Tiny House: a 21st c Odyssey

Tiny House: a 21st c Odyssey
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Aboard the good ship Tiny House, the time and tides flow. Creative expression carries its crew of two, Chloe Barcelou and Brandon Batchelder, ever forward. Currents fueled by optimism and romance propel while real life forges the anchors that keep the couple grounded – and challenged – as they build their life together. Chloe and Brandon left behind traditional career and job paths to pursue their passions, and like their miniscule manse, they are works-in-progress. Multi-skilled, sky-high cloud reachers, they do have their work boots firmly planted on the ground – and in the mud; New Hampshire melting snows make for soupy terrain. Feast and famine ebb and flow as endeavors are sought out and taken on by two who are committed to making that proverbial living by doing what they love best, however ill-defined it might seem to others. Some work is bartered for trade, some nets actual income, some of it is done just because – for the joy it brings, for the outlet it provides. But, as creative compulsion cannot help but meet up with the everyday callout of bills to be paid and food on the table, Chloe and Brandon put in overtime to figure out where both the balance and best opportunities lie.

Most people and press/entertainment entities assume the Tiny House and its owners are some package deal end-station of artistic expression and that the Tiny House is the culmination of Chloe’s and Brandon’s partnership. But it is not. Their publicity is notable, as it did start out rather on top: as season opener and follow up feature on HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living” series and as profiled in numerous print and online journals, at, among others, the UK’s venerable Daily Mail. The Tiny House, Chloe and Brandon want us to better understand, is first and foremost their home – there is no other more ordinary or private residence to which they can retreat.

The 1 ½ story structure is built upon a trailer bed, a marriage of riotous resourcefulness. Its interior elements have been pieced together like an architectural crazy quilt, thanks to junking junkets, elbow grease and gifted application of designerly engineering. As practicality and cost-savings drove the project, re-purposing and re-use formed the creative parameters. The Tiny House manifests form that follows fun function, droll without being superficially cute or frivolously overdone. A singularly personal project, the house exists thanks in large part to diversity of education and training that happens when one actively – if somewhat randomly – seeks their niche as both artistic and societal contributor. Brandon, though gifted as a teacher and marital arts trainer, is an experienced carpenter, welder/metal-smith, and now project design engineer. Chloe, with her extensive acting and arts background, compliments her partner’s skills as stylist, curator and interior decorator. The result is extraordinary and has garnered its fair share of attention and then some.

The Tiny House, a gypsy caravan wagon on two axels, is deceptively small from the outside. The effect upon entering their luxe camper is Wonkaesque. The interior opens up expansively, a maximalistic jewel-box reveal. That the Tiny House merges fantasy with domesticity comes as no accident, for most all components were gathered, cast-off props and film set or photo shoot accessories, gleaned post production from sites where the couple, a formidably talented production design team, had worked.

Brandon’s devotion to the project is as much an homage to his late father as it is testament to his dedication for his stylish, fashion-forward companion. The house, a Jolly Roger gilt-trimmed vessel, folds in on itself like origami. Its loft level disappears with the turn of a ship’s wheel and its bump-outs slide in like an RV’s. The smallest details speak volumes: There is a portal window to their metal clad shower stall, the re-purposed round glass lid of a crockpot. Wire colanders are suspended kitchen shelves. Hand hammered copper sinks are nestled into hand-scraped and finished wood plank countertops. An octagonal side table, painted blue and brushed with gold, now hangs like a neo-gothic china cabinet. Guy lines with macramé effect anchor the Tiny House to its grassy site at the New Hampshire apple orchard/horse farm; when the New England winter winds tore through the area, all held fast.

