When asked to imagine a home, most of us will envision a building. But home is more than just a physical dwelling. What does home mean – and why is it important? We spoke to ethnologist and anthropologist Mark Vacher, Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, to discover there is more to a home than meets the eye.
An omnipresent feature of our daily lives, home is much more than a physical space. Shaped by the social and cultural contexts of their time, homes evolve with us. Ever since we sat around a crackling fire surrounded by our kinsfolk, home has been a place where we feel a sense of belonging.
“If we have no home in the world, we are no longer in the world,” says Mark Vacher.
“Home as a concept is interesting. It makes sense when we talk about it. If I tell someone to ‘go home’ it makes immediate sense to both them and me – even though I don’t know where home is for them, or what it looks like.”
Instantly familiar yet inherently individual, ‘home’ in the vernacular works in many ways, but when we begin to delve deeper into its meaning, it becomes more complex. What is home? Where is home? How does home feel? The subjective meaning placed on the word ‘home’ is both known and unknown.
“Home is both a linguistic reference and an existential relation. When we are born, we are immediately taken care of to ensure our survival. Given a space in the world and within our bodies to grow. It’s no coincidence that Jesus had a crib. Existentially, my body is my home; I’m always in my body – like a snail in its shell. Beyond its existential meaning, home as a place among other places can be related to the development of the individual,” Vacher explains.
Some of the first to create a home as we know it today were nobility, moving from castle to castle and decorating with large, heavy furniture and indulgent paintings on walls that signified not only their wealth, but also their identity. Industrialisation saw homes become filled with items that cemented a growing feeling of individuality.
“In the Middle Ages, the notion of family was where you worked, where you lived, who you were. The rise of the individual, individual labour and the bourgeoisie in the 1800s transformed the home into a place to which people retreated – and a place where the idea of the nuclear family flourished. Before then, we were always someone’s son, mother, sister or brother,” Vacher notes.
“In reality, we begin as individuals and construct communities throughout our life. To do this requires instruments, devices, arenas, platforms, objects, children’s rooms, gardens, kitchen islands…”
Beyond the physical
“Today, home is a place we leave in the morning to return to again in the evening. We fill it with things. Create open-plan kitchens where we bake organic bread while the children do their homework, or we share a bottle of wine. Home reflects the bourgeois idea of a family. And we create a family through the items we purchase for our home. We fetishise objects and ideas within the home to promote our sense of individuality, wellbeing and community. We invest time and effort in our home and garden to show luxury, abundance and time.”
Home is also the place where we manipulate time according to our needs. We lie down to sleep at night, and the day turns into tomorrow. We wake in the morning and open ourselves up to time once more.
“Everything we have in our homes is a reminder of who we are and the community we wish to surround ourselves with”
“Home is a place where we step in and out of action, safely. Where nothing is at stake,” Vacher says.
“On a bad day, we come home and retreat early to our bed, switching the day off. At other times we stay up late to wring out the last drops of a good day. A place beyond places – unlike work, where we are required to do specific tasks and achieve goals before eating lunch, finishing our work and leaving for the day – at home nothing happens yet everything happens. Things can change because nothing changes.”
The concept of home, then, is beyond the boundaries of language and archaic interpretations. Consider what it means to feel ‘at home’. Vacher believes that a permanent physical dwelling is not requisite to feeling at home. Home can be made and remade anywhere and at any time throughout life. Whereas a house is based on norms, a home is based on subjective emotions.
Physical shelter is a basic human need. But it is our desire for belonging that shapes our homes. This is echoed in the Old English word for home, hām, which refers to a village or an estate where many ‘souls’ are gathered. While a physical structure is implied, it is more about a gathering of people. The objects we acquire for our home are not just the story of who we are. They are a tangible reminder of the way in which we relate to others to build a community – which is vital to our survival.
“Everything we have in our homes is a reminder of who we are and the community we wish to surround ourselves with,” says Vacher.
“Some are good at doing ‘home’ – feeling at home in the world and in a space. Others find it difficult and work hard at feeling at home.”
Traditionally, in many cultures, a home has not been a place that strangers would enter. While there may have been a room for best, it was outside the walls of the home that we would meet others. Today, our homes are a showcase not just for us, but also for the outside world.
“Our home tells others something about us – but only when they’re allowed through the door. When you enter my home, I look at it through your eyes. How it makes you view me. If I saw me, what would I like to see? But it’s hard to decorate a home where others see me the way I want them to see me,” Vacher explains.
Home elicits a physical response: we may breathe deeper; our muscles may relax. But if creating a home requires emotional connection and a feeling of belonging, why do we care so much about what we fill it with?
“The process of creating a home happens over time. It grows with us,” says Vacher.
“The objects we acquire for our homes speak of who we are and how we relate to others.”
Design allows us to project to the world who we are and what we want to be.
“Just like a well-designed chair that serves its purpose quietly, instinctively, a home does that same thing: when it does its job well, it is an instrument. Like the good vegetable knife is effortless, allowing you to feel the carrot you’re cutting, but not the knife in your hand. Home is the same: it facilitates who we are and how we want to be with the people we choose to be with. There is agency in creating a home. A good home facilitates the good life. Whether you bake the organic bread or not.”