a website is a sanctuary
a conversation with Laurel Schwulst
What if a home had a url? This is the question implicit in Laurel Schwulst’s Firefly Sanctuary, which is both the name she gives to her apartment in Brooklyn, and a website that is at once a description of her home and a home in and of itself, a digital space you might visit and dwell in for a while. Laurel is a designer, artist, writer, website publisher, educator, and for our purposes today, an interior designer of both physical and digital spaces. We talked about world-building, what the real world can learn from HTML, and how to “find the others.”
What is the Firefly Sanctuary and how did it come to be?
The Firefly Sanctuary is the home that I live in. It’s physically located in Brooklyn, so it’s literally where I am right now, doing this video call — presently, physically. But its name also conveys a greater concept of the home I'd like to cultivate no matter where I am physically, an idea we can explore together.
I moved to the sanctuary over the pandemic. I wanted to think about it very intentionally because it was one of the first times in my life with completely free rein over a space. Because I’m not sharing it with anyone, I wanted to find a way to bring others in.
Why did you call it the Firefly Sanctuary?
I was walking into my apartment one day and noticed the yellow-green-ish rubber protector on my apartment key. The color reminded me of a firefly’s glowing light. I remembered that the firefly is technically my primal astrology (when you blend my Chinese zodiac and my astrological sun sign). So I had the first word — “firefly.” I landed on the second word “sanctuary” by imagining my home as a place of refuge, of healing… especially after & during the pandemic. I like how names are both a reflection of what already exists and also an influence on what’s to come. Firefly Sanctuary reminds me that my home is a calm place of glowing and wonder.
Was it obvious to you that this space needed a website?
Last year, I wanted to make more personal work. I thought, well, if I'm already putting so much energy into my apartment, why not share it? My friend Becca said the website is a way to “honor this space as a being.” I liked the idea that a website could be a way of honoring something, almost like a kind of shrine, or just saying “this is significant.” You give something a name and suddenly you feel “wow, now that it has a name, it can be so many things. Maybe I’ll buy a domain name.” [Laughs]
Let's talk about the space on top of your fridge. Here's what is on top of my fridge: a box of canned diet cokes, a cooler bag, a broken lightbulb, and a fire extinguisher. You reserve the top of your fridge as "a venue for a changing still life." I love this because the top of the fridge is kind of a space that resists intention, in the same way that a chair in the bedroom inevitably becomes an object you throw clothes onto.
What’s unique about my fridge is that it lives in this architectural cutout in my wall. It almost looks like a miniature room. As a visual person, it was hard to ignore — it’s asking to be a little gallery. On the other hand, your fridge sounds very practical. [Laughs]
I find it funny and beautiful and kind of representative of what makes me obsessed with the project, which is that unlike most of what's on the internet, there's nothing particularly aspirational or "cool" about it. It doesn't fit neatly into an aesthetic like cozycore that others can latch onto and replicate. It's almost jarring to see images of someone's home presented as documentation and not as lifestyle inspiration, or something to be imitated. Was that intentional?
I am interested in beauty. Some of the choices I make are just purely about beauty, but I hope what comes across is more of a methodology or a way of going about things. For example, if I were to create a manifesto for the sanctuary, it might begin like this…
Consider places often overlooked
[the area on top of a fridge]
Let certain things exist naturally
[appreciate electrical cables’ lyrical movement]
Remember that creativity can be about removing things just as much as adding things
[remove the tables and create new space]
What is your relationship with platform algorithms?
For me, it's about balancing the algorithms on my device with what I think of as the universe's algorithm.
It’s useful to be embedded (and sometimes at the whims of) algorithms. In a sense, being at the mercy of algorithms connect us. We should remember to make space to reflect on how they affect us and how we want to best interact with them.
It’s related to this tweet I made recently: “the physical world is so nourishing. and i love how the virtual world, in balance, can help me appreciate the physical world in new ways”
I like to pay attention to language of everything technological. We use the word “ping” to mean some kind of incoming notification from a friend or app. But I’ve been thinking about what it means to get a “ping from the universe,” and how that's a helpful metaphor for the whisper of intuition. Having that name is really helpful. Because when I get a good idea, I think to myself, “Oh, I know what that is. That's a ping from the universe.” And I can note it down.
I'm noticing a pattern that you like to be able to name things.
Yeah, I love it. Whenever I get a good idea from the universe, I write the word “ping” in my notes app along with the good idea. Later on, after multiple pings have accumulated, I can search for the word "ping” and easily look through my good ideas.
Could the Firefly Sanctuary have worked as an Instagram or TikTok account instead of as a website?
A website allows a quietness and separateness that are key to the sanctuary. I also have a live feed looking out my window, which could only have worked on the website.
I have been thinking about how I might translate this to TikTok. What I like about TikTok is that it gives a stage for niche people who do have very specific points of view, and they can sometimes flourish just for being themselves.
The word that most comes to mind is world-building. Like you have your own little Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the audience is way, way smaller. And the objects in your apartment become characters in that universe.
Speaking of characters, I was away from the Firefly Sanctuary for two months this summer, and my subletters gave me a rock from New Zealand, where they came from. I also have a big rock that my brother gave me for Christmas eight years ago that was actually found in the yard of the house we grew up in. It feels really right where it is.
