Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Snug as a Bug in a Beautiful Box

When I was a kid I always wanted a gypsy wagon. I didn't know anything about what might be inside, but I could imagine it: everything in cupboards and shelves, pots and pans and maybe bundles of herbs hanging from the ceiling, beds in bunks like a ship. And that painting! All the beautiful painting!

I imagined heading off along the roads, the horse clop-clopping, the wagon swaying a little as I went. For some reason, at this part I imagined the morning sun coming down, and mist rising from the fields. Ah! The open road, the tiny house.

There are a lot of people nowadays showing interest in Gypsy vardos, as the traditional wagons are called. You can buy plans for them and find detailed descriptions of how to build them and decorate them all over the place online (see below); the Society for Creative Anachronism, among others, has sparked a movement to build vardos, including ones that you can hitch to your car. Britain is full of restorers of old vardos and even places you can rent them (horse-drawn, no less) as holiday accomodation, complete with traditional bed-cupboard, tiny stove, and hayrack on the back for the horse. But back then, I only had my imagination - and books.

The Adventures of Perrine, last published in 1941, is a story about a girl whose parents die and she has to travel to a distant city to find her uncle, with hardly any money. As a kid I read over and over the part where she spends a few weeks in a tiny hunting-hut, on an island in the marsh, with a little plank-bridge you can pull up so people don't show up unexpectedly. (She even ends up making her own shoes out of marsh-grass and ribbon).

I suppose I've had a lifelong obsession with tiny houses, despite living with people who like to sprawl. Ship cabins, or even better, the tiny cabins of boats, appeal to me: everything is in its place, there are shelves and cupboards for everything, the beds are built into the walls, and it's all so...snug. The part in The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), when she takes up with the boat people? I really liked that. There was some dumb Doctor Doolittle spinoff I read when I was a kid, I think it was called Dr. Doolittle and the Pirates, which completely captivated me because they sail away in the pirates' ship - and you get to see the cabin belowdecks, with rich rugs, treasure, and piles of fruit (and of course the requisite bunks).

Maxfield Parrish's Ali Baba: the light is reminiscent of the light in my dream house, below.

For much of my childhood I had this recurring dream that there was this really tiny house behind the storage shed at my school. The house was so tiny (no more than 3 feet wide and 4 feet tall) that no one but me noticed it. I would go inside and it would be full of the most marvelous treasure - chests of jewels and yards upon yards of shining, brilliantly-colored silks; feathers, ornately embroidered ribbons, diamonds. It was so tiny I had to crawl in, and once in I could barely turn around, it was so stuffed full of wonderful things: but that was much of the magic of the thing.

The treasure cave in Pirates of the Caribbean, while beautifully done, didn't ultimately make me drool. Why? Possibly because of size. The treasure in my tiny house, and in the silly book, were all so near at hand, it felt completely personal - completely mine. When I used to read Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, I never imagined the cave to be vast. It was large enough to hold a lot of treasure, sure, but only if the treasure was piled up against the walls, taller than me. In my mind that treasure had to be all around to be really magical. If it simply lay all over the floor in discrete mounds, why then it wasn't nearly as impressive.

Jay Shafer, an architect and certified "claustrophile", has been building tiny houses for years now (in fact, he's now been on Oprah, so I won't talk about him too much). His Tumbleweed Tiny House Company makes plans and kits for houses that are sometimes less than 100 square feet, yet with all the comforts of home. The designing that goes into fitting it all in together, the storage planning, and the end result - with its sense of airiness and comfort - is impressive. It appeals to that shipboard part of me, the one that likes the shelves and cupboards. The fact that he actually lives in one of them (100 square feet) is a tribute to his interest in the thing.

His little houses remind me of some of the tiny traditional buildings I saw in Norway, with a narrow footprint and the sides bumped out higher up. I think one of the reasons, besides ecology, that Mr. Shafer's houses have been taking off is that people find tiny spaces comforting. Remember the "Child Caves" I described from A Pattern Language? It seems that we never really grow out of that urge.

The wonderful bathroom from Bony Legs, which is a retelling of Baba Yaga with great illustrations (especially the cover).

