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Sweeping with the Enemy or a Broom with a View

July 24, 2010

When I was still a cable subscriber I spent most of my viewing time toggling between TNT and HGTV. I watched so much Law & Order and Mission: Organization, sometimes when I fell asleep I dreamed of Briscoe and Green investigated murders in between helping homeowners declutter and organized their suburban homes. As a decluttering/organization junkie, what I often found disappointing was the shows never did a six week – forget six months – follow up to see how well those cookie cutter “organizational” system solutions were holding up. I’m a vertical stacker, with a “hide it in a box” approach to organization. Yet, these organization shows featured solutions I know I wouldn’t be able to sustain. I don’t subscribe to the “zone” theory of room arrangement or organization, mostly because it assumes a lot of commonality about the way folks use their space at best and at worse it tends to be overly dogmatic and prescriptive regarding how folks ought to use their space. If you aren’t big on cooking – I’m not – why would you need to organize your kitchen the way a foodie might? If you don’t have tons of dinner parties, there’s no need to turn otherwise usable space into a carefully curated shrine to someone else’s opinion about the appropriate use of that space. I had more dinner parties before I had a table in the dining room (see what I did there?) than I do now. I also take issue with the concept of single use furnishings. I don’t have a “dining” table. I have tables throughout my place that also work in the space that could be currently considered the dining room. Though truth be told, I eat 90% of my meals seated on my Click-Clack using a Lack side table. Sometimes I even – gasp – eat meals standing at the kitchen counter while flipping through a magazine or book!

Carrie Bradshaw's apartment. How much do I love this decor!

Organization shows ask occupants to conceptualize the kind of person they’d like to be, rather than the person they are. This aspirational framing makes for dramatic reveals, featuring an array of attractive furnishing, storage and organization solutions, but how do those people actually live in those new spaces? Naturally, I advocate a different approach. Some people don’t find super clean homes inviting. Some people enjoy a bit of clutter. Some people love to clean; other people hate it. Universalizing the idea of “home” as a place that must be orderly and uber clean as though it’s the only way a person thrives in their living environment is pretty fatuous. I enjoy cleaning, but I don’t impose my standards on other people, nor do I think my level of home interaction is realistic for folks. Homes and decor needs to serve the people who live there currently and not the people they aspire to be. If your space becomes overwhelming, the last thing needed is some outsider’s intrusion into your life. For one thing, they aren’t YOU. In addition, they don’t LIVE there. You live there. You know what areas are the most inviting (to you) and what areas you avoid. You know your deal breakers and things that aren’t a big deal to you. I am not a person who cares about fine crockery or cookware, but I am somewhat picky about cheap pillows! I need a certain kind of cheap pillow, which seem only available during back-to-school season and January “White Sales” and I time my purchases accordingly. I own 30 pillowcases and four fitted sheets. I do not like books on bookcases and keep mine tucked away in baskets or attractive boxes (I love looking at other people’s bookcases). If I can’t imagine four uses – other than its intended use – I don’t purchase it. I prefer to have guests sleep in my bed since I’m a night owl and would rather have free range of the rest of the house, and for the most part, I don’t really sleep in there when I don’t have guests. Yet, I want a cool looking bedroom, mostly so I can stand in the doorway admiring it on my way to the Click Clack where I usually sleep! These revelations about my living environment were discovered through trial and error. I got quite the lesson early this Spring when I realized I hated my carefully decorated home office! Now it’s been reverted to its Room of Broken Dreams status and most likely it’ll become some kind of guest room.

One of my favorite bedrooms from cinema!

If you're about to embark on a new decorating/organization project, in the middle of one, or feeling underwhelmed by a completed project – stop. Grab a pen and pad and start writing about the things in your space that frustrate you and things you feel obligated to change, but are unnecessary based on your existing lifestyle needs. Like a lot of things in life, sometimes it's helpful to let go of the tail-chasing aspirations and obligations and embrace the realistic desires, whose simplicity and sexiness just might surprise you. I have a friend who owns tons of extravagant and luxurious linens, a decadent bed, gorgeous glassware and the rest of her place is pretty bland and spare. She’s one of the most house happy people I know.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Teaspoon permalink
    July 24, 2010 1:24 pm

    Thank you for this. Intellectually, I know that my house will never look like those TV organizatiopalooza spaces, because I really don’t give a damn that my clean clothes invariably end up in a pile on the storage totes that share my bedroom. I have better things to do with my time than to blow an hour on putting stuff on hangers. I’d rather be cruising my favorite bloggers or outside, plotting what I will do with the landscaping first if I end up buying the house I’m renting.

