Battle of the blands: making the most of boring spaces

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This is not how I picture artist housing.
Whenever I watch movies about scrappy young creatives (dancers! artists! musicians! writers!) fighting to make it wherever they’re to make it (magazine! stage! tv!) they live in quaintly decrepit buildings. These buildings always feature lots of wabi-sabi idealized visions of industrial spaces supposedly no one else wants, or hilariously quirky bathtubs in the livingroom (ha ha!), etc.

But the reality is this: if you’re growing up young and creative in the United States, unless you live in certain cities in the Northeast (and maybe even there), at some point in your life, you’re probably going to live in the housing equivalent of a strip mall. We’re talking mid-’80s constructions with grey carpeting and vertical blinds. Split-levels with sparkly textured walls and square corners. See, that romantically decrepit old housing that you always pictured your struggling 20something ass living in? Those places can be crazy expensive — they’re all “vintage modern” with a brand new bathroom and stone countertops and stainless appliances in the kitchen.

The most challenging space I lived in was a 1970s apartment on the edge of Venice, CA. It was that ubiquitous Los Angeles three story, open walk-ways, cheaply built shitty building. It was on a busy street. There were vertical blinds, amber light covers, aluminium windows that slid horizontally. Everything was square, beige, and bland, with the exception of the lovely balcony that faced west and got an ocean breeze from the beach 15 blocks away. It was technically a decent apartment… but it was SO BLAND. I could never quite feel like myself living there. I never really identified with the woman who walked up those railed stucco steps and into the square, bland, door. I only lasted a year in LA (this was my farewell song), and I have to wonder if that would have been different if I hadn’t been in the blandest home of my life.

Chances are decent that you’ll live in at least a few during your life, and you have to do what you can to make the space feel like yours. I had some suuuper hippie friends in SF, and they managed to make a completely blah apartment in the heart of the Sunset neighborhood feel like an earthy hideaway. They had lots of house plants, indoor sprouting projects, Indian bedspreads, and mountains of pillows and little altars arranged on the floor. It wasn’t quite my look, but there was no denying they totally owned the space.

I’m looking forward to featuring more of these “blank canvas” homes on the site. There are elaborate romanticized dreams about how young and creative people live — but very few of us are in gorgeous abandoned live/work industrial spaces. This is not New York in the ’70s. Many of us can’t afford the luxuries of gentrified quirky spaces.

I’ve got a theory that strip malls, office parks, and abandoned big box stores are the art districts of the future. Artists can’t compete with yuppies for condo space, so creatives will go where the space is cheap. And the space is cheap in these abandoned places of bland commerce. 30 years ago, artists converted the industrial spaces. In my weird future, crumbling strip malls are taken over by squatting tribes of Fixie-riding street artists. It’s a long ride out to the suburban art park, but once you’re there you’ve got 40,000 square feet of former office space COMPLETELY at your disposal for your weird welding/zepplin-building/performance art pieces — and as a bonus, you’ve got T1 internet connections wired in for the multimedia broadcasting!

I’m telling you: we need to get GOOD at working with these bland, depressing spaces of abandoned service commerce and American consumer spending. Take over those abandoned strip malls. Buy that big box and build a theater with elaborate 360° stages. Go where the space is cheap, and make rad shit.

And for those of us who might be creative — not balls out ARTEESTS per se, but crafty thank you very much — we get to each work our domestic art of making these characterless walls our own. When you can’t paint, how can you put your stamp on it?

I’m scheming a series of posts that fit into this “no-damage decor” category. Houseplants. Fabric. Mobiles. Ways to make big fingerprints on your space; ones that wipe up quickly so you can get your full deposit back.

And you! All of you drowning in beige! Stop being ashamed and start making it awesome! And sending us pictures!

Comments on Battle of the blands: making the most of boring spaces

  1. I got the opposite end of the deal — in NZ, most of the cheap, older rental houses are old 60’s-70’s decor, which I *hated*. I’ve come to love it — our lounge room is this odd mish-mash of a fantastic big glass door to the hallway with glass surrounds, a hideous-but-cool brown brick fireplace with rimu wood surround and mantle, printed, pale wallpaper and the most awful, falling apart vomit yellow carpet. Luckily, I have eclectic taste, so somehow the chrome and glass coffee table and the second hand 60’s teacups work together.
    I envy those that have a blank canvas to start with, because I have very little restraint when it comes to decorating! My advice? If you’re (even marginally) artistically inclined, canvases and acrylics come really cheaply if you hunt around. Go nuts painting. And in NZ, Trade Aid shops have great, cheap knick-knack things like candle holders – and you’re doing a world of good buying from Trade Aid. Also, scour second hand shops for awesome furniture — my favourite things are from op shops. An antique Korean freestanding cabinet (apparently an old kitchen pantry) was found for NZ$600 — not super cheap, but well worth it and worth waaaay more than what I paid for it! Have fun with it!

    • NZ offbeats holla!
      I’m lucky to be in a nicer place right now, but boy have i had my fill of threadbare mustard carpet and one-and-a-half Tea painted walls.(god bless test pots for covering holes and scratches!)

  2. I have this theory that we COULD make everything as bright and generally awesome as in Who-ville if we painted everything pretty colors and let artists go crazy…even on cars!
    But for my bland apartment, I use LOTS of different picture frames and posters and pictures from magazines. And color. Always color. Everywhere. 😉

  3. We’re getting ready to move to a new place at the end of May, and I’m making it my personal project to own the space. This apartment has been the crappy bland apartment that never felt like home, and I don’t want that again.

  4. vinyl wall decals. a white or beige background is perfect an you can make a whole wall into an artwork. you can buy them on etsy, or you can make your own design with vector graphics and get them cut out by a sign writer. they stick to any smooth surface (walls, glass, tiles, cabinet doors) and they leave no residue cuz they’re not sticky.

  5. It’s funny. Growing up, our walls were always optic white because that’s what my dad likes. So I think of beige as a color, and I’m always excited when I move in to a new apartment to see WHAT beige they’re using. Will it be pinkish? Yellowish? Gray? Lighter? Darker? But then, I think that unbleached linen, unbleached muslin, unbleached burlap, and a green maidenhair fern is a great color/texture scheme (yaaaay texture!).

    • I felt that way too, but now that I’ve been living in my bland box for 6 months or so, I am craving color. I think the soft palettes and ferns thing works well if you have a lot of light, but I don’t so everything has just ended up drab. That’s why I’m looking forward to seeing what might be out there for inspiration!

  6. I had thought the same regarding closed malls! Each shop would make a great T1! It occurred to me when I visited a friend in the Netherlands, where the State rents closed schools until the moment to demolish them comes: she had a big classroom to live in, then common bathrooms and kitchen, for the lowest price in the city and at a very good location!

  7. Double-sided tape and a huge pack of 12X12 scrapbook paper. 180 sheets at $20 covers 17ft. of wall with 8ft. ceilings. Takes time and effort, but the themed-patchwork effect is lovely.

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