Apartment Therapy: Calm Homes Breed Happy People

by Sarah Rapp

Organized, calm, and clean. According to Apartment Therapy founder Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, these are the characteristic traits of a happy household and a productive workspace. And he would know: Maxwell is regularly invited into the apartments of strangers to assess their most intimate trappings – their stuff.  But it turns out that our houses and apartments are far more than just a container for our things. Rather, our approach to home has everything to do with our approach to life.Quitting his Upper East Side teaching gig in 2001, Maxwell began the business with not much more than the humble mission of “helping people fix up their homes.” Starting off, he did everything from waxing floors on his hands and knees to forcing clients to face their dreams and goals through the lens of interior design.

Ten years later, as our workspaces and home life become increasingly blurred, the Apartment Therapy blog has become an essential resource for design-savvy urban dwellers and a fixture on “best of” design blog rolls. It has also spawned numerous offshoots: the AT mini-media empire is now home to 5 blogs (Home, Technology, Children, Green, Cooking), covers content in 6 cities, has published 2 books, and has a team of 16 staffers.

We spoke with Maxwell at Apartment Therapy’s Soho office, which was just as beautiful and homey as we hoped it would be. Often described as being “one part interior designer, one part life coach,” Maxwell spoke about editing our lives, designing workspaces, and shedding old selves.

What appealed to you about starting your own business?
I was coming from seven years of teaching, and feeling very stifled by the faculty politics. I found myself in my off-hours reading the business section. In those days, people talked about business being the engine of change – business being honest, fast, and flexible, whereas politics was slow and corrupt. I wanted to be in the stream of people who were moving fast and flexible and creatively.

I was reading a book called “Growing a Business” by Paul Hawken-who started Smith & Hawken – about starting a small business. Everyday, he opened up his store, and he swept the sidewalk, and he rolled down the shade. That metaphor for living really spoke to me – the small business approach to life.

And then 9/11 happened, and added to this desire to be starting a small business, was this realization that New York wasn’t such a bad place. And I thought, if I could be the guy who goes around town bearing good will, and just connects all the dots, I’d be doing something really cool. It was really that simple.

What did these initial home-visits consist of?
I did house calls, it was what I called apartment therapy. I went in and gave people a prescription, a two hour meeting, that came with a plan and an estimate. We would book appointments, and we’d work through the plan. In between times, they’d be working through it.

In Apartment Therapy’s mission statement, you say that “a calm, beautiful home is linked to happiness.” What first opened your eyes to that?
When I was a teacher, we had to visit the children at home. What I found from going in and out of the children’s homes, was that the kids who did well in class, I could tell you what their homes were going to look like. It wasn’t that they were rich homes, or poor homes, but they would have organized, calm, clean homes.

I thought a lot about how I struggled in school, and how my parents were divorced – my father left home – and I would come home and be alone. There’s a sense of emptiness and things being not quite right. I’m certain that that’s part of what made it hard for me to succeed in school-my mind wasn’t really centered.

Many people in the country who work really hard, their home turns into a little dumping ground, and they’re always running late or losing things, they don’t invite friends over. If your home is feeling like that, what you want from your life and relationships is going to suffer, because your foundation is not strong.

The home is the only space we have that is our own, that we can control. It’s very important for people in this day and age to have that sense of control in their life, and if it’s going to be anywhere, it’s going to be in the home.

What makes a productive work space? How should people be constructing it?
Your starting position should be to have a clean desk every day, and at end of the week, do a deep clean. If you start to let it pile up, especially in the workspace, it will bury you. We spend way too much time in our workspaces. For me, to be creative and feel excited about work, I need to have a clean slate. So, everyday, I straighten up before I leave, just a little bit, and then once a week, I throw stuff away.

To be creative and feel excited about work, I need to have a clean slate.

Same goes if you work from home?
Absolutely, it’s even more important there. At home, you always have one space that’s going to hold your paper work and all of your things so that at the end of the day, you can shut the door on it, put it aside, and give yourself some separation. I don’t think there’s anyone who works their best when they don’t get a break from work. I don’t believe in living in your work 24 hours.

You don’t want your home to fill up so that you feel like it’s a weight. You want it to be a place you come home to to feel free. Everyone has a busy day. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.

What about when you’re swamped or have a huge project, and you fall out of those basic routines.
That’s okay, you have to be flexible. It’s much better to work really hard for a short time than to work so-so hard for a long time. If you’re going to push, stay up late, go to work early, skip exercise, get there an hour early.

What can we do to start editing our lives and homes?
Envision, what do you really want your home to look like, what do you want to do here? And what do you not like about your home? And then once you’ve done that, once you’ve let yourself be free enough to do that, you find a guidepost, a place you want to sail to, and you find very quickly that in order to get there, you’re going to have to throw some stuff off the ship.

De-cluttering is always a byproduct of getting people where they want to go.

Some people start doing it because there’s a lot of pain. They could have real pain, like allergies from the house being messy. I’m not interested in that. What I’m interested in is the people who want to go up. They’re aspirational, they want something. How do I get there? There’s some elbow grease, some letting-it-go. To get something new you’re going to have to let go, because it’s an old self that you’re moving out of to get to a new self. And some money. But what we found over time is that money’s usually not crucial. It’s letting go.

De-cluttering is always a byproduct of getting people where they want to go. Either if it’s just decorating, or if it’s actually your life, you can’t become something new without shedding old skin. So your home is really just another layer of skin, and it’s going to have to shed, if you want to make it the thing you want it to be.


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