    It helps to be reminded that not creating the space they show on the little box does not make me a failure of any sort.

  2. July 24, 2010 1:44 pm

    You’re welcome. I enjoy watching the shows the way I enjoy watching exercise videos: it’s nice to watch other people having a good time engaged in activities I enjoy, but don’t particularly want to do in the same manner they do.

    Cleaning, decluttering, redecorating and organizing are stress reducing activities for me. I don’t garden, but based on my friends who do, my level of serenity while engaged in an especially ambitious project seems to mirror the satisfaction they experience while gardening.

  3. Teaspoon permalink
    July 24, 2010 3:15 pm

    You mean people can be, like, individuals, with totally different tastes and stuff? Who knew?

    I do like to watch the get organized! shows, because I love to look at containers of all sorts. Boxes, baskets, bookcases, bureaus…I love seeing how other people use them, how they arrange them, how they choose their colors and styles. I’m always dragging Mr. Teaspoon down the container aisles in big box stores — just to look! Sometimes I find one I like, and I add it to the list of things that might be neat to try, for when I have a place to try them. I’ve yet to see an organization show that turned out a result I could actually live in without feeling like I was in somebody else’s house, though.

    Now, the remodeling shows that involve ripping stuff out and rebuilding it? Those speak to me. Possibly because my current house (which I love, and do hope to buy!) needs some tough love in the upgrades department, being 1930s-ish construction. You know the butt-method for measuring kitchens? Sized by the number of butts you can have in them without bumping them into each other? I have a half-butt kitchen. Can’t turn around in there by myself without my rear bumper banging into something. There is exactly enough room to open the oven door between the oven and the under-sink cabinet across from it. I have to use it from the side. But I have a huge dining room that I don’t use! And they are only separated by the counter with the sink! I could have a five butt kitchen with some remodeling! Five. Butt. Kitchen. I would use the hell out of that.

  4. Lani permalink
    July 24, 2010 5:03 pm

    I do like to watch the get organized! shows, because I love to look at containers of all sorts. Boxes, baskets, bookcases, bureaus…I love seeing how other people use them, how they arrange them, how they choose their colors and styles.

    I feel the exact same way. I like watching a lot of those shows, but I have come to the realization that I will never be able to reproduce the results. I also subscribe to Snarky’s “hide it in a box” method of organization/declutter, which I find works for me. (The interiors of the boxes are never themselves organized.)

    I’m thinking a lot about this kind of stuff right now because I’m moving into a smaller place and I’ve been going through my things with the intention of getting rid of a lot of it. It is always interesting to me the kind of things I manage to accumulate (this morning I found a grocery list from 2008 that I’d put in a box of letters, for whatever reason). I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that organizing a space isn’t something I do in a weekend, but a process that I will continuously pick at from time to time.

    Thanks for the post and the tips, Snarky. I think your approach to your space is fantastic.

  5. July 24, 2010 5:12 pm

    I also subscribe to Snarky’s “hide it in a box” method of organization/declutter, which I find works for me. (The interiors of the boxes are never themselves organized.)

    Ha! Yeah, folks probably don’t want to open my boxes. The best thing one can say is many are a treasure hunt unto themselves!

    I’m thinking a lot about this kind of stuff right now because I’m moving into a smaller place and I’ve been going through my things with the intention of getting rid of a lot of it. It is always interesting to me the kind of things I manage to accumulate (this morning I found a grocery list from 2008 that I’d put in a box of letters, for whatever reason).

    Ooh, did you keep the list? I love finding stuff like that. It’s a nice little trip down memory lane. And thank you so much for you kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. July 24, 2010 5:15 pm

    For a long time I’ve subscribed to the “standard” way of doing things, and now I’m scared but excited about having an opportunity to rethink some of my assumptions about my living space. For example, I’ve often felt guilty about the amount of time I like to spend on my bed. Which is part of why I’m looking forward to moving my bedroom downstairs to be nearer the main living areas — family room and kitchen. I also love love love to have bracket shelves because the closest I ever get to organization tends to be keeping things off the floor, which for me translates into a need for lots of horizontal surface area.

