Home decor lessons I learned from Burning Man

Sacred Couch
Sacred Couch, by Nico Aguilera
It's been almost a decade since I made my final pilgrimage to Burning Man, the week-long arts festival in the Nevada desert that kicks off next week… but when I look around my house, I feel like I can still see influences of the Playa on my home.

See, part of the Burning Man experience is creating a little home for yourself out in the desert. You are given a blank slate (a flat, dusty, dry lake bed) and it's up to you to create a semblance of Somethingness out of the Nothingness. People go ALL OUT, of course — constructing entire buildings furnished with carpets, couches, beds, curtains — the whole shebang. Then at the end of the week, they tear or burn it all down, and cart the mess away. Whatever you may think of Burning Man, the way it creates a There out of Nowhere is truly remarkable… and there are lessons to be gleaned.

A side note: I tried to get someone still active in the Burning Man community to write this post, but of course all my Burner friends are too busy welding and gluing and sewing and EL-wiring in preparation for next week's event… so you'll have to make do with my perspective as a retired-Burner.

Create chill/cuddle/downtempo zones

BRCU chill out dome
Photo by Nico Aguilera

It's HOT in the desert, and people need both day and nighttime places to relax. Burners take their chill-out spaces very seriously, and there's a lot to be learned about creating truly comfortable, social, relaxation spaces in your home.

In too many contemporary homes, the only place to relax is a couch facing a television; we could all use more shmoozy spaces dedicated to socializing in comfort. Maybe you don't need an inflatable kiddie pool in your living room, but how about a pile of pillows on a nice rug in an unused corner? A couple loveseats facing each other in a den? An outdoor room in your backyard that celebrates relaxing together? The goal is to create a mellow space to share time with other people — not just a space for zoning out and staring at a screen.

Fun fur is your friend

1 of 4 pink fur couches for Burning Man 2011
Photo by Halcyon

This is one of those Burning Man cultural things that's become so entrenched that it's slipped into cliche… but OH MAN, do Burners ever love their fun fur and OH MAN, is there a good reason.

Fun fur (the long, fake, brightly colored kind) is ridiculous and irresistible — the bright pink couch above? How could you sit on that and NOT start petting it? Fun fur comes with its challenges (like a small pet, it sheds and can be difficult to wash), but a dash of well placed fur can add a quick blast of irreverence to any room.

Leave no trace

vac-01
Photo by Espressobuzz, used by permission
Since Burning Man is held on BLM land, the event organizers are deeply committed to "leaving no trace." 50,000 people bring thousands of tons of art, clothes, food, housing, equipment, and other human detritus into the desert, and when the party is over — EVERYTHING GOES HOME WITH THEM. Burners are so committed to leaving no trace that there's an entire blog dedicated to dealing with MOOP (Matter Out Of Place). Many Burners carry around Altoid tins so that they can pick up little bits of MOOP they see over the course of the day.

Leave no trace is one of those home values that can be small or as enormous. For me on a very small practical level, it means making sure the house is always tidy before I go to bed — I want each day to leave no trace on the next. I try to pick shit up as I go.

On a larger level, leave no trace can be about a dedication to lower-impact green living — composting, reusing things, recycling. How can your home leave as little trace on the world as possible?

Hanging fabric beats painting walls

Burning Man 2010.071
Photo by skanske, used by permission
The winds in the Nevada desert can be super intense, so must Burners don't have walls to work with — instead, it's all about using wind-permeable fabric to create spaces. Fabric is colorful (solids! prints!), fabric is temporary (unlike paint!), fabric is washable. Fabric can be used to divide spaces, create cozy corners, or bring color to a drab room. Fabric is your friend! I mean, are you not inspired?

Colored lights are awesome

Photo by Dawn Bustanoby

Burning Man at night looks like a DIY Las Vegas, a psychdelic cacophony of colored light installations. Granted, you may not want your home to feel quite so much like a neon sign got down doggie-style with a bulk-pack of Christmas tree lights in your living room, but colored lights in your home can create sweet nighttime spaces that feel cozy, warm, and visually stunning.

Start thinking of lighting less as a way to read/see and more as an installation. Your "low light" options in your living room or bedroom don't have to just be a 25 watt bulb — play with colored bulbs, LED lights, EL wire. Even Christmas tree lights can be awesome if you get creative with how you use them. What corners of your house need a warm glow? I mean, imagine having one of these in your living room.


Think what you want of Burning Man — the whole event may strike you as ludicrous, which is just fine (in fact, I think most Burners would agree!). But there is no denying that the Burner community has some insanely amazing inspiration to offer when it comes to creating spaces.

Burners: If you're not heading to the Playa this year, tell me: what did I miss in this list? What key home-creation lessons did you learn from Burning Man?

  1. Ha! I may have entertained the thought while idling the hours at work, but now I have to go home and pack for my flight tomorrow. But it's been a while since I wrote for the debut of Offbeat Home – http://offbeathome.com/2011/02/fulltime-sustainable-rving and we finally got an RV!

