Artistic Strategies for Co-Working in Tight Quarters

To create a sense of privacy in their small apartment, the married painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning 
would work in corners facing opposite directions.

To bathe in passionate intimacy on a daily basis, while living together in the same house and often in the same bedroom with the loved one, has always seemed to me the most certain way to lose someone,” the American-born writer, longtime Paris salonnière, and avowed enemy of cohabitation Natalie Clifford Barney once wrote. To which I would like to reply: Yes, but have you tried living together and working together in the same house and often in the same bedroom with the loved one?

That is the bind that many couples are now finding themselves in, thanks to stay-at-home orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and I suspect that more than a few are finding this particular intimacy bath a bit too snug. For relief, we can look to the example of a number of artistic and literary couples throughout history who have managed this same arrangement. Artists are, of course, notoriously difficult people to live with, requiring vast stretches of solitude to do work that tends to make them moody and distracted when they’re away from it. For two such finicky creatures to pursue this vocation under the same roof and stay together—well, surely there are some lessons here for us all.

Let’s start in England, which, as Elizabeth Hardwick noted in a 1955 essay, has long specialized in partnered writers. “The Brownings, the Webbs, the Garnetts, the Carlyles, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, [John] Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield—the literary couple is a peculiar English domestic manufacture, useful no doubt in a country with difficult winters,” Hardwick wrote. “Before the bright fire at tea-time, we can see these high-strung men and women clinging together, their inky fingers touching.”

For Hardwick, the most “fantastic” of these partnerships was between George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, whose twenty-four years together do seem uncommonly contented. Eliot found writing extremely painful, and needed constant encouragement to stick with it. Lewes was happy to provide that encouragement, and was able to do so without sacrificing his own work. In her book “Parallel Lives,” Phyllis Rose described the couple’s days: “They walked together, wrote together, read Homer, and learned languages together. . . . they even raised tadpoles together. Every night after dinner they read aloud to each other, for as much as three hours.”

But even this most companionable of couples ran into some difficulties working in close quarters. In the first home they shared, Eliot and Lewes worked side by side in the same small sitting room, and, according to the biographer Gordon S. Haight, “Though [Eliot] did not complain of it at the time, many years later she confessed that the scratching of George’s pen used to drive her nearly wild.” When the couple eventually settled in the Priory, their principal residence for the remainder of their lives, they were sure to claim their own individual studies.

The married poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were another literary couple who lived and worked under the same roof, in their case an apartment in Florence. According to the biographer Margaret Forster, the Brownings worked at opposite ends of the apartment, with the dining room in between, doors firmly closed. In addition, they would not show each other their day’s work nor discuss it; she felt strongly that their personal intimacy should not extend to their literary work. “An artist must, I fancy, either find or make a solitude to work in, if it is to be good work at all,” she wrote in a letter to a friend.

Making a solitude where one does not naturally exist is a common theme in these partnerships. A closed door works wonders for this, but not all artists enjoyed even that small luxury. In 1946, after being evicted from their twenty-five-hundred-square-foot loft on Twenty-second Street (they were months behind on the rent), the married painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning moved to a much smaller space on Carmine Street, a one-and-a-half-room apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen. The historian Mary Gabriel, in her book “Ninth Street Women,” explains that, because there wasn’t enough space to work in separate rooms, the de Koonings set up their “studios” in corners of the apartment and “established privacy by facing in opposite directions.”

Not surprisingly, this proved a very flimsy solitude. Willem—whom everyone called Bill—quickly became annoyed by Elaine’s rushed working style. Elaine had her own complaints. She said, “Bill whistled while he worked. You know, Mozart and Stravinsky. Bill could whistle these fantastic melodies. But I found it just a little, tiny bit irritating.” Fortunately for them both, Bill soon found a separate studio, though the combined rent ended up being more than the loft they had been evicted from.

