Mar 14, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I love a museum gift shop – let me be specific – I love the book selection at a museum gift shop. When, on a recent excursion, I saw the much fabled “Guide to Easier Living” by Mary & Russel Wright my heart went pitter patter. You may consider Russel’s contributions to mid-century furniture or pottery as his most revolutionary endeavors. For others it’s his title as the forefather of lifestyle brands or the fact that he made industrial design a thing! Yet with his wife, Mary, I believe he embarked on the most ambitious adventure – improving all aspects of daily life. I’d like to share with you my favorite takeaways upon reading this opus. Dear reader, I humbly invite you to visit what easy street circa 1950 looked like (and want to know if you – like me – find yourself wanting a train ticket to this destination!).
The first thing that struck me was how relatable and modern the text already is – now granted, some references do date it (how to manage ash trays during the course of a party for example) – but the ideals and philosophical underpinnings are refreshingly relevant. Just one example: Mary and Russel talk about equal distribution of household labor. I found this quote particularly inspiring: “Tradition needn’t act as a stumbling block: the father may be the best interior decorator or pie-baker, a daughter an incipient plumber.” (p 136) When this book was written the war was over, the men were back from afar, and the women were holding onto their roles in the workforce while raising growing families. All this was done against the backdrop of a democratic society without an army of servants. Habits had to change – new traditions had to be started! A simple, logical explanation but when I think it through, the issues still linger. How many times have I been to a dinner party where I never see the hostess? She’s a blur, running back and forth to the kitchen – refusing aid. The next day she’s frazzled and irritated. The crazy thing – I was that woman in the not-so-distant past! I must admit I love entertaining – from thoughtfully preparing the menu for my guests, to getting the table setting just so, and seeing folks relaxed and jovial in my home. (In fact, as I write, I’m getting ready to host this very evening!)
But the difference between “past me” and “present me” is I put my own considerations into the equation. I suppose the millenials call this “self-care” – but there’s something to it and the Wrights had it figured out over 50 years ago! Limit stress from your life and give yourself the space/time to find joy. Now when I entertain I pick a recipe I can prepare in advance, complement my homemade fare with some store-bought treats, and get the dishwasher ready to receive the onslaught! Simple changes – but they’ve made all the difference. I no longer try to be some sort of super human hostess. To some of you reading this you have already had your aha! moment years ago and to you I say congrats! But given that my moment happened in 2015, I think it goes to show that traditions can be deeply rooted in our subconscious. In this book, Mary & Russel seek to free us of this arcane thinking: “If the American home is inadequate, it is our belief that this inadequacy must be attributed primarily to a continued adherence to an ill-fitting and outmoded cultural pattern.” (p 2)
If the first condition for finding your way to easy street is changing your mindset, I wonder if we are going even further away from the Wright’s thoughtful (and well researched) suggestions. Their book delves into not just what we do, but how we do it. I feel like “what” has been a mainstay of modern conversation, but the “how” – not so much. As a director of operations in my day job, this makes me have a little sad because the “how” is my favorite! Culturally we seem to be obsessed with what we’re doing. Did you see Jane’s Instagram picture of her breakfast this morning? Did you see how little Billy’s mom made his room look like a magazine cover? My heavens! Everyone is up to something that looks so cool – I best add some more filters to make my life seem relevant. Forgive the soapbox dear reader and just know that I love Instagram as much as the next person. But with the great power of being able to document any moment of our own lives comes a great responsibility. Do you think in that noise we’ve lost the “how?” How did Jane prepare that breakfast (and after the hard work did it even taste as good as it looked)? How is Billy, at age 5, empowered to keep his room in that pristine condition if he can’t reach the shelves on the wall? In reading the book, I came to the realization that so many aspects of my own daily routine are automatic and never questioned. Even something as simple as preparing my breakfast. I have arranged my kitchen to be aesthetically pleasing – the red toaster looks fab in the corner with the white subway tile as its backdrop. But every morning I have to move it so I have enough light to butter my toast. I’m sacrificing the how – for shame! An aha! moment delivered all the way from 1950. Dear reader, I challenge you to complete some time motion studies of your most mundane tasks as this exercise will prove very insightful.
Being present and questioning one’s daily routine is a great start (and a contagious activity for soon you’ll start expanding the scope of your queries – trust me, you’ll be on a journey of self-discovery in no time!) – but I’ll add one more step. Consider how much (or how little) you personalize your living space. In the book Mary & Russel encourage all sorts of adjustments ranging from material choices for furnishings to structural changes in the walls themselves. It can be hard to feel empowered to make changes as an apartment dweller and with home ownership on the decline, you might wonder how this idea could gain traction. Yet when I think about how much we personalize our electronic devices (no two smartphones look the same from app selection to case color) it might be as simple as focus. We already, as a society, value personalization in so many other aspects. What would happen if we chose to make our spaces work for us, rather than serve as a backdrop for an Instagram moment? Given the entrepreneurial spirit of the upcoming generation, I know some clever solutions could be found. That, in a nutshell, is what this book means to me – a call to cleverness. Questioning the status quo, which seems pretty revolutionary for 1950 (and may I say… just as polarizing for 2018?). I’ll leave you with this quote as you ponder your own escape to easy street: “A new pattern is not evolved overnight. Meanwhile, this transition period is difficult for all of us. We cannot relinquish all at once attitudes deeply rooted in us from childhood. But for the sake of human economy and a fuller, richer home life, we must consciously strive to free ourselves from the outmoded Old Dream.” (p 6) Reader, what parts of the old dream do you feel you hold onto and how could you change that? Let me know in the comments…