Back when people still read to me, someone read me a Baba Yaga tale, complete with the iron teeth and the fence made of bones, the only thing I could think of was how absolutely cool it was to live in a little hut on chicken legs! And I don't think I'm alone, because that Baba Yaga thing simply doesn't go away. Joan Aiken, in her marvelous book A Necklace of Raindrops, tells a story about some traveling musician brothers whose car breaks down and they go looking for a place to stay for the night. After a number of unpleasant adventures, they meet a woman who lives in a chicken-legged hut, who tells them that if they can find the egg her house has laid (she wants it for supper), she'll give them a bed. But by the time they get the egg and bring it back, it's cracked. It breaks in half and a little house jumps out - and they go live in that, traveling around and playing music.

Now I ask you, is there any possible way it could get better than hatching your hut out of an egg?

Later, I read Ursula LeGuin's "Darkness Box" (from The Wind's Twelve Quarters), which is a memorable story anyway, but the initial character, a child, lives with his mother in a Baba Yaga-type hut (complete with herbs from the rafters and all that). That did it - my mind was made up: I wanted one.

But I was bound to disappointment.

But there are other possibilities, always more, just beyond the horizon. What about a cave? A nice, dry cave with little alcoves in the walls for you to put your stuff. Think of Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - wouldn't you like to go stay with him for awhile? Here's an excerpt, in case you don't remember, or didn't read it:

"It was a little, dry, clean cave of reddish stone with a carpet on the floor and two little chairs ("one for me and one for a friend," said Mr. Tumnus) and a little table and a dresser and a mantelpiece over the fire and above that a picture of an old Faun with a grey beard. In one corner there was a door which Lucy thought must lead to Mr. Tumnus' bedroom, and on one wall was a shelf full of books."

They go on to have a very snug-sounding tea (which I have to include because it compliments the scenery so well):

"There was a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them, and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake." ..And, of course, nice hot cups of tea, and a fire.

And all this appears again in the Beavers' house, so snug and full of Wellington boots and nets and things. I sigh, just thinking of it.

Now that I've grown, I know better than to believe I can fit myself and all my stuff into that kind of a tiny place, which is probably a shame. But I still have my foibles. Take, for example, the concept of the bed-cupboard. I don't know where I first got this idea, but think of having a bedroom where your bed, that messy thing with all the lumpy bits, is built into the wall. With little doors you can close if you want to be really snug (there's a thin line between claustrophilia and claustrophobia, though). In any case, then the rest of the room is free to be comfortable, right? Not just four walls around a large piece of messy furniture. Also, with a cupboard the bed itself becomes this really secret, snuggly place.

Perhaps I'm someone who particularly likes boxes, places to store things and hide things; decorative compartments. Perhaps there's some Freudian connection I'm not getting here, but I think, I think it might simply be a human desire: to have a secret place, to hide.

This desire to be in a cave or a box seems often to be associated, for adults, with our beds. I once lived, for a couple of years, in an apartment in San Francisco which had a Murphy bed, which, although it was the height of cool (my friends couldn't believe it), was just not the same. The problem with a Murphy bed was, the bed got to hide away, not me. So ultimately, though I liked the Murphy bed, it didn't fulfill the need (though it did have this cool closet behind it that you could go into when the bed was down).

Now, a Chinese marriage bed...that could really be a place to hide, the best kind of decorative box...to store yourself, when you're deactivated.

It's been documented, this urge to be contained (aside from the obvious Freudian interpretations, of course). Temple Grandin, an autistic veterinarian who is famous both for being the subject of Oliver Sacks' Anthropologist on Mars and for leading the movement to eliminate cruelty in the meat industry, invented a machine which is now used in all kinds of autism facilities to calm people when they are suffering from tension. She calls it the Squeeze Machine. You lie inside it and it essentially delivers pressure like a hug, but without the difficulties of being touched by a human being, and according to Oliver Sacks it is surprisingly satisfying. Perhaps living in a tiny house could deliver some of the same satisfaction?

I often wonder, now that I'm a boring adult, if I had found the perfect little house, how long the love affair would have lasted. Would I have become one of those people who live the sort of spick and span lifestyle that the space demands? Perhaps I could end up like the little old lady who lived in a pumpkin, or a peach-pit, or something. And what about my collections? I could be like those souls who have a tiny house - and then a storage unit for all the other stuff.

Perhaps that's why I started the Cabinet, so I could collect all these amazing things without having to put them in my house. The Dream House - no, Palace, now - that is my Cabinet is beginning to grow beyond the bounds of houses, to include ideas, geographic locations, whole armies of saints.