    Don't know when/if we'll be going mobile full time, but we are flying into Burning Man, picking it up (bought it from a local burner's dad, who kept it in great condition), going to the burn, and driving across the country home!

    I'll be sure to touch base with you later in September :D

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  2. That "tree" in the first picture… I now desperately want to make something sort of similar. I saw someone made a Tim Burton-esque tree with crepe paper and wire, which would only be made more incredible with lights.

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    • There's a bar in Denver called Mario's Double Daughters that boast just such a tree, lights included! :D

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  3. Not going this year because we're saving for the wedding, but will be there next year. Most of my friends are in panic pack mode right now.

    I think that my biggest lesson from Burning Man and home decor is that it's not actually that hard to make a lot of really cool looking stuff. My camp sometimes builds rather large installations and art cars (2008, 2007), and they're not impossible to put together if you have enough people and dedication to the cause. They just require a lot of thinking and actually doing the work.

    Also, zip-ties are invaluable, and you never have enough. So can be PVC pipes. Hot glue guns work for temporary fixes, but they will not keep fabric together in a wind storm. LED is amazing for illumination. Plastic tupperware bins make for excellent storage.

    I think, though, that a lot of it is just that you can probably do what is in your head if you ask around your community for pointers. You probably know enough people who have expertise in (and tools for) metal or carpentry or electricity or sewing, but you don't necessarily put them together at the same time working on the same project. Just ask! People who know the practical side of creativity are more than willing to pass on their knowledge about how to do stuff.

    I never stripped down a car to just the frame before building the art car that went to Burning Man. I never built a 10 foot golden glittered piano (named Dora Lee) with a bar inside. I certainly never built from scratch and upholstered three love seats, five bar stools and a piano bench. But I did all of that (or helped considerably) in building the Vroom Vroom Room for Burning Man.

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  4. The idea of "leave no trace" is something I really need to discipline myself into. I am in the really bad habit of not picking up after myself and doing a little bit at a time. While my cat is responsible for the plastic fork on the floor (she claimed it as a toy, honest), I should be responsible for the piece of plastic, the cup, the empty envelope.

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  5. Hey, it's not terrible noticeable (and behind the cut), but you may want to put up a little NSFW warning because there is a topless woman in the second photo.

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    • I think if your boss is close enough to your screen to see those 5px breasts, the toplessness is the least of your worries. ;)

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      • That's cool. I only noticed on the second (third?) pass through and thought I'd point it out in case you missed it and didn't want it there. But if you're good, I'm good!

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  6. One of the things I like best about burning man is the temporaryness of it all, because I am not commital. I love hanging fabric instead of paint or wall paper, because I literally hate the paint color by the time it has dried. I love that I can change the whole feel of a room with a new duvet and rug. I like that when you dont have to commit to something for 5 or 10 years, you can go totally crazy with fur walls, hot pink lepoard carpet, etc. and when its too much or life changes, its gifted away and the palette is fresh.

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  7. What an awesome post! I've been twice and am unable to go this year because of an internship starting next week. *sad panda*

    You pretty much hit everything, Ariel! I'm living in my parent's house right now (all my apartment stuff minus kitchen and couch in one room! o_O) so I can't implement too much, but once I move out, I'll definitely have an awesome chill space where I can have cuddle puddles. Also, I will have brightly colored walls in the WHOLE house! My parents have a thing for tan and it's killing me.

    I'm trying to implement the whole Leave No Trace thing in my room but it's proving to be difficult with all the stuff I have packed in here…

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  8. Oooh, I want to go to Burning Man so bad! My husband would poop, though. It's a little too alty for him. I need to make a burning buddy.

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    • Hahahaha, "my husband would poop."

      That is all.

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    • Yeah, it sorta exploded my husband's mind… I had to laugh when he packed khaki shorts and polo shirts to wear all week. He was stealing my sarongs by day 2. :) And I did worry about him a bit the first time I took him, but he was SO excited to go back a second time – now that he could wrap his brain around it.

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      • The first 2 times I went, I went by myself. The first time, I was 20 – which meant I wasn't even an 'adult' in the states yet (I'm from Alberta, where 'adult' starts at 18).
        The thing is, if you really want to go, you can. Commit to it, and it'll happen. The Burningman Gods will get you there.
        The first step I'd take would be to look up the regional info for wherever you live – there are likely meets and/or parties full of Burners in your area, who will be thrilled to be your buddy, and help you with your mission to Burn. I can't post a link because I'm at work, and the Burningman site is blocked on our network. But go to http://www.burningman.com and find the regional info. It's not hard. Make it happen!!!

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        • This. The only way to get there is to commit to getting there. Other burners can certainly help, but you have to make the commitment to go.

          The regional burns can be as awesome as the big burn. I know quite a few Burners who only go to Burning Flipside (outside of Austin; I think it's the largest regional burn).

