Five Houses, Five Lessons in Improving Your Life Through Design from Monocle

The magazine’s new “Guide for Better Living” hits home with tips on how to be happier by living simply.


Since it launched in 2007, Monocle has devoted its monthly issues and daily radio programs and podcasts to everything from breaking global news to the best coffee being served in Copenhagen right now, but whether reporting on issues large or small, the brand keeps an eye on how tastemakers around the world are making their cities better through urbanism, design, and entrepreneurship. Last month Monocle expanded their publishing dominion with their very first book, the “Guide to Better Living” ($65).

Both presumptive and authoritative, the hefty (and rightfully so) 400-page book speaks to the most primary elements of daily life: City living essentials, how people do business well in different parts of the world, education, culture (and the “preferred” way of assimilating it), style and wardrobe staples, health, travel, how to be a good host (with many hotels and restaurants to take a cue from), and, finally, happiness—the sum of all these parts, defined most simply as a solid foundation rounded out by the finer (read: quality, not flashy) things in life.

Combining previously published articles from past issues along with new essays, photographs, and other material, it takes both a micro and macro view of the way different people live their lives all over the world. Some of the content is, in fact, so micro (see: aforementioned Copenhagen coffee service) it seems better suited to the more ephemeral qualities of a monthly magazine as opposed to a hard-bound book that bills itself as your mentor on the path towards a happier, more enlightened life. At its best, thought, it combines a generous and accessible outlook with specific, real-world examples, and nowhere is this done better than in the ‘Home’ section, by design editor Hugo MacDonald.

After easily winning the argument that an ideal home is a retreat from the world, the chapter presents five model houses that embody the major tenets of domestic life, perfected. “You’ll see that happiness,” MacDonal says, “does not come from adopting a design-by-numbers approach to building or furnishing,” but by buying what you love, no matter what interior design magazine editorials tell you.

Whether you’re currently in the process of designing your dream home or just fantasizing about it, these are five lessons to (literally) live by.


1. Buy beautiful things and actually use them.
Case in point: Design professor Noritsugu Oda’s Hokkaido (Japan) home, which is filled with as much of his humongous furniture collection as he can possibly squeeze inside (the rest is stored in a nearby facility). His 1,200-piece chair collection started with a LC4 chaise by Le Corbusier that cost 10 times his salary at the time. He’s not precious about it, though, and sits, reclines, and lounges in it regularly.


2. When you have great natural light, you don’t need much else.
Case in point: The couple who lived in a dilapidated traditional Lebanese home for nine years rent free in exchange for seeing to some badly needed renovations simply because they wanted “enjoy the luxury of the space and the light.” They kept the furnishings sparse as to not detract from the ample, perfectly cast sunlight that streams through the simple home on a daily basis.

3-Nagano-house-Monocle-13. Two solar panels go a long way.
Case in point: In addition to other energy-saving modifications like an ice-cooled vintage fridge and wood-burning stove, the modest Nagano (Japan) vacation home of an architecture professor and his wife is lit by just four lightbulbs that are pulled across the ceiling to the part of the house where they’re needed.

“When I see luxurious homes, I’m not impressed,” says the property owner. “I like small houses where people live happily. This house doesn’t all the conveniences, but, in its own ways, it’s a luxury.”


4. Don’t ruin a prime piece of real estate with a new house.
Case in point: The simple, 200-year-old home on a legendary vineyard in the remote northern end of the Greek island of Patmos. Architect Katarina Tsigarida made a conscious decision to do absolutely nothing to the original fittings and furniture “because they were steeped in history and were of the highest quality.” This way the house, while perfectly functional and beautiful in its starkness, takes a back seat to the breathtaking landscape.


5. Modern appliances are overrated.
Case in point: Architect Erik Persson’s rural Swedish retreat in a converted barn that stands on land that’s been in his family for 250 years. A nearby lake serves as the only bathing facility—there’s an offsite outhouse with a sink and toilet, as well as a lakeside sauna, but there’s no electricity to speak off, without which you’re forced to get in sync with the natural world by rising with the sun and sleeping when it sets. “You can watch your mobile phone battery drain and then it’s gone. We could all do with slowing down a little more sometimes,” says Perssons.

We may not all have the opportunity to build even the simplest of structures on a pristine plot of secluded family-owned land, but even for those of us who are just trying to do the best with what we have (pint-sized New York apartments, anyone?) design editor MacDonald’s message is well taken. “Our homes and the things they contain should not dictate the way we live, and woe betide they should ever be emblems of the way we’d like others to perceive the way we live.” Love curling up with a good book in that puce hand-me-down chair? Then don’t you ever throw it out. Live unselfconsciously, and let your own intuition be your guide to living better.