Do You Agree That These “Patterns” Make Places Beautiful and Comfortable?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: Do you agree that these “patterns” make places beautiful and comfortable?

I’ve written before about Christopher Alexander’s brilliant, strange book, A Pattern Language. Few books have made such an impression on me and the way that I think. The book sets forth an archetypal “language” of 253 patterns that make the design of towns, buildings, and–most interesting to me–homes the most pleasing.

This book doesn’t need to be read from front to back; I often just flip through it and study the parts that resonate with me–and look at the pictures, too, of course.

I’m a very text-centric person, and not very visual, and this book helped me to identify the elements about spaces that I like, or don’t like. I’m able to see the world in a new way, and as a consequence, I’ve been able to do some things differently in my own space, to make it more enjoyable.

Here’s a list of some of the “patterns” that I love most–and I even love the aptness of the phrases used to describe them:

Half-hidden garden–this is an example of something that I love but just can’t put into practice in New York City, alas.

Staircase as stage–ditto.

Cascade of roofs–once I started looking, I realized that many of my favorite buildings had a cascade of roofs.

Sleeping to the east–after my parents moved to a new place, they both remarked, independently, how much they enjoyed having a bedroom that faced east.

A room of one’s own–yes!

Light on two sides of every room–after I moved to New York City, I became acutely aware of the importance of light, and it’s true, having light on two sides of a room makes a huge difference.

Six foot balcony–this pattern explained something that had always puzzled me: why people in New York City apartment buildings seemed so rarely to use their balconies. It turns out that when a balcony is too narrow, people don’t feel comfortable on it. It needs to be at least six feet deep.

Windows overlooking life–our apartment has good light, which I’m so thankful for, but we can’t look down on any street scenes, just the sides of buildings; it’s surprising how much we miss being able to overlook life.

Sitting circle–odd to me how many people place their furniture in ways that don’t make for comfortable conversation.

Ceiling height variety–I was astonished to notice how much more I enjoy places that have ceilings at different heights.

Built-in seats–yes! Window seats, alcoves, banquettes, love these. Especially window seats.

Raised flowers–yes!

Things from your life–in Happier at Home, I “cultivated a shrine” to my passion for children’s literature, as a way to make a special place for certain things from my life (for instance, my old copies of Cricket magazine, my complete set of The Wizard of Oz books, my mother’s old copy of Little Women, my Gryffindor banner that a friend brought me from the Harry Potter Theme Park.

Child caves–so true that children love to play in small, low places. My sister had the “Cozy Club” with a friend, and my younger daughter now plays in an odd little space she has decorated.

Secret place–ah, this is my favorite. Again, as I write about in Happier at Home, I was inspired to create my own secret places in our apartment. I couldn’t stop with just one. As Alexander writes, “Where can the need for concealment be expressed; the need to hide; the need for something precious to be lost, and then revealed?”

How about you? Have you identified some “patterns” in the design of the places you love?

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  • peninith1

    I love that my (rather small) house has a big central room and the other rooms around it, so that the master bedroom is very private and the two other bedrooms are on the ‘other side’ with plenty of privacy for all and a central gathering place. Also, I very much enjoy the window seats built into four rooms of my house. I confess I only use my bedroom window seat as a window seat. My Mom, who lives with me, uses hers for a couple of plants and some mementos. The kitchen one alas is ‘storage’ despite all efforts to make it be anything else, and the one in the bath has been incorporated into a nice set of shelves backed by a lovely frosted window. These cubby holes, display spaces, and window seats are what makes my modest home a little special. I bought a copy of A Pattern Language at your suggestion, and find that it makes total sense. I love your revelation about the balconies–seems exactly right to me!

    • gretchenrubin

      So happy to hear that you also enjoy the book. There’s a lot there about private spaces and the ordering of rooms, as in your house.

  • Rachel Ruhlen

    We have a little plastic baby from a King Cake that we take turns hiding in plain sight. When I think we’ve used (and reused) every possible hiding place, someone comes up with a new one!

    • Lisa Youens

      My husband and I hide these little bears for each other. It’s a silly, little thing but so fun!

    • Debbie

      My husband and I have two similar games: we have this stupid beanie-filled hot-pink bird that we hide for one another in odd places. Sometimes months can go by before we find it again, but invariably we always do.

      We also have a wooden cow-spotted pig that is slowly but surely travelling around the living room. He’s currently half-visible behind one of the TV speakers on the mantel. I plan to move him in a few weeks to a spot above the living room window.

  • Christy King

    This is one of my favorite books too. I love almost all the patterns in it, so can’t pick out just a few favorites. One that comes to mind is the pattern for the kitchen, don’t remember what’s it called, but it’s essentially a kitchen with room for living.

  • Molly

    People set up furniture for television viewing rather than conversation, and this sort of design isn’t intuitively appealing. There is always a missing chair. I noticed this when I was moving a chair and set it down temporarily in a way that completed the arrangement. The chair was angled incorrectly for viewing, but correctly in every other way. I cannot wait for the day when I have a separate tv room!

