Tranquillity the House a Haven on the Home Front


Since the terrorist attacks, one can almost peg someone’s mind-set by observing how their way of thinking about their home has changed. In a world that had suddenly turned frightening, retreating to the nest satisfies a primal need for comfort, both physical and psychic. Fatalists are deciding they are content without the bigger house they’d once looked forward to. They feel new appreciation for their surroundings and social networks. Maybe they aren’t living in a palace, but they are grateful to be alive to enjoy life’s modest charms with people who matter to them.

By contrast, the temporalists are resolving to live for today. If life is short, they reason, the time to live in your dream house is now. And then there’s the stubborn bunch, who resist change because they consider any sign of it as proof the enemy is achieving their goal of changing our way of life.

Although the attitudes driving us vary, withdrawing into our homes isn’t unfamiliar behavior. The term “cocooning” was coined in 1984 by Faith Popcorn, a New York-based trend forecaster and marketer. At the time, she defined it as “a trend toward insulating oneself from harsh realities and building the perfect environment to reflect one’s personal needs and fantasies.”


Maturing baby boomers and spoiled yuppies thought the world was harsh then, when the list of potential threats included pollution, global warming, sexually transmitted diseases and cancer. Now, a charismatic murderer has commanded his followers to wage a holy war against the United States, resulting in devastating loss of life and property. The current urge to huddle at home might appear similar to the first wave of cocooning, but it seems so much more justifiable now.

As we reel from those assaults and face unknown dangers, a new set of priorities governs how people relate to their havens. The power of community has been rediscovered, superseding individual concerns. Isolation is no longer a goal; charitable giving is granted a higher value than perfection or luxurious living. Our ignorance of the rest of the world, including the corners of it where we’re loathed, was so costly that hiding seems neither possible nor smart.

“Cocooning was about insulation and avoidance,” Popcorn says. “We know now that it’s important to understand other cultures and international politics. But we’re going to learn by watching TV and reading, not by traveling.”

Margaret Russell, editor in chief of Elle Decor, was in Washington, D.C., the day of the attacks to deliver a speech on decorating at a design center. “When I heard what had happened, what I was going to talk about seemed so irrelevant and superficial,” she said. “All I really wanted to do was get home and be with my friends and family. As a New Yorker, I had a visceral need to be in a place of comfort and shelter. We all want to feel safe, and that comes from being with the people we feel close to, not from building fortresses. We have a greater sense that life could be more fleeting than we had thought, which makes us want to savor the things we love and the people who mean the most to us.”

The realization that life can be snuffed out in a cruel instant has given rise to mass self-examination, as millions of Americans ask the sort of questions usually reserved for milestone birthdays: Am I doing what I want to do? Have I achieved enough? Whom do I love and how do I want to live? Santa Monica-based interior designer Kathryn Ireland, who counts Steve Martin and Caroline Kennedy among her clients, was a close friend of actress Berry Berenson, who died when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the first World Trade Center tower.

“I’m not a great one for saving for a rainy day,” she says. “My feeling is, have a bottle of Cristal every day. Do what makes you happy. Among the people I work with, I’d say half feel the way I do. The more conservative clients think they should be saving, but I don’t know what they’re saving for. If you can, I’d say put in your swimming pool, if that’s what you always wanted to do. Redo your bedroom so it’s as attractive as possible.


“Life goes on, and you might as well keep it going in the best possible way. I got a call last week from a woman whose apartment I did a year ago. She wanted to thank me. ‘I’m so happy to have such a beautiful home,’ she said, ‘because I never leave it. I’m not going anywhere.”’

The carpe diem faction of home dwellers is counterbalanced by a more cautious crowd, whose desire for bigger, more elaborate homes exploded in bursts of burning jet fuel. Los Angeles interior designer Mindy Caplow says, “In the last month, I’ve noticed that clients who want their homes to be refuges for their families are concentrating on their kitchens and children’s rooms more. But there are others who are putting things on hold. They don’t know what’s going to happen, especially financially. People are going through with projects that started prior to the disaster.

“But there’s such uncertainty that they’re not undertaking new ones. One of my clients called me on Sept. 12, and the biggest thing on his mind was how his remodel was progressing. For many people, there was an element of denial. Focusing on their homes helped create a sense of normalcy.”

Some marketers say that the pace of change was accelerated by the terrorist attacks, but a weak economy had already affected consumers’ choices. J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich Partners, a Connecticut-based market research company, says, “Retreat from the marketplace was well underway before the trauma of Sept. 11. Our data show that consumers have been suffering from a new claustrophobia of abundance. People just feel overwhelmed with stuff. Indeed, in many cases there’s plain old no room left. The number of self-storage facilities in this country tripled from the mid-’80s to today. For many people, the stuff they have is literally falling out the door. They don’t want more stuff, they want something more in their lives.”

The internationally successful interior designer Clodagh explains her philosophy in “Total Design” (Crown Publishing), a lavishly illustrated new book. In designing boutique hotels and spas, as well as homes for such clients as Robert Redford, Clodagh has long advocated reducing clutter as a way to create more serene environments.

“These shocks are making people think deeply about their lifestyles, and what they need and don’t need,” she says. “I’ve noticed clients are more intensely cleansing and getting rid of stuff. They’re more aware that the flotsam and jetsam they’ve collected over the years isn’t necessarily doing anything for them. They’re editing their possessions, getting rid of stuff and moving it on to where it’s really needed. They’re donating to organizations because there’s a greater understanding that there are people in need in this country.”


Home decorating projects have often been a battleground for power struggles between couples. In recent meetings with clients, Clodagh has seen much less conflict. “There’s no savings account for love, simplicity or energy. You don’t put it in and take it out later,” she says. “People are realizing that. Couples seem to be more loving in discussing things, less competitive. It’s very nice to see. People are really looking at their lives and relationships with their homes and offices and thinking a little differently.”

Popcorn has observed a similar reaction. “Men and women are functioning more as partners instead of adversaries,” she says. “You’ll see families getting behind big purchases, rather than men buying their toys, and women saving for their luxuries. The question will be, what does the family need rather than what does the individual want?”

Although consumer analysts such as Popcorn conduct regular surveys, the understanding of trends, like charity, begins at home. “I’m going to the supermarket now to buy more food than I need,” Popcorn says. “I’m suddenly buying cake mixes. Making cakes with my 3-year-old daughter has become a project we love to do, and it’s very soothing. We’re decorating homemade cupcakes, getting more interested in homemade everything. I expect that arts and crafts will come back. It should have been this way before. Too bad it took this to make us realize what’s important to us.”