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  9. Wheee! Thanks for this post. I've been 4 times since 2002. Even when I'm not there, my mind certainly is, this week and next.
    The only thing I would add to your list is: "a little dust never hurt anyone"
    :)

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  10. I love hanging cloth all over my walls. It reminds me of the old castles with tapestries for warmth. Mmm.

    I have a lot of burner friends, but I have yet to be able to go. University always starts that first week for me.

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    • It was the same with me the two years I went. I just told my professors that, "I'm just so sorry, but I can't make it to the first class. What will be planned so so I can keep up?" Haha.

      Though I do understand that a lot of people can't get away with that! Luckily, with my major I could but I have an internship this year and there's no way. :(

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  11. I'm a baby burner that can't make the playa (due to an awesome offbeat wedding) however, the regional events alone gave me the greatest pride in my home for the first time ever. These people put more effort into decorating their theme camps than I would dream in my apartment, let alone while camping.
    The concept of MOOP means I take better care and am definitely a better guest and it really helps with my hoarding tendencies.
    Ditching stuff now feels more like gifting, it felt great to leave my sparkly scarf at a costume shop. I don't know who gets it, but I know they will be happy. I must say, with a smile, burners are the most civilized and polite crowd I have ever met.

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  12. full disclosure – i personally don't understand the allure of burning man whatsoever. but, my future sister-in-law has been going the last three years, and she told me at the end of the week, most/all of the sculptures, floats etc are burned. can anyone confirm/deny this?? because, uh, last time i checked, plastic, paint, glue, etc don't just disappear when they're burned. they would be pretty disgusting and toxic examples of "MOOP". anyone have any info on this? i'm interested.

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    • TONS of info about this issue on the Burning Man website: http://www.burningman.com/installations/burn_scar_prevention.html
      Summary: they recommend nothing be burned directly on the ground, that all art is burned on a platform, that all ash is sorted and carted out for disposal, etc.

      Think what you will of Burning Man (believe me: I'm a pretty harsh critic), but Burners take environmental impact reduction VERY seriously.

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    • Some, but not all, of the structures are burned. The man itself is burned, and the temple is burned. Some other structures are also burned. Most of the burned structures are mainly wood and/or metal and are designed to burn cleanly.

      "Crude Awakening," in 2007, for example, was a giant oil derrick surrounded by several large metal sculptures. It was burned in the most amazing pyrotechnic display I've ever seen. Cleanup started almost immediately. Because of the propane fireballs, that burn probably increased the carbon footprint of the "Green Man" Burning Man by a good 300%. The sculptures survived and I saw two them (albeit a bit charred) the next year on the Esplanade.

      Cleanup of the ash and other trace left behind is planned out well before anything is built. Though sometimes things don't work out as planned. I've heard that the original plan for "Uchronia" aka the Belgian Waffle in 2006 was to use magnets to pick up all the nails after the burn. Unfortunately, the roofing nails they used to put it together were aluminum. So they had to sift through all the ash to retrieve the metal. All of the ash, of course, was collected and bagged and hauled away.

      My village (Gigsville) has what we call the Car-B-Que in the middle of camp. It's an old vehicle (right now it's a suburban) that's been turned into a fire pit. All but the steel is removed from the fire pit before it's used. Before we do anything, we construct a burn platform so all debris falls onto that platform. We only burn wood and paper. (And throw in the occasional propane canister or spray paint or hair spray can. It's our art.) The debris is bagged and hauled away at the end of the event.

      The LLC spends two months cleaning up the playa after the event. There's a moop map issued every year after cleanup that shows which camps were the least clean, but the LLC picks up after them.

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    • To 'stina: I've seen two of the Crude Awakening statues at the burns I've been to (2009 and 2010), still functioning and looking as awesome as before!

      To Holiday: In addition to what 'stina said, a lot of art gets reused at burns in following years, regional burns, and even is placed around the country. The Flaming Lotus Girls, for example, have had their installations featured in cities all around the country (http://flaminglotus.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/more-pretty-pictures-from-tornoto/) and the Dogfish Brewing Company has an installation they bought from burner artists (redundant? ;P) right in front of their headquarters (http://www.dogfish.com/company/tangents/steampunk-treehouse.htm). San Fran seems to host art installations from Burning Man ALL the time, too!

      I wouldn't even say that half of the large installations get burned because a lot get reused or repurposed for following years. ^_^

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  13. 1) Make your shower space fun and relaxing.
    It's something most of us do at least every other day, why not maximize the enjoyment?

    Our camp built cubicle platforms on which you could hang your Sunshower (bag of water heated by the sun) and bathe in the middle of the camp and still be PG while not missing out on any fun. To this day I love the feeling of wet feet stepping onto a wooden platform; you can get bathmats of teak or sustainable bamboo… it just feels like summer fun.

    If you have a window in your shower, maybe add some plants on the sill. Or heck, if you have the space and materials, an outdoor shower is always awesome.

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