The cover of a Better Homes and Gardens “Do It Yourself” supplement makes a big promise: “Organize Your Life: 18 Weekend Projects to Help You Store More.” The image they’ve chosen to accompany the guide depicts an expansive entryway space with a custom bench, cubbies, and beautiful built-in storage. The bench has dedicated compartments for shoes and is topped with an inviting and attractive cushion—as well as, for some reason, throw pillows. At the edge of the frame is an open door; a woman’s jean jacket and leashes hang on dedicated hooks, with a cheerfully panting dog awaiting the viewer, presumably expecting a walk. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the fantasy entryway in American pop culture in 2020, which promises not merely a place to drop your bag but also a better life.
This cover image is one of many pages I’ve stuffed in a notebook of pages torn from shelter magazines, in hopes of one day having a more customizable living space. The idea was to minimize the number of glossies lying around my house—decluttering, the great obsession of our era—but it quickly became a focus for much of my middle-aged nesting obsession, since I rent and can’t exactly knock out a wall or install a butler’s pantry, even if I could justify the expense. Everything that catches my eye goes in the binder, and it’s now stuffed with every conceivable project—open shelving schemes for kitchens, creative bookcase arrangements, very loud wallpaper, cozy reading nooks. But I have become particularly obsessed with the most minor of rooms, meticulously organized: entryways, and more specifically mudrooms that have been reimagined as “drop zones,” which seem to promise not simply a cleaner house but a wholly better-arranged home and, frankly, a smoother-run life.
This space is now a staple of shelter magazines, HGTV renovations, and Pinterest. The essential elements of this room include a built-in bench, possibly with an attractive cushion; a series of hooks for jackets and bags; bins; a specific place for shoes suitable for boots as well as flats. Depending on your own taste, you might have a giant whiteboard, places to deposit permission slips and other paperwork, a communal calendar, or even go all-out with a family “command center.” It might be bright and mod, or “modern farmhouse” in the vein of Joanna Gaines, or regular, old-fashioned farmhouse with an antique church pew. Many of them are neutral and white, but yours could be designed to look like a locker bay in a midcentury parochial school or a 1970s bowling alley if you want. The important thing is that it will wrangle the paraphernalia associated with your entire family—coats, boots, bags, papers, all the various detritus of life.
“We all have it: blank wall space that can be put to work!” declares one HGTV magazine feature on “The Most Organized Wall in the World.” (Components: pegboard; bench with baskets underneath; transparent dry-erase calendar; top shelf.) An issue of the quarterly special supplement, Best of Flea Market Style, showcases the entryway for a family with four daughters: “Erin and her husband, Russell, put an empty hallway to work as a “mudroom” by lining walls in beaded board and using 2x4s to create slim lockers for each daughter.” Each child has a pair of hooks for coats and backpacks with a bin underneath and a wire folder above; over it all are cursive letters reading ALWAYS COME HOME. “My home has become a canvas on which to do the creating!” declares a pull-quote above the image. A smaller, more achievable example on the next page takes a tiny corner and transforms it with a bench and hooks.
The dropzone is a particularly modern phenomenon. Of course, homes have always had entrances. The moneyed 19th century home in both Britain and America progressed from formal to informal spaces; the deeper into the house you got, the more intimately involved you were with the family that lived there (though that could mean as friends, relations, or domestic employees). A visitor might wait in the hallway to learn whether the family was available to invite them into the parlor. You still see the ghosts of this arrangement, in older homes with their beautiful staircases with hand-carved banisters, in old movies like Meet Me in St. Louis where the phone call in the foyer is a recurring trope, and in meticulous dollhouse recreations. Meanwhile, most people were living in crowded apartment buildings with very little privacy or rural farmhouses. But over the course of the 20th century, this entryway disappeared. Lives were less formal; new technologies made houses more widely affordable to a broader array of people, but they were smaller—you weren’t going to waste room in your bungalow or ranch home on an expansive foyer, especially when nobody was doing turn-of-the-century-style social rounds. And, of course, the car changed everything; all that cheap postwar housing, all those ranch houses, the homeowner was coming home via their car, through the garage or carport. Think of how often modern home renovation shows stress the need to add some “curb appeal” to these flat-fronted buildings.
The formal entryway reemerged later in the 20th century, as floorplans swelled, even as the jobs that paid for all those affordable postwar homes began to disappear; a 2002 New York Times piece detailed the rise of the two-story foyer, with its vaulted ceiling and enormous staircase. But this was all about status, not function: “When you are moving into a new home, and want things that your old home didn’t have,’’ the marketing manager of a homebuilding company told the Times, ‘’an impressive entry hall is usually at the top of the list of must-haves.’’ (Another source attributed their popularity to the 1991 Father of the Bride remake—filmed in a beautiful home built in 1913, before the automobile age.) But, being built for show, these foyers often made no sense and made the home more expensive to heat and cool, too.
Plus, people still weren’t using them. A Chicago Tribune article from 2003 spotlights another new trend: increasingly elaborate back halls, mudrooms or, as one firm wanted to call it, “the family workshop.” “Ten years ago, the room was off the radar screen. Now everyone wants one,” said one architect. A historian explained that the room was originally a fixture of rural homes where entrants could stop and remove their boots, so they didn’t track mud all over a home that was much tougher to clean at the time—hence the name.
In the current HGTV-enthralled era, over the last decade, those mudrooms have become an even broader trend, spurring a cottage industry around fixing your disaster of an entryway. The “drop zone” is a fantasy about an organized life, one that is gendered very specifically. The entire business of home—from stores to HGTV to magazines to Pinterest—is pitched toward women, and this space is no different. It’s a place where the mental load of intensive motherhood is exported into a physical space and made light. It’s a dream of never worrying about where that permission slip went or where the shoes are lurking; never scrambling for the keys or the cleats. And it’s one specifically for a world where so many women are working full-time, at jobs that are ever-more demanding of around-the-clock attention, after a generation’s worth of wage stagnation made that second paycheck ever more important. Who has time to rifle around in a coat closet, even if they’ve got one?
It’s also a more affordable project, as home reno undertakings go. Sure, if you’re a wealthy marketing exec renovating a second home in the Hudson Valley, you can install lavishly customized shelving and accent it with stunning antiques to better suit a country gentleman lifestyle. But you can also do a “drop zone” with less than $200 and a little sweat equity, as a recent Apartment Therapy post outlined for readers. All the big online platforms—Target, Overstock, Wayfair, Room and Board, West Elm, Pottery Barn—have readymade solutions for mudrooms. Once the mudroom’s ascendence was driven by the booming real estate economics of the early 2000s, when foyers were getting so big and money so ready that it made sense to redo the back entrance, too—after all, it was the one people were actually using in those big McMansions. But now, it seems driven by an entirely different set of economic circumstances. Houses are more expensive than ever; families are more strapped than ever. There’s so much that’s out of reach, and more every day—but maybe you can have a perfect drop zone.