Chloe’s fantastical acumen plays perfectly off of Brandon’s creative carpentry – or is it the other way around? Newly signed on as fashion editor at the New Hampshire Magazine, Chloe has also styled for large retail conglomerates and worked extensively as an independent fashion photographer/stylist, where she concocts artful vignettes. In her work, pop surrealist playthings meetup with designer haute-whatever. Fragonard and Steampunk are sourced, baroque and macabre add visual spice. Discipleship of artists from Mab Graves, who I featured at HuffPost in 2014, to photographer Tim Walker is evident in her visual compositions. For her young age, Chloe is connected and accomplished, with an impressive design dossier, a comprehensive website and much admired Instagram account, through which we met and became the 21st c equivalent of pen pals. Chloe styles and dresses herself in ways that also help keep her at visual center stage, whether intended or not, which imo is the hallmark of any through-and-through artistic soul. You cannot help but live and breathe and be your Art as you do it.

I spent a magical 24+ hours with Chloe and Brandon, which turned out to be a leap of faith that met and exceeded all expectation. On an early spring day, I flew out to visit them at their Tiny House homestead. We talked for hours in the whimsical one-room salon and sipped wine by the outdoor fire into the late hours of a balmy evening. I overnighted in the guest loft, a nest comprised of a mattress covered in quilts and a floral crochet blanket, surrounded by clerestory windows that encircled the second level like the squared-off housing of a lighthouse. Off one side, the moon lit the space at night. In the morning, it was the misty fields reflecting the sun off the other. It was kind of like camping – kind of like, wow, so much more. On my flight home from New Hampshire, I described the Tiny House and shared a few pics with my seat neighbor, a design engineer for an international pharmaceutical company. He was impressed and wondered if any of the Tiny House design elements had been patented, so intriguing was this fully collapsible, picturesque contraption.

Have you ever been broke and happy at the same time, and simultaneously had clarity in the moment to realize this most interesting pairing of circumstances? If you have, you had the good fortune to learn one of life’s best lessons. Money sure helps alleviate worry; it gets us stuff, and yes money can buy one – to a large extent – good/improved health. But happiness comes from another place altogether, and its sources are elusive and hard to recognize at times. My husband and I started from the ground up, in both education and income. Both our play and work ethics are therefore always colored by a slightly off-sides perspective, which mandates appreciation as participating visitors to any prosperous moment. It also grants us vast comfort zones in the simplest of settings and delightful license to see both irony and humor in the circumstances and players that surround us – up one side, down the other, sideways too. Brandon and Chloe are busy students of that school – ladders, monkey bars, you name it – at this point in their lives, applying industrious ideas, imagination and hands-on labor to whatever projects come their way that help finance their dreams. And let us be clear, the two insist: The dreams are a work in progress. The Tiny House is only one manifestation of their artistic odyssey.

Interestingly, its been a mixed bag of acknowledgment thus far, adulation combined with equal doses of divisiveness, rather typical and inevitable when paths taken are less common, less ordinary, and when the language of a lifestyle is founded on ways and means that others cannot, or refuse to, fathom. On some subconscious level, I am guessing envy lurks, for there are so very many of us who choose for one reason or another to not heed our muse, or at least to put her off, and rather heed our bosses. My life is very creatively inclined, but some penniless pilgrimage to a deep and risky unknown, I/we did not make back when we came to the earliest forks in our roads. Circumstance that brings with it dependent loved ones has a way of steering a person onto practical tangents that make for longer paths to actualizing endeavor, doesn’t it? So I/we stand in easy awe of those who do opt in, diving head first into the deep end, early on. Meantime, we raise the kids, do what is right, do what is safe, plan for futures, knowing full well life can keep tossing curve balls up to the end. The Barcelou/Batchelder path chosen is decidedly less travelled. Brandon and Chloe committed themselves to their creativity with a willingness to work from scratch so that their lifestyle could actually begin to reflect what they each envisioned. That takes courage, and an ability to do without what most of us view as indispensable.

I have an antique German picture book entitled, “Frau Holle” (Old Mother Frost), a children’s version of a much darker story adapted by the Brothers Grimm. In my version, a virtuous girl’s hard work is rewarded with gold coins that fall from the sky, caught in the folds of her apron. But the lazy, mean girl has a tar-like mass dumped all over her. A single tear on her downturned face illustrates her latent regret. Many years ago, I too, when walking in Chloe’s and Brandon’s boots, was at odd moments blessed with unexpected gifts/opportunities that helped make ends meet. I have always called that “Pennies from Heaven.”