Ah, well, it's getting late, and I'm starting to natter on. Perhaps I'll just go climb into my Cabinet, shut the door, and admire the treasures contained within. Thank you, once again, for joining me here.

Other Links:

Further reading about the Rom

UK dealer selling original caravans

Lots and lots about gypsy wagons.

A list of links for information on learning about(mostly new) caravans being built and restored.

Horse-drawn gypsy caravan holidays in New Forest, UK

Jan Yoors left home at the age of twelve to join the gypsies, and stayed with them, on and off, for ten years. His deep penetration of such a closed society he describes in his books The Gypsies and Crossing, which talks about the Rom experience during World War II.


Anonymous said...

For me, there is a strong connection, between this kind of claustrophilia, a love of curiousity cabinets and the concept of horror vacui as applied to Victorian design. The empty space as essentially cold and unfeeling. It seems like an almost instinctual drive, to burrow, collect, hibernate. Though I wonder sometimes if the connection between this aesthetic and mental instability should concern me...

E.L. said...

Have you ever read Roald Dahl's book "Danny, The Champion of the World"? The protagonist (and his dad) live in a gypsy caravan, with an adjacent apple tree.

Heather McDougal said...

I have that book, but don't think I've read it yet! I came across a reference to Roald Dahl in my meanderings: there was a picture of a caravan which belonged to him. He used it as a playhouse for his children, and apparently also as a writing studio - wrote a bunch of his books there. So it's no wonder it became fodder for "Danny, the Champion of the World". Apparently, you can see it at the Roald Dahl Museum in Buckinghamshire (http://www.roalddahlmuseum.org/) .

I'm going to have to read the book, now...

Anonymous said...

Lovely post.

Your opening reminds me of Toad in Wind in the Willows:

[Toad] led the way to the stable-yard accordingly, the Rat following with a most mistrustful expression; and there, drawn out of the coach house into the open, they saw a gipsy caravan, shining with newness, painted a canary-yellow picked out with green, and red wheels.

`There you are!' cried the Toad, straddling and expanding himself. `There's real life for you, embodied in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here to-day, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that's always changing!"

spacedlaw said...

If you ike the idea of hiding out in bed, you should seek an old bed from Britonny. They used to close like cupboard, hiding the occupants thoroughly.
I have found a picture of one such bed/cupboard (they are rare even in France) there
In the meantime, I have fallen in love with the Chinese bed...

spacedlaw said...

And more pictures here.
I would have had an easier time to find them if I had thought of googgling "lit clos" instead of "armoire bretonne"...

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you have seen Nicola Bayley's book, Tyger Voyage? There is a wonderful interior of a vardo. It was a fav of my daughter's when growing up and we still love it. The illustrations are egg tempera, and so lovely. I wanted to post a photo of a page, but the html wasn't accepted. I'll leave the photo up on my flickr site for a few days. (owl-light)

Anonymous said...

A couple of FYIs...

Shed design competition on now:

Some people make "miniature" models of caravans that are quite exquisite in detail. Here's one sample link:

Heather McDougal said...

I have read the Tyger Voyage, someone gave it to me when I was young, and I always loved it. I planned to mention it, actually, in the blog, but couldn't find a way to fit it in. Perhaps I'll post a picture of it here on the comments, if I can figure that out...

Alison said...

If you like that part of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", I bet you would also like "The Midnight Folk" and (more particularly) "The Box of Delights", by John Masefield. The latter features a magic box which (among other things) makes the user go small or enter magical scenes within the box; such as a feast inside an oak tree, or sailing downstream on a toy boat, eating the provisions you put on it before being made small. John Masefield, like CS Lewis, is very good on descriptions of food (and hidden spaces). I loved these books as a child.
Re miniature houses - what about Queen Mary's dolls house, in Windsor Castle?
I expect that if you like gypsy caravans, you would also like traditional canal boats, which are more or less the same thing on water.
Your site is fabulous - you like all the same things that I do! When I was a child, we used to go to the dentist in Bond Street, in London, and next door was an antique shop with a working automaton magician in the window, doing the trick with two cones and changing objects under them. It was great.

Anonymous said...

