HOMELIFE – Architect Dana Ellis

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DANA ELLIS = MARIE KONDO INSPIRATION WITH A PROFESSIONAL EYE FOR SPATIAL PROBLEM-SOLVING

We all have our hidden secrets, places in our homes where we stash the impossible. But how many of us are willing to open up our pantries for everyone to see? Architect, mother and survivor of a live-in DIY remodel Dana Ellis shares her journey from too much to tidy, with ideas for any budget.

My Aunt Marge and Uncle Jack lived in a 1,000 SF Cape Cod-style cottage with a formal dining room. This room took up 25% of their living space, and they did not use it. They sat cramped in the back kitchen, an old radiator threatening to singe your legs each time you stood up from the table. 

We – my husband, daughter, and I – live in an entirely different architectural era, a 1980s passive-solar house from the early days of the modern “open floor plan” style. Our dining room IS our living room and both converge in the kitchen. We say this all the time in my profession: “open plan living blurs the line between spaces.” This is the beauty of architecture today. It’s all about spending time together in spaces that are beautiful, functional, and actively IN USE. 

This is a far cry from the homes most of us grew up in, when “rooms were for looking at, not living in.” In my childhood, TVs were often relegated to family rooms, dens, or TV rooms. Bookshelves were tucked away in corners. Children’s toys and belongings typically lived in their bedrooms. Remember the oh-so-beloved basement office? These were a big trend in my particular family.  

THAT WAS THEN.

Things were compartmentalized. Walls and doors defined spaces, told you what went where.

I sometimes look around and ask myself why Mom and Dad (and Aunt Marge) were able to keep their homes perfect all the time. Was it because they were better at housekeeping than I am? Or is it because architecture has evolved for our generation? Don’t get me wrong – this evolution is THE impetus of my professional journey. It’s what gets me excited when I sit at my desk designing nourishing spaces for my clients. Yet I’ve come to believe that the architecture of blurred lines between spaces can be a giant source of stress. My house is often a wreck, and it’s not entirely because I am multitasking too much, busy shuffling myself and my child from here to there.

I OFTEN ASK MYSELF: WHY IS THIS SO HARD?

I’ve decided it’s because of an architectural paradigm that opens all of our living functions into one big, shared place. In our house, the only enclosed rooms are bedrooms, bathrooms, and a laundry/mechanical room. (“Room” is a generous term since you must sumo squat to get laundry in or out.) We also have a pantry/root cellar, which is the only storage in our home with no basement or attic. My daughter’s dollhouse naturally expands onto the stairs. My laptop lives part-time on the kitchen table. My library books take residence on the coffee table where they “belong,” but all of this creates a home we love that is hardly ever up to my mother’s standards. Somehow we are supposed to actively live in ALL of our spaces ALL at once, and yet we feel it ALL should be pristine. 

THE CHALLENGE WE FACE LIVING WITH BLURRED LINES

It got terribly messy (literally; figuratively) when we undertook a remodel of the whole upstairs of our house. Ourselves. Both bedrooms. Both baths. We moved our beds and our entire private lives into one shared downstairs space without doors. It’s like camping with way more stuff. Our clothes are visible all the time. Every single thing is in the open. AND this new bedroom/living room/closet happens to be my office, which means that my two desks, my two large screens, my filing system, and my supplies, in other words, my sanity – moved into an even less private space. Our passive-solar brick sunroom now functions as an office, playroom, yoga studio, potting shed, and, due to our COVID-inspired wish for family dance parties, it is also a dancehall complete with a disco ball.

I am grateful to own in this Valley, having worked our way from basement rental to affordable housing to a free-market home. I love it. But our home is often in a state of living chaos. Like many of my friends during the pandemic, I decided to “Marie Kondo” the #$%@ out of my stress. This took a lot more than “rolling” my t-shirts. While starting our own architectural practice, with our upstairs rooms stripped down to the studs, with our daughter out of school for the summer, with my training schedule building toward hiking the northern loop of Mount Ranier this fall, and, of course, with my ongoing commitments to clients, along with my forever-and-always-priority of nurturing my family – I decided to pull it all apart.

BEFORE, AFTER & IN-BETWEEN

DANA’S PANTRY BEFORE
DANA’S PANTRY AFTER
Dana Ellis, homelife, pantry

EVERYTHING HAS A PLACE

The depository of everything from T.P. to sunscreen to tax receipts. This was our catch-all room. Because we could shut the door.  It will continue to be our catch-all room, but now we can sort and not just pile. 

When we painted the walls dark, I found it important to choose bins in a color that created contrast. The sturdy handles allow me to carry a box out to the kitchen to find what I need, then return each bin to its place. 

SAVE OLD TREASURES

This antique lunch box is the most used item in this room because it is filled with my daughter’s favorite accessory, Bandaids. By placing it at counter height, it allows everyone easy access.

REPURPOSE PACKAGING

I like to reuse attractive boxes for storage.  This box is from an impulse subscription to Causebox, another casualty of the pandemic – our susceptibility to Insta shopping. Don’t feel bad about the things you buy. Appreciate them and give them a place. Or share the love and move on.

AN ART OPENING

I have amassed many frames.  If you don’t yet have “that perfect picture,” create your own. This watercolor was inspired by a place on our property and I used colors that would complement the room. 

Why mix art with your storage? So that you place value on the space.  I will pause and take a beat before slamming a box in front of my great-grandmother’s portrait.

DANA’S SUNROOM BEFORE
DANA’S SUNROOM AFTER
SUGGESTIONS FROM DANA ELLIS:

MAKE MAMA HAPPY 

My mother would NEVER have a disco ball hanging in her home.  And I say this with immeasurable love and respect – no one wants to grow up and live in their parents’ house, so why should we decorate as if we did?

MAKE ROOM FOR PLAY SPACE 

Open-ended toys and a bit of empty space feed a child’s imagination. Given objects of beauty, children will naturally create beauty.  This deer is sharing space with a vintage Lego piece (A Star Wars robot, I believe, from my husband’s childhood). In my daughter’s play, this Lego piece has become an ancient urn, a boulder, and a swimming hole. It’s truly endless.

BE WORTHY OF IMITATION 

Although I often long to return to the space I used as an office before we started our remodel, I also see the benefits of working alongside my daughter. When I enter my quiet, focused zone, she seems to sink more deeply into her own imaginative world. At the end of the day, I always clear my desk, so when I return to work in the morning, my workspace is inviting. Now, this practice is becoming part of her habit life because she imitates what I do.

PHOTOGRAPHY

SARAH KUHN

MOUNTAIN PARENT HOMELIFE

NET-ZERO DREAM HOME

ECO HOUSEHOLD CLEANERS

MEET MP’S HOMELIFE ADVERTISERS

DANA ELLIS

THE OUTPOST STUDIO

About Dana Ellis

Dana Ellis Dana is an architect, movement artist, and mother based in Carbondale. She is the principal architect with The Outpost Studio, an architecture, and design firm committed to integrity, playful elegance, authenticity, responsibility, and sustainability. Dana is also a managing member of CoMotion Dance Company. She invited us into her home to see that even an accomplished architect can struggle to create order amid the everyday chaos of family living. Her “before” and “after” process certainly gives us hope.