Being a fan of fairy tales and folklore and how they serve as iconographic reflectors of society, both historical and aspirational, I pointed out as I listened to their many stories of unexpected good fortune, that “pennies from heaven” were an absolute reality in their story. And while there may not be a bona fide booty, just enough coin has always managed to appear when most needed – to line a pocket, to fill the fridge. Piece by piece, the Tiny House has been cobbled together, then furnished, then situated on a smidgeon of land complete with its own hand-carved swing, cozy outdoor seating area and a split wood walkway that reminded me of a lumberjack’s gaming log, ready to roll and pitch any unwitting, less “balanced” guest into the grass. As such, the place continues to evolve as rain water collection systems are designed and lighting rod arrays are devised to better protect its nesting pair. Bucolic though the picture may be, it is also a tech-reliant hub for its proprietors, where new projects are fielded, pondered and signed on.

For Brandon and Chloe, those pennies once came in the form of a blunt affirmative to a wacky and poetic Craigslist ad Brandon ran that opened with, “Hideously Smitten Couple Needs Temporary Build Site for Charming, Innovative Tiny Home Contraption,” to locate some patch of land where they could at low to no cost build the main structure of their house. Their now good friend Gerard answered the ad, and he with his wife Lynn turned over a corner of their backyard to the two. As the Tiny House took form, the couple lent Brandon and Chloe tools and provided company, checking in regularly on their progress. Pennies also came in the form of an empty house offered up for temporary residence, where a promise to owners Jim and Audrey to make improvements to the house while residing in it was all the rent that was asked. Pennies also came in the form of the set and costume design hire the two accepted for the film, “Aimy in a Cage,” which in turn provided much-needed cash and the set remnants crucial to the finishing of the Tiny House. Other film projects and odd jobs came and went, and pennies now come from Chloe’s newly created position as New Hampshire Magazine Fashion Editor. Pennies also come from the work opportunities Brandon finds at the farm where they are parked, where he helps tend to the land and animals and tinkers with the Tiny House and its outlying fixtures. Brandon told me he plans to someday write a novel, a fairy tale of some sort – it’s all in his head, he says, ready to go. I wonder if he realizes he is right now living one of the best stories I have come across in some time….

Anonymous outsiders, mistaking the Tiny House for a tourist attraction, peer into the windows with no understanding of its being an actual home. One glance is, in fact, a look into the kitchen, dining, living room, dressing room and office, all in one. It’s pretty invasive. Anonymous posters have written deeply disparaging comments on articles about the Tiny House, which baffles the Chloe and Brandon. (And how indecipherable and inexplicable is that underbelly of anonymity, where truth and knee-jerkedness collide and at times merge into one?) One might expect celebration and support over the stories and articles so far on the Tiny House, its contents and inhabitants, but a purely positive reflection by others has not always been the case. Where such targeting might deplete the positive vibe, this pair, with their dedication to each other and their commitment to creativity, are learning to take it all in stride. They possess together a great gift, and that is Time. For, big scheme seen, they are just starting out. As Chloe and Brandon put miles and seas behind them, wisdom will fine tune perception to help pick up when the force field of youthful optimism grows thin and transparent.

The Tiny House odyssey will seek many ports. As it truly is a house on wheels, all options/destinations remain open. But for the partnership they have forged, Chloe and Brandon have no idea where this will all take them. Their seas remain uncharted – and how great is that? Meantime, the Tiny House is harbor-home for the couple and their cereal noshing pet rabbit, Cosmo. It is a command center outfitted in chandeliers, paper flower garlands, hand-painted furniture and a green carpeted, custom-built rabbit hutch, the kind of vessel where both a Captain Picard and a Captain Jack Sparrow could meet over a cup of tea, or perhaps something stronger.

All photos by Kimann; Post-It-Note illustration by Kimann. “Frau Holle” book property of the author; no publisher information available.

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