PUTNAM VALLEY – Living in a one-room house with an ultra-minimalist aesthetic and two small children sounds more like the setup for a joke than something any reasonably sane person would attempt.
And yet that’s exactly what Takaaki and Christina Kawabata set out to do when they renovated an old house here. They were convinced that an open space with as few toys and material possessions as possible was a recipe not for disaster, but for domestic calm.
Still, living this way takes a kind of discipline that many find hard to fathom.
“Most of the people we’ve invited here are shocked by how we live,” Christina Kawabata, 41, said. “How we can raise kids without toys and clutter and stuff everywhere.”
Takaaki Kawabata, 44, laughed. “They think we’re Buddhist monks,” he said.
In fact, Christina Kawabata runs a small design business called Takatina out of their home, and her husband works for the Manhattan architecture and interior design firm Janson Goldstein. And Takaaki Kawabata modeled his design for the 1,200-square-foot house with its 14-foot ceilings and black-stained oak floors on communal living in 17th century rural Japan. That, and his own childhood in a one-room farmhouse in Nakajima.
“There wasn’t much in the way of heating,” he said. “So my mother would be cooking and my grandmother was always knitting by the fire. That was my memory: everyone living all together in one room.”
The couple decided to leave Brooklyn in 2008, because they could afford more space here. (The house and the 2.5-acre lot was $335,000, and thanks to help from friends, the gut renovation added just $50,000 more.) But even so, when they moved into their new home the following year, Christina Kawabata said, “We actually threw away half our stuff.”
Summing up their philosophy, she said: “We love the things that we have and try not to be wasteful. The rest, we edit.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, their son, Tozai, 6, poured barley tea for a visitor, and Akari, their 3-year-old daughter, carried pastries to the table, displaying poise and dexterity beyond their years. They also behaved like children everywhere, competing for the adults’ attention by dancing, singing and showing off their drawings.
“The children are always surprising and delighting us here,” Christina Kawabata said.
Takaaki Kawabata added, “Without walls, there is constant communication.”
Eventually, there will be an addition, a 1,500-square-foot structure that may be connected to the main house with an open walkway. But that’s a few years off. For now, instead of walls, the family makes do with transparent room dividers created out of metal frames wrapped with nylon string.
The children have a designated space for playing and sleeping sectioned off by one of those frames, and at the end of the day it is their responsibility to clean up their toys and set up the futons on which they sleep. Pillows are tossed down from the parents’ sleeping loft above.
“They are allowed to make a mess in their specified area – their bedroom – and every time they use their toys, they have to put them back in the bin before going on to the next one,” Takaaki Kawabata said. If they ask properly, are on good terms with each other and are doing well in school, he continued, they can request that the toys they are using be swapped out for other toys stored in the unfinished basement.
Recently, however, Tozai, who is in first grade, has begun to realize that not everyone lives this way. His parents have handled the situation by repeating what has become an informal family mantra: How many toys can you play with at the same time?
So far, it seems to be working.
“We’re basically brainwashing him,” Takaaki Kawabata said. “That’s how my father did it to me.”