includes both. It is a house created by you.” Pope eventually got a one-sentence answer from Wright: “Dear Loren Pope, of course I am ready to give you a house.”

Pope couldn’t get a commercial loan to build the house. He had to rely on financing from his employer. Still, within two years Pope was living in a twelve-hundred-square-foot home built by Wright outside Washington. While it was modest in scale and building materials, it was, as the Pope family and the subsequent owners, the Leighey family, found, a “great and quiet soul.”

Today, our homes have become our offices, gyms, schoolrooms, and happy-hour hangouts. It seems quixotic to believe they can reduce our anxieties as well. But a walk through the Pope-Leighey House teaches a different lesson.

The Pope-Leighey home was one of Wright’s first “Usonian” houses. He built sixty of them; fourteen survive today. Wright used the word “Usonian,” derived from “United States of North America,” to promote the idea that the houses were architectural expressions of the American democratic ethos, structures that would enable all American families, even those with restricted budgets, to abandon their “stifling little colonial hot-boxes” for an environment of self-sufficiency and beauty.

By the time Pope wrote his letter, Wright had been through the personal and professional wringer. With the 1929 stock market crash, his large-scale residential and commercial commissions dried up. In earlier decades, Wright had abandoned his first wife and their six children to move to Europe with his mistress. A crazed butler murdered his second wife and her children and set fire to his Taliesin studio, all of which was followed by a still-bigger fire a few years later.

Wright would have career-defining projects like Fallingwater and the Guggenheim, but in 1939, the full impact of their acclaim was yet to come.

Wright had, however, developed a modest but profitable market in middle-class housing. In the years immediately after the stock market crash, the average American’s income was cut by some 40 percent. Unrest in the cities had urbanites looking to the countryside for security, calm, and space. Wright built his first Usonian house in 1937. Then, he started drumming up publicity over its low building cost: just $5,000, or $93,000 in today’s dollars.

Wright’s Usonian customers were people with rich lives—self-made businesspeople, academics, journalists—and thin wallets. They faced the same type of instability and anxiety that many confront today. Some of them camped out on their land while building their homes, room by room. Wright thought this was a splendid approach. He pointed out that the bathroom could be built first.

The resulting body of Wright’s work is some of his most human. He listened faithfully to his new clientele, people who were determined to build a refuge in a troubled world and believed their homes could provide not just material shelter but, in Pope’s words, “things of the spirit.”

The Virginia Department of Highways tried to raze the Pope-Leighey House for an extension of Route 66, but the structure was saved and moved to land once owned by George Washington in Alexandria. Today the low-slung roof line of the L-shaped house rises gently out of a grassy clearing. Long panels of unstained cypress wood wrap around its exterior and meet the red-brick core of the house, to which a flat cantilevered roof is anchored. The entryway is hidden from street view by a shaded alcove; inside, to the left of the entry, a hallway leads to two bedrooms and a bathroom, cave-like and clad in wood paneling that extends to the walls and ceiling. The kitchen is as economically organized as a Pullman dining car; a chef cooking pasta on the stove can drain it in the sink by just turning around.

Beyond the kitchen, the hallway opens into the living room. The ceiling height rises; the brick walls give way to tall panes of glass. Shafts of sunlight stream through floor-to-ceiling windows and open the view to the backyard terrace and forest. Underfoot, Wright’s trademark “Cherokee red” concrete flooring is pleasantly warm, thanks to radiant heat from the water pipes embedded in the foundation.

The furniture, designed by Wright and his apprentices, is simple and lively: sheets of plywood upholstered with sky blue, cream, and terracotta cushions. Clerestory windows form a geometrically figured ribbon of light running along the walls of a room both spacious and cozy.

Both the Pope and the Leighey families described living in the house as a source of “peace and calm.” “Little by little,” Marjorie Leighey put it, “your pretensions fall away.” Part of the reason was that Usonian houses required a simplified life. Wright banished anything extraneous from the houses, like bric-a-brac and wall decorations. (Nails would have punctured the thin cypress that made up the walls of the houses.) Built-in storage left the surfaces clear of clutter. Because the roofs were cantilevered, the walls performed no supporting function; thus, they could be made of thin plywood cores covered in board-and-batten wood (wood with additional wooden strips applied). Wright said these walls, interior and exterior, needed just an occasional coat of clear wax to maintain their waterproofing and other protection.