Cf. http://www.halscheid-retreat.de/english/booklet/index45.html for some seriously cramped living. During traditional Tibetan Buddhist retreats one sits/sleeps/eats/meditates in a box for three years...

Ginger said...

You've just summed up what I've spent a lot of my own time trying to explain to people about my childhood. This is probably my favorite entry yet. Those Tumbleweed houses are freakin' cool indeed.

Anonymous said...

Heather, that would be great if you could figure out a way to post that picture. I think people would like it!

Kitt said...

I love a box bed, but I love a window bed more. It's cozy and boxed in, yet you can look at the stars.

You should watch Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, which features the most amazing and alluring little building ever.

Here's a photo of the floating temple.

Anonymous said...

I think treehouses have some of the same appeal - hidden and cosy but also connected with nature. There are some great examples on the fabprefab website, particularly this dome house:

Or a spectacular modern verson which sadly doesn't exist yet:


Sara said...

lovely, lovely post.

Anonymous said...

In the movie Stardust is a lovely example of a gypsy wagon.
I love your website!

Emma said...

Oh! You have such a way of saying things that I've (and not doubt others too) only ever wondered to myself, silently! What a lovely gift, and what a lovely blog.

Allen Nelson said...

I keep coming back to this post.

Well, okay, that's partly because I have it bookmarked and use it to get to your blog.

But, I also keep coming back because it's one of the only places on the web you can find the word "claustrophilia" used in a coherent sentence.

Margaret Cooter said...

What a lot to think about ... I'm trying to remember the childhood story that got me interested in cupboard beds - could it have been Pippi Longstocking?

daysease said...

I am so intrigued by this post. I found you after perusing the older posts at The Steampunk Home. I am so glad I did. Your words speak some of what I myself have felt in so many ways. Not exact interests, necessarily, but the FEELING of it all. That I an relate to. I have always wanted the sweetest, hidden reading nook. the kind that is so hidden and forgotten that it is a world of its own. I hope to be able to do that soon, for my daughter, and maybe somewhere along the line, I can also make myself one. Either way, thank you for this sweetest-of-sweet-to-my-heart posts. I hope to be able to browse your site soon. Have a wonderful day.


http://perilloparodies.blogspot.com/ (family blog)

http://daysease.blogspot.com/ (papercutting and other creative things)

June said...

Your sentiments echo the ones that drew me, at age 16, to The Hobbit (for decades I wanted my own hobbit hole), and later to The Clan of the Cave Bear because Ayla's solitary cave was so tidy with everything having a place to be stored, just as her medicine pouches did.

izzit said...

For coziness, I always think of Heidi in her loft bed (by Johanna Spyri, Swiss, c. 1900):

"The old man now opened the door and Heidi stepped inside after him; she found herself in a good-sized room, which covered the whole ground floor of the hut. A table and a chair were the only furniture; in one corner stood the grandfather's bed, in another was the hearth with a large kettle hanging above it; and the cupboard. She then looked carefully round the room, and asked, "Where am I to sleep, grandfather?" she asked. "Wherever you like," he answered. Heidi was delighted, and began at once to examine all the nooks and corners to find out where it would be pleasantest to sleep. In the corner she saw a short ladder against the wall; up she climbed and found herself in the hay-loft. There lay a large heap of fresh sweet-smelling hay, while through a round window in the wall she could see right down the valley. "I shall sleep up here, grandfather," she called down to him, "it's lovely, up here. Come up and see how lovely it is!" He returned to the loft with a large, thick sack, made of flax, which he threw down, exclaiming, "There, that is better than hay, is it not?" When they had got it tidily spread over the bed, it all looked so nice and warm and comfortable that Heidi stood gazing at it in delight.
"I think we might have something to eat first," said the old man, and he followed the child down the ladder. Then he went up to the hearth, and the big kettle soon began to boil. Meanwhile the old man held a large piece of cheese on a long iron fork over the fire, turning it round and round till it was toasted a nice golden yellow colour on each side. Presently the grandfather got up and came to the table with a jug and the cheese. The old man filled her bowl to the brim with milk and set it before the child, who was now hungrily beginning her bread, having first spread it with the cheese, which after being toasted was soft as butter; the two together tasted delicious.
Just now the moonlight was falling through the round window straight on to Heidi's bed. She finished her supper and climbed up to her bed, where she was soon lying as sweetly and soundly asleep as any young princess on her couch of silk. "