  • Jenya

    So much of A Pattern Language rings true to me, particularly the patterns that make up a community. But I’ve never quite gotten the “half-hidden garden” edict. I love nothing more than the privacy and security of a walled garden (the English get this just right, to my tastes). There’s something about being outside, connected to everything by sound and sky, but still feeling free from prying eyes. Maybe the ideal garden is different for introverts and extroverts?

  • Julian

    Have you read Alexander’s “Nature of Order”? This broadens the ideas in A Pattern Language to apply to wider areas of design and nature. It explains why the patterns work.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I’m making my way through everything he’s written. Love it all but Pattern Language is still my favorite.

  • Ahmad Badreddin

    It’s beautiful to wake up in the morning with flowers with different colors.

  • totoro

    This is my favorite book. I was surprised to find the review though! It doesn’t get a lot of coverage. I think many aspects are found in the Susanka “Not so Big” homes.

    • Marcy Holmes

      I also loved Susanka’s books. Makes me wish I was building a house from scratch but many of the concepts are useful for how to set up the house you do have (like away spaces).

  • Margaret Nahmias
    If you like floral patterns take a look at the Cordoban patios in Spain. Flowers are a huge part of them.

    • Upbeat Mom

      Beautful! Thanks.

  • This looks fascinating. Adding it to my summer reading list. Thanks for the tip!

  • Catherine McCollum

    I read A Pattern Language many, many years ago. I don’t remember every detail anymore, but I do remember the unbelievably good advice and recommendations. After reading about Feng Shui years ago I noted how in tune the two philosophies were.

  • Gina

    When I was 8, my mother ran a residence club that had an overgrown backyard. I would spend hours picking blackberries and baby roses in the middle of the city. I still live in the city, on a busy thoroughfare, but since I’m in the back, I don’t get the noise. There is a courtyard out back shared by several buildings and the view from my dining room window is a bit like that in “Rear Window,”, except the area is smaller and the yards go uphill. I am on the top floor, and even though my main room faces a brick wall, I get lots of glorious light. It faces west, which I prefer because I am not a morning person and also I love to hear the wind and rain rattle my windows. I missed that during the 13 years I faced east. That books sounds intriguing.

  • Jeanne

    A pattern in my home is privacy. I must have a way that my windows can be open to let in the light when I want, and closed off for privacy when I want that. Always amazing to me that so many people have no blinds or curtains at all on windows that face the street (and others as well). Guess they have nothing to hide 😉

    • Peninith1

      Cellular shades. Expensive but so worth it–open from both top and bottom. My bedroom faces the street.

  • One of my favorite books is “Living a Beautiful Life” by Alexandra Stoddard. Every page has ideas of how to implement beauty and energy into your life in small, but meaningful ways. As a 26 year old who moved into my own place just two years ago, I have loved having the flexibility to make my space something that fits me. It was exciting to read your post- it is fun to think about what my dream environment would be so when I make my next transition I can have the important things top of mind!

  • Michael Lucas Monterey

    Dear Gretchen, Bravissimo! Wonderful work. Glad you’re tuned into the importance of the “spaces” we inhabit. Also glad you didn’t become a Christopher Alexander groupie. Becoming aware of patterns that influence us is good. Developing a bogus theory of architecture and design is clearly not good. BTW, saw the film “Happiness Is” and started rising in love with you. Part of my Happiness Project strategy is finding an appropriate mate. Is it possible that you are her?

    • ShockinRed

      And what is bogus about Christopher Alexander’s theory?

  • John

    Awesome pic. Looks a lot like one of Thomas Kinkade paintings. He also has a book “Lightposts for Living.” Very good read.

  • Deirdre

    I’m forever grateful to you for introducing me to Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, long before I read either of your books. I believe it was in 2008 here on your blog. I’m in a small (5000) town in Utah, and was shocked that our library had a copy. We had just built our home, and reading Alexander’s book opened my eyes to things I had loved but never understood. It is still one of my favorite check outs and I hope to own it someday. The low window sills in my home make furniture placement a challenge, but Alexander’s words helped me embrace them—and pushed me to say Yes when my sons asked if they could create a Potteresque “room under the stairs” in our basement.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that it struck a chord with you.

  • ShockinRed

    -vertical windows
    -kitchen closet with a window in it
    -antique kitchen cupboards hanging low, and going all the way to the ceiling
    -windows around doors (transoms)
    -no glass that goes all the way to the floor or the ceiling; windows must be separate from wall/floor/ceiling angles
    -that little unheated room at the entrance of 1940s houses, where you hung your clothes from
    -lots of wood, books and plants.

    I actually never had most of these things in the places I lived, but whenever I see them my heart explodes.

  • Deirdre

    Hmm…I know I commented here months ago and just saw on Disqus that there was a reply to my old comment, and when I first landed on this page it said “27 Comments” but now it is showing zero. Something up with Disqus?

    • gretchenrubin

      Arrrgh, when I switched my site from Typepad to WordPress, some information was lost, and some comments info got screwed up.