Early this spring, as it was quickly dawning on Americans (and especially New Yorkers) how devastating the Covid-19 pandemic was going to be, Martin Cahill walked across the Ed Koch Bridge from Queens to his girlfriend’s apartment in Manhattan. She had just completed a two week-long quarantine after returning from a work trip, and the couple decided they wanted to be together to weather the duration of the pandemic — however long that was going to be.
It was somewhat traumatic, Cahill remembers, to pack as much as he could carry into a bag and take his first steps in what would eventually become his new life.
Though most of us didn’t have the luxury of experiencing the almost comically apt metaphor of crossing a bridge from the world as it was before coronavirus to how it is now, Cahill’s journey is a familiar one for many. Whether from moving back home to live with parents or witnessing roommates do that instead, decamping to what felt like a safer space or merely hunkering down to face the storm, many of us have had a radical shift in our relationship with our homes. As the world we knew mutated and even collapsed before our very eyes, our homes stopped being just the place where we would eat, sleep, and shower, and became our entire lives. Now, we host holiday parties over Zoom, watch Netflix virtually with friends, and nurture our sourdough starters like pets, complete with constant Instagram updates about our bread. No longer could we gossip with friends over wine at a favorite restaurant, host karaoke nights at dingy bars to celebrate a friend’s birthday, scream our lungs out at a concert or a football game.
But for many of us, those losses, even if ultimately temporary, were accompanied by a deep and long-lasting newfound appreciation for our homes, for the familiarity and security that comes from cultivating a space that’s meant only for you and the people with whom you’re closest. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been rocky, annoying, and occasionally exhausting — kind of like a tempestuous relationship with a beloved sibling. Ultimately, though, this aspect of what we’ve endured during these last nine months has given us something wonderful and abiding: a genuine, if imperfect, love for the spaces — whether old or new — that we’ve carved out for ourselves to weather the storm.
Though we are seeing a strengthening relationship to the home over the course of 2020, it’s not an entirely new experience — particularly for millennials. As a generation who experienced the financial crisis at the outset of our careers, intermittent layoffs and consistent job insecurity since then, and is now surviving a pandemic just as our careers were finally starting to take off, the concept of nesting is a familiar one. Millennials’ desperate need for comfort and security in a world that refuses to provide it can be seen in countless ways, including the generation’s love of house plants — a phenomenon that is both well-documented and mocked by Gen Z (among other Millennial traits).
Before the shutdown, many people used their homes as a “landing pad,” says Stephanie Travis, an associate professor of interior architecture at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts & Design. “It was really just a place to come back to, and then get ready for the next thing. And now it's really the place to be,” she says. “That really changed the whole dynamic. We used to have work, school, exercise, leisure; now the home is your yoga studio, your movie theater, your office, your school, your restaurant.” The Millennial tendency to dabble in the domestic is now, essentially, many people’s full-time job. When you’re staring at the same awkwardly empty corner in your apartment, or uncomfortably trying to power through the work day from bed, it feels like less of a choice and more of a compulsion to make our homes as comfortable and comforting as possible — especially when the world outside is more dangerous than it’s felt in recent memory.
“Home is where you feel secure for some people — not everybody — but I think when we experience trauma in our lives, and losing a job is traumatic, I think that we kind of retreat into whatever our cave is,” says Yu Nong Khew, an assistant professor of interior design at Parsons, the New School. “There's value in that, because when we spend time at home, we become more introspective. We look at more details that exist in our home that we may otherwise not see.”
Cahill says this year has helped him understand which features of his living space contribute to the homey feeling he cherishes. “I've always valued my space and especially the knick-knacks, tchotchkes, artwork, books, and general touchstones that make a space feel like home. Like me, or a part of me,” he says. “It was hard to start thinking of my girlfriend's apartment as a home of mine, less than her place where I was staying. It now feels that way, as we consciously began to build rituals together and spaces here where I felt included.”
For others who haven’t changed locations, like me, reevaluating what we need out of our homes is a big step toward feeling more secure in our spaces. This is why I made several important home purchases I’d been putting off for years, but which I could no longer ignore after spending the past nine months holed up in my one-bedroom apartment. One was a shelf in my kitchen so I can stop rummaging like a hungry little rodent through the cabinet in search of the right saucepan. Another was a home office setup — desk, chair, and a little round rug to go beneath it — so I no longer painfully hunch over my laptop as I worked for far too many hours a day.
Many folks are finding joy and comfort in smoothing some of the harder edges of their homes. Home decor sales have surged over the past year, with Target reporting a 30 percent bump and TJX Companies, which owns TJ Maxx and Marshall’s, noting a 22 percent growth in the category. These sales, already on an upward trajectory before the pandemic, accelerated in the spring and summer. “If you have more people virtually working from home, as the future might indicate, we believe [demand for] home goods will continue,” TJX CEO Ernie Hermann said on a call with investors over the summer. The trend continued over the course of 2020, according to a report from the publication The New Consumer.
Making purchases at big box stores is only a small part of the homemaking equation. Travis notes that she’s witnessing people cultivate bringing the outdoors close, whether by adding plants to their homes or investing in any outdoor space they may have, as well as clearing clutter — which research shows can be distracting and stress-inducing — that may not have bothered them before.
As design writer Kyle Chayka notes in The New Yorker, many of the interiors trends that prevailed pre-pandemic are no longer comfortable when we’re bunkered in our homes. “The problem is, the modernist aesthetic has become shorthand for good taste, rehashed by West Elm and minimalist life-style influencers; our homes and offices have been designed as so many blank, empty boxes,” he writes. Indeed, as Travis says, when our homes are landing pads — places to briefly restore ourselves before embarking into the world again — it’s less necessary to accumulate, since we take care of many of our needs outside the home rather than in it; at the same time, useless clutter is less of an issue, since you’re not stewing in it all day.
But now it’s clear there’s a lot of comfort to be found not merely in making purchases and investments, but collecting items that, as Marie Kondo says, spark joy. “A way to help me adjust, or feel like a little bit of me was in this space, would be to make a little bookshelf to recreate that bit of home: my books, my DnD dice, a special mug, a pile of notebooks . . . putting them together always helped,” says Cahill, who has, as he calls it, “hermit-crabbed” between a couple of different houses during the pandemic. “It's helped me really hone in on and understand what little touchstones from my life mean the most to me, and bringing them with me helps contribute to the homeyness of a place.” Studies show that cultivating spaces decorated with meaningful objects (and, importantly, a lot of plants!) can improve your mood and even go so far as to positively affect your physical health.
As satisfying as it feels to lean into being a homemaker right now, that doesn’t mean that we won’t be prepared to venture away from our spaces when we can. Once things have stabilized and it’s safe to do so, I will excitedly journey back into the outside world. I’ll reschedule the vacation I had planned for April 2020; I will park my butt on the bar stool of my favorite neighborhood restaurant and eat more mozzarella sticks (and drink more martinis) than is probably advisable. But I’ll never forget the safety and solace I found in my rented Brooklyn apartment, despite its flaws (laminate flooring is cracking in obvious places; I don’t think the fire alarm has any intention of being nestled back into the ceiling).
“I imagine that we will have more crises to come,” says Khew. “Millennials have faced a couple now. And we know that it's not going to be the end, right?”
Maybe not, but either way, our homes will be ready for whatever comes next.