The small Usonian houses featured what real-estate ads today call a great room, a living room and dining room in one. Wright likened it to the time “back in farm days” when houses had “one big living room with a stove in it,” creating a “certain atmosphere of a domestic nature which had charm and which is not, I think, a good thing to lose altogether.” One Usonian client, a Mrs. Field, said this kind of room was “pleasant to live in when kept tidy, but the children own the whole house.” Similarly, a Mrs. Rosenbaum had a Usonian house featuring forty-eight-foot-long built-in bookcases that could be warped by mere hand pressure. She worried that her children “might undo the house.” The solution she got from the architects? She should add more books to the bookcases to make them stronger.

It’s not hard to be cynical about the transformative power of our homes in the current moment, but the Usonian houses sprouted out of an emotional landscape not unlike ours. Despite all the advantages of today’s technological innovations, like the capacity to order burritos from our smartphones, we often use them simply to numb ourselves to our surroundings with diversionary entertainment. We pile screen upon screen, watching Netflix while we check Twitter on our phones and browse Amazon on our laptops. Instead of enjoying “sound and vision coming through walls,” as Wright hoped, we’re “doomscrolling,” letting minutes and hours disappear under an online onslaught of unpleasant news.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that we find ourselves turning to the solutions that Wright espoused eighty years ago for his Usonian clients, based on the insight that our walls, floors, and ceilings offer not only shelter but a more emotionally resilient life.

One way for us to capture Wright’s Usonian simplicity is to declutter our homes. Wright has a kindred spirit in Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing expert and author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2010). Her book has spawned a Netflix series and a global decluttering movement (as well as a revolutionary laundry folding technique). Her whole anti-clutter empire is built on a simple fact: We imbue the items around us with strong and often unresolved emotions.

From the pants that looked amazing on us five years ago but no longer fit, to the pile of mail that signifies a corresponding pile of chores left undone, clutter collectively weighs down the mind. “When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go,” Kondo says, “there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Kondo has a prescription for clearing out the clutter and unresolved emotions that inhabit it. She says that once we decide that an item should be removed, we should thank it for its service to us and bid it farewell.

OK, it sounds truly odd to be holding a conversation with your old college intramural sweatshirts. But it’s not so odd to realize that this all comes down to our psychological ties to the items and environments that surround us. Decluttering also makes way for the Usonian aesthetic of clean surfaces and horizontal planes: Once clutter is swept off tables and floor, the home becomes a canvas for light streaming through the windows.

Wright’s use of natural light has been reaffirmed by the burgeoning field of neuro-architecture, which examines the way the brain responds to human-made environments.

In a study of interior design’s influence on neuroscience, design researcher Dr. Maha Mahmoud Ibrahim has noted the effects of changing patterns of light and shadow on the brain. The shifting visual information stimulates the suprachiasmatic nuclei of the brain, which, in turn, influences our alertness and provides a “quiet experience for our auditory cortex.” While not all of us can enjoy floor-to-ceiling glass panels in our living rooms, as Loren Pope did, many people can enjoy the simple pleasure of golden morning light or the velvet glow of an overcast day.

Wright’s multi-use living room, that flexible hub of activity in which meals are taken, homework is done, and guests are entertained, carries its own neuroscientific benefits. Spaces that flow from one function to the next and provide open visual vistas trigger areas of our brain associated with place-based memory. Ibrahim points out that areas with high visibility and connectivity activate the parahippocampal cortex, the neurobiological system that rewards exploration, curiosity, and learning.

For those unwilling to break out the sledgehammer in order to improve visibility, a low-impact way to improve your home’s spatial flow can begin by simply walking from room to room looking for things that can be moved to open up the view from one room to the next.

It doesn’t take cypress board-and-batten walls to live with the simplicity Wright offered his Usonian clients. In a letter to House Beautiful, Pope affirmed that “buildings are close to our lives and influence them, consciously or subconsciously.” Abodes both humble and grand can be swept clean to improve the well-being of those within them.

The first step is to put down the iPad and break out the Windex.

Carolyn Stewart is the director of publications at a Washington, D.C., think tank.

CultureUnited States