Keehnan Konyha, 2THEWALLS, decorator, New York
"To my fifteen-year-old self, this was beauty and power. These were people in absolute control of their lives and of how they chose to present them."
" There is an intrinsic and transformative magic in our ability to shape our environments—markedly more so when we are restricted to available materials. "
- Keehnan Konyha
The Essential House Book, by Terence Conran
Three Rivers Press; First American Edition edition, October 18, 1994
"Living in unsatisfactory surroundings doesn't necessarily promote a desire for change; it can just as easily blunt the awareness of how improvements could be made." (p. 84)
Keehnan Konyha writes, "I grew up in a trailer park—two, actually—in rural Washington. The second for over a decade, until I moved out at seventeen. As an adult there are innumerable reasons I am grateful for my childhood, but as a teenager, it wasn't ideal.
My mother, a single parent, experienced long stretches of darkness. Periods when rooms would become so saturated with fleas and teeming with garbage they couldn't be opened; when dishes would sit, dirty, for weeks on the floor until they were eventually thrown out. To experience this as an adolescent, already in a state of profound powerlessness, was paralyzing. I was mortified not only by the traditionally unenviable state of my exterior living situation, but by my lack of control over its interior as well.
It's hard to say when Terence Conran's The Essential House Book appeared, though I must have been about fifteen. A Costco markdown gift from my grandmother, shelved with the "good books" and enshrined behind the glass of the MDF-and-white-laminate Levitz media unit that was the only piece of furniture ever purchased new during my youth.
'If anything good can be said to come from economic hardship, it has to be a rejection of the artificial values which accompany an inflated sense of wealth." ( p. 117)
I became obsessed, the aspirational nature of interior photography, and the world of shelter magazines in general absolutely lost on me. Here were people, families, living in homes. Not wood-paneled, corrugated aluminum-sided boxes, but cabins, lofts, converted garages. To my fifteen-year-old self, this was beauty and power. These were people in absolute control of their lives and how they chose to present them.
I began to realize that my bedroom was a world I could control. I started to liberate gallons of forgotten house paint from neighboring sheds. I covered furniture from dumpsters in contact paper, began lining drawers and decoupaging chests in tear sheets from old issues of Wired and Raygun. I reupholstered a broken chaise lounge in clearance sale leopard-print flannel sheets from J.C. Penny's using picture hanging nails and thumbtacks.
And I would lie on the floor for hours, The Essential House Book, the IKEA catalog, and a notebook spread out in front of me, designing and redesigning rooms I did not, could not access.
"Homemaking might have a deeply unfashionable ring about it today, but it may be that in mastering the art of shaping a home around our individual and family lifestyle, instead of trying to fit the glossy dictates of magazine and showroom within our own restricted walls, we will rediscover the power of domestic well-being." p. 117
The contradiction here is that this isn't a book about decoration. Ostensibly, The Essential House Book is about the fundamental architectures of home, its focus primarily the bones of space, structural function and flow. The elements of pure decoration it contains are superfluous in the scheme of the book as a whole.
For most of us, the anatomical elements of our living space are beyond our control. We live in cramped and poorly aging apartments; we have roommates; we have security deposits and double mortgages. At fifteen, and even now at almost thirty, ripping up the kitchen floor and retiling isn't an option.
What this book taught me is that it doesn't have to be. Decoration is a very real sort of alchemy. Painting an object, a wall, is literal world building; Mod Podge is power in situations where there is little. Even if accidentally, what I gleaned from The Essential House Book is that decoration can never be only about appearance. There is an intrinsic and transformative magic in our ability to shape our environments—markedly more so when we are restricted to available materials.
Viewing these images again after so many years, I find myself embarrassed by the degree to which I've internalized them and their palate of chalky pastels, draped couches and faux-humble mattresses on floors. I look around at my apartment to see rows of shirts on wall-mounted hooks and leopard-print throw pillows, and wonder if I haven't been rebuilding the same room for myself since I was fifteen.
I received the above amazing letter from Keehnan Konyha last month with his entry for the YHBHS card catalog. Keehnan's site, 2THEWALLS has influenced how I view interiors as much as any design magazine. If you are not familiar with his work, then this entry is a perfect introduction to his thought process and how he views rooms & spaces... His take on interiors and dwellings are triggered by and collaged with memories, emotions, and historical references. Sources galore and rightfully exposed..... Decoupaged-dubstep dioramas of foyers and living rooms. A true collision of art, literature and film... And much more.
Thank you Keehnan for keeping me inspired, and continually thinking of new and old spaces.
-David John, YHBHS