A Room of His Own

“Men are recognizing that they have been forced to conform to a very narrow and rather two-dimensional picture of maleness and manhood that they have never had the freedom to question,” author and relationship guru Andrew Cohen said in a 1996 interview.

Another American writer, Sam Martin, would update Cohen’s quote by tacking on an additional two words: “until now.”

“Men have been wandering in the wilderness a long time,” Martin says. “Women have asserted themselves into traditionally male roles, and men have been forced to look elsewhere to find their maleness. But thirty-five years after the onset of the women’s liberation movement, we’re seeing guys becoming comfortable with who they are. Guys are saying: ‘I’m not going to be a type anymore. I’m going to be whatever I’m going to be and I’m going to create a space to do it in.’ ”

Martin’s latest book, Manspace: A Primal Guide to Marking Your Territory (Tauton Press, 2000), is one of two recently released volumes (along with James Twitchell’s Where Men Hide, Columbia University Press, 2006) that chronicle the emerging trend of manspaces, areas within and around homes that are designed by men for a rich variety of purposes.

In his lavishly illustrated coffee-table tome, Martin profiles guys from across the country whose combined expression through their spaces, he contends, ultimately challenges the stereotypes of what it means to be a modern man: Tony Izzo turned his Connecticut basement into a boutique winery; former bantamweight world WBC champion Wayne “Pocket Rocket” McCullough converted his Las Vegas garage into a boxing gym with a standard-size ring; photographer Matthew Benson restored a nineteenth-century horse barn on his property outside New York City for use as a studio and darkroom; Mike Gilliland installed a three-story climbing wall in the atrium of his Colorado home; another man converted his attic into a traditional Japanese teahouse.

What these widely varied spaces have in common is that they are all places where men can express themselves free of negotiation with their female partners.

“Having a room of your own is really a control issue,” Martin says. “Women aren’t necessarily threatened by guys being in their space, but for some reason men are threatened by women being in their space.”

The root of this defensiveness, says Dr. Dan Reidenberg, Minneapolis-based chair of the American Psychotherapy Association, is that men, more than ever before, are grappling with identity issues.

“As men struggle to find their place, they need to figure out what works for them—not just in terms of their personal space, but in how they dress, how they wear their hair, the things they say, and the ways they interact. All of these things have changed over the past three decades. I think the effort to design a space in their house is all part of this identity crisis,” Reidenberg says.
If men feel the need to fashion personal spaces, according to Reidenberg, it’s important for them to do so. “When men lose their identity it creates problems. They can experience a lack of focus, a lack of direction, a sense of dysphoria. They feel confused; sometimes they develop a low-grade depression. So when I’m consulting with men I tell them: Realize your needs are just as important as the other people’s in your life.”

That doesn’t mean women are unwelcome to visit manspaces—when invited. “The stereotype is that there’s no girls allowed,” Martin asserts, “but men tend to want women to come into their space. And most of the women I spoke with for the book are happy that their boyfriends or husbands have these spaces, and they’re all very happy to hang out in them.”

And why not? Most of the manspaces Martin presents are of the haut-monde variety: clean, well-lit, comfortable, high-budget affairs put together by men who clearly have a strong sense of design and the resources to carry out their unique visions.

While men’s spaces seem to be increasingly important to the couples she serves, local realtor Emma Faris says the off-the-rack sort found in most Twin Cities homes are not terribly glamorous. According to Faris, she and her home-peddling colleagues refer to these cobwebby corners where women fear to tread as “man-dens.” Men and women share an equal interest in the man-den, Faris contends, but for very different reasons.

“The women want a space where all that crappy bachelor furniture can be put out of sight, a place in the home where their men can entertain friends. Hopefully, for her sake, the man-den will include a toilet, sink, and shower. Because then, when his friends come over, they won’t stink up the real bathroom.”

In terms of self-expression (of the type illustrated in Martin’s book), in Faris’ opinion the common man is not nearly so ambitious; he fantasizes about installing a pool table, “which he rarely ends up buying because he’s already spent everything on the house.” Most of the man-dens Faris sees have as much character as a Bud Light commercial. “What men usually create is a basement with a horrible-looking wood-paneled bar and a giant television.

“Garages used to be the man-dens,” according to Faris. “These days, men seem to be coming back into the house. It could be that garages tend to be cold and uninviting places to entertain friends. It could be that men in their thirties and forties are connecting with friends, whereas their fathers were connecting with the tool bench.”

But some men—thirty-six-year-old Eden Gartner of Northeast Minneapolis, for example—still carry out their notions of manhood within the chilly confines of the garage. The tool bench remains in Gartner’s garage, but the tools have been replaced with a CD player, strings of colorful lights, and memorabilia from his career in the indie rock band Rust. Where his father might have stored the chainsaw and snowblower, Gartner has a ragged couch, a beer cooler, and a few tables bearing candles and space heaters. A gruesome Indonesian mask, a collectible Elvis doll, and an electronic dartboard highlight the décor.

Gartner, a professional sign-maker by trade, says he realized the importance of manspace after the birth of his daughter Savanna, now three years old. He began to feel restless and isolated and was looking for a way to maintain connections to his social circle. “My friends knew my girlfriend worked nights and I had to stay at home with my daughter, so they’d swing over on their way to the bar. I’d grab the baby monitor, and we’d go out to the garage and light up a cigarette and have a couple beers. Eventually I brought my stereo out there and created the space as a way to bring the bar home to me.”

On an average Friday, Gartner might host several friends in his manspace, but instead of moving on to other venues, they’ll stay all night. “It just becomes my own little scene out there.”

While populist versions of manspace may lack the sexiness of their well-funded brethren, men who live in small houses and apartments can only dream of lording over drafty garages or dank basement kingdoms. These space-deprived fellows, whose need for self-expression is as great as any other, must make do with whatever odd bit of vacant real estate they can claim.

Cynthia, a recently married thirty-year-old Minneapolis woman who lives with her thirty-one-year-old husband Paul in a two-bedroom condominium, notes that Paul has claimed a closet in the baby’s room as his “tech area,” and the narrow space between his side of the bed and the wall as his “mantrench.”

The floor of the mantrench, Cynthia reports, “is covered with books, dirty clothes, empty water bottles, pieces of paper that were in his pocket, torn-up magazines, dirty clothes, and various detritus: old plastic things and crap like that.”

The mound of stuff in her husband’s mantrench—which is on the far side of the bed from the door—rarely reaches bed level, so Cynthia would have no reason to complain about it, except, she says, “Paul’s usually sleeping when I’m leaving for work, so I have to walk through the trench to say goodbye. I have to kick a water bottle or something to get through and I’m standing on, like, two books that are crooked so I’m about to fall over.”

Cynthia says the couple occasionally argues about the mantrench, but that it appears to be a permanent feature of the landscape that she’s going to have to accept.

The soft-spoken Paul appears bemused by his wife’s consternation. Asked for his take on the mantrench controversy, he replies matter-of-factly: “A man’s got to have his space.”