In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, obtaining a separate space outside the house is not really an option. A more actionable case study can be found in the artist Judy Chicago’s autobiography “Through the Flower,” where she described the challenges of trying to work in the same Los Angeles house as her second husband, the sculptor Lloyd Hamrol. Their problem was clashing schedules. Chicago wrote:

I liked to get up in the morning and go directly about my business, going into my studio without talking to anyone. Then I liked to work all day and go out at night. Lloyd, on the other hand, preferred to work at night, sleep later than I, and he loved to talk in the morning.

To manage the conflict, the couple “worked out a system in which we could both have the psychic privacy we needed to do our work,” Chicago wrote. “We established ‘silent days,’ where we would pass each other and not speak. This allowed us to be in the house together without feeling that we had to be accessible to the other person’s needs all the time.” The key to the arrangement, Chicago continued, was to be “very straightforward with one another.” If one person needed some alone time, it was simply a matter of verbalizing that need—then the other person would say “Sure” and make separate plans.

What a simple yet ingenious arrangement! Indeed, it sounds so wonderful that we should not draw any conclusions from the fact that, within a year of this description, Chicago and Hamrol had split up.

Not all partnered creators found co-working inimical. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre typically spent the mornings working apart, but in the afternoon they were content to write together in Sartre’s apartment. It’s worth noting, however, that Beauvoir never had trouble concentrating on her work. As she wrote, “Sometimes I would sit at my worktable in either place for four hours at a stretch without once lifting my head.”

But the most beautiful image of co-working partners I’ve run across features the English artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (who, like Beauvoir and Sartre, and Eliot and Lewes, never married). At Charleston, Bell’s country house in East Sussex, they shared a ground-floor painting studio where they went to work together each morning after breakfast. Bell’s son Quentin described them as being “like two sturdy animals side by side in a manger, munching away contentedly, not needing to talk to each other but just happy in the presence of the other.” Alas, even this Eden was impermanent; Bell eventually craved a studio of her own and converted a spare bedroom on the top floor for this purpose.

And what of the cohabitation-averse Natalie Clifford Barney? In 1915, the American painter Romaine Brooks showed up at Barney’s salon, and before long the two had begun a relationship that would last more than fifty years. Fortunately, Brooks was equally enamored of solo time. “I shut myself up for months without seeing a soul,” she wrote, of her creative process, “and give shape in my paintings to my visions of sad and gray shadows.”

Even so, in the late nineteen-twenties, Brooks and Barney decided to give cohabitation a try, building a house together in the South of France, near Saint-Tropez. This was no ordinary house. The villa they designed was more like two connected residences: there was a shared living room and galleried loggia but each partner had her own separate entrance, workroom, and bedroom (as well as her own servants). They called it the Villa Trait d’Union—the Hyphenated Villa.

It didn’t work. Despite all the carefully planned separation, Brooks grew annoyed with Barney’s regular stream of guests. Having her own workroom and bedroom wasn’t enough—she needed a deeper kind of solitude to paint. As she wrote, “I suppose an artist must live alone and feel free otherwise all individuality goes. I can think of my painting only when I am alone, even less do any actual work.”

This is a common refrain among artists. As the painter Agnes Martin said, “When you’re with other people, your mind isn’t your own.” In 1913, weighing the arguments for and against marriage in his diary, Franz Kafka wrote, “I must be alone a great deal. What I accomplished was only the result of being alone.”

So where does that leave those of us with a more moderate craving for solitude and an unprecedented-in-our-lifetimes inability to secure it? One lesson is the power of rules in circumstances like these. Chicago’s “silent days,” the Brownings’ agreement not to discuss their poetic progress, even the de Koonings’ humble promise to face in opposite directions—these things carry weight. More important than a rule’s efficacy is the shared recognition that the “psychic privacy” it serves is an important mutual goal, one that deserves frank conversation, creative problem-solving, and regular maintenance. Finally, if all else fails, remember Kafka’s directive, from a 1912 letter to his on-again, off-again fiancée, Felice Bauer: “If we cannot use arms, dearest, let us embrace with complaints.”

Mason Currey is the author of the Daily Rituals books and the Subtle Maneuvers newsletter.