It sounds like a simple task, but figuring out a place for my brother’s rock took a couple of weeks. Things don’t find their places automatically. You have to live somewhere to know how to design it. Some references that come to mind are How Buildings Learn (a book and a BBC TV series from the 90s by Stewart Brand) and A Pattern Language (a book that’s also an index of social & pragmatic ways to think about living spaces from the 70s by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein). Both of these works mention how you can only really know a place by living there and making adjustments gradually.
I'm someone who is constantly craving a feeling that my space is part of a community that people feel like they can access and isn't like, something they need to send a Google Calendar Invite to access.
Speaking of community, there was a point at which I changed the voice of the website from a perspective of “I” to “we.”
I’ve had different people stay here while I'm away for different amounts of time. That's one of my favorite things because then they can really appreciate it as a kind of healing place for themselves. So it felt more true to use “we” when speaking about the Firefly Sanctuary. It’s a playful use of language that somehow feels true, even though I literally did most of these things alone.
I’m also reminded of house numerology, where if you add up the digits in your address, and then come to a number, the number means something. My address adds up to 9, which means “a warm and nurturing home where everyone feels welcome.” That feels true to the sanctuary.
Is there a difference between how you think about visitors to your physical space and how you think about visitors to your website?
I've had a dream to have some kind of ambient notification in both the physical and digital spaces to allow for more cross-pollination of presence. For example, maybe a light shows up in the corner of the apartment to indicate that someone is on the website, or a light in the corner of the website to indicate that someone is physically in the apartment.
It's obvious that in a lot of your web projects that you've drawn inspiration from spaces in the physical world. I wonder on the flip side, if there's anything we can learn from websites in designing physical spaces.
I have this belief that when when an idea is good, or is developed enough, structure can nurture it even further. I think HTML and CSS are pretty structural. Living in a space can also be that way, especially when it's a small space. It’s a little design problem to fit everything.
What's next for the Firefly Sanctuary?
I traveled a lot this summer. While I was away, I thought about the portability of the rituals and routines I cultivated in the sanctuary. I wondered: could the visible, physical things I’ve done in the sanctuary find invisible, mental counterparts?
For example, getting rid of tables could be a metaphor for removing thoughts to create space. The space above the fridge is about paying attention to areas often overlooked. When looking for a solution to a problem, I love to think about which stones I haven’t overturned. In other words, use what’s around you already. Sometimes things simply need to be repositioned or looked at anew to unlock their full potential. That's a strategy of some studio art practices—it's about simply using what's around in your studio and not going elsewhere for materials. Zooming out, that’s also a good strategy for life. What's here and how can I recombine it in new ways?
Another improvement would be to work on my website updating workflow and ritual. Currently, I have one batch of posts that I haven’t updated since earlier this year. It's all hard coded. I’ve been considering using a CMS (content management system), but I’m not completely sure that will make it easier. I might begin thinking about each batch of posts like a new “season” of the Firefly Sanctuary, kind of like a TV show.
It's interesting to think about the fact that you need to hard code all of the entries might have an effect on the physical space. If it was really easy to update the website maybe that would lead to a different way of engaging with the space and redesigning it.
Totally. When I was first writing the posts, I actually wrote a lot of them on this little E-Ink typewriter that saves text files to an SD card called the Pomera DM30. Writing there made things feel less precious and more direct. The length of the posts is good — they're not too long. They're just like, “Oh, I just had this little thought and I want to share it.” When I’m typing into a CMS (content management system), it feels completely different.
In your ideal world, what does the future of the Internet look like?
I return to my original motivation in creating the Firefly Sanctuary: I appreciate whenever someone resists the forces at large and contributes to the web in their own way. This often enables a new way of looking at the world for others. It might encourage connection to realize, “I’m not the only one.”
It worked for me. There's something about the way that you built this, where if it were an Instagram account, maybe I would have felt compelled to comment or share but not have a conversation.
I’m so glad! I’m often thinking about myself as a preteen on the internet. I grew up in a suburb and nobody liked horses like I did. Using the web, I found people I truly connected with through a love of horses. One thing lead to another, and horses lead me to HTML.
I admire a blogger named Winnie Lim who writes about her own personal experience, and in doing so, she is a light for people going through similar things. She says, “I continue to be driven by believing that representation matters … I will keep some random stranger on the internet a little warmer because they will know they are not alone.” I’m also inspired by h0p3, a person who writes on the website philosopher.life. They have a personal axiom that resonates with me: "find the others." And this is literally connected to fireflies: when fireflies shine their light, they are looking for other fireflies in the vast darkness.
That’s a really powerful property of the web. It goes back to the Firefly Sanctuary: it’s about shining our light, remembering that there are others like us, and finding and connecting with them in a way that feels genuine and special.
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Beautiful post. I especially loved the reasonable and level approach to algorithms, and the ways of describing that quiet external voice we all have as a "ping from the universe" and a "whisper of intuition". Thank you.
this was a heart warming read, thank you both <3 I am inspired and my spirit feels rejuvenated/ my heart is full as i read on with wondrous eyes ~ I know that this will bring some meaningful explorations into my life, I will circle back to share when I notice them in the moment ✨