    So thanks for emboldening me to question the dominant paradigm!

  7. Octavia on her phone permalink
    July 25, 2010 3:14 am

    This post excites me like anything! It’s very true, space is so personal and that is rarely considered on clean-up shows. My husband and I recently realised that why we were inspired to do something with our house recently but hadn’t been before was that we’ve only now started to think about the space WE need, as opposed to what we ‘should’ have. For example we have a very modern breakfast bar that we don’t use, but the husband had the idea of a coffee area with a couple of low squishy seats. We love coffee, and the space is actually used. We had never once used the breakfast bar stools for their intended purpose, though they ‘looked’ the part. Similarly though Apartment Therapy et al give the idea that a messy & undecorated office is basically unforgiveable, we neither care nor notice if there are decorations or colour in this particular space so it would be a waste. It’s the room in our apartment that is completely bare save office products, which suits us down to the ground. Also working from home I DON’T want to be motivated to just stay in there after work or I hermit too much even for me. This post has inspired me further, thank you! (I think I’ve written a novel sorry, it’s hard to tell on my phone. And also to paragraph.)

  8. Lani permalink
    July 25, 2010 9:31 am

    Ooh, did you keep the list?

    Hehe, I did! For now at least. I’m pretty sure it’s something I should toss, but you’re right it’s such a trip down memory lane that I couldn’t bring myself to do it right then. Maybe next week! 🙂

  9. Teaspoon permalink
    July 25, 2010 7:44 pm

    I saw this new product by Ikea* and thought of this post.

    *Actual Ikeaness may vary.

  10. hsofia permalink
    July 25, 2010 10:26 pm

    This was perfect for me to read right now. We’ve just moved and I’m unloading some things and about to set up my office. We’re getting rid of our dining set because it basically just collected junk (mail, magazines, anything that we didn’t feel like putting away right away). And also, because we wanted to use that dining space as an extension of our living room – more space for books, reading, and our child’s play things. I am really happy about this. I need to re-read this post every day until we’re all settled in!

  11. July 26, 2010 8:32 am

    You know, I actually talk to my *therapist* about this. I get really anxious about my house not being perfect, but then I can’t even really identify whose “perfect” I’m talking about. Thanks for the post, and thanks y’all for sharing in the comments… This will definitely be a post I come back to when I am feeling stressed!

  12. IrishUp permalink
    July 26, 2010 6:26 pm

    “Cleaning, decluttering, redecorating and organizing are stress reducing activities for me.”

    Seconded! I always feel like the chaos on the OUTSIDE of my control should not, cannot, and will not be reflected in the areas inside my control. To that end, stacks, boxes, shelving and drawers are basic needs of my mental functioning.

    Our kitchen is in DIRE need of remodeling – the more so because it’s a 120sqf space, 80sqf of which is occupied by appliances, and yet it STILL is where everyone winds up at our social gatherings. I love kitchens for this reason – the food and the eating and the people. I have become a better cook, but that’s mostly so I can hang out and eat with people.

    Although we intend to do most of the work ourselves, with the help of IKEA, we did spend some moola for an architecht to do the structural bits (which we will have some friends from RISD turn into a safe building!). This architecht was recommended b/c he was cheap. HOWEVER, I wound up in about $200 worth of arguments with him over my kitchen design – dominated by our black high back Chambers stove and big bar seating type island plus cafe tables, and our new bathroom which, to make room for enlarged kitchen, I made smaller by the expedient of removing a shower/bath STALL. I requested that instead the it be all tiled, with a shower head in the far corner (kitty to the loo), drain underneath and a floor that sloped down towards the drain within a tiled lip. Stodgy architect comes back with draft after draft of conventional kitchen/bath! Finally, on the third round, I grabbed an egg timer. I pushed the button and said “Now we’re arguing on YOUR time. Fire away, say what you want. You won’t convince me, and I won’t have to pay you, and I’m not paying for ONE MORE SECOND of your time that doesn’t lead to the drawings I asked you to do. Have at!”

    Well, 5 years later I have the drawings and the dream, anyway!

  13. IrishUp permalink
    July 26, 2010 6:27 pm

    Hmm, I tried embedding this video. Sigh, my HTML still sux.

  14. July 27, 2010 10:49 am

    Oh, decorating shows! Such a love/hate relationship we have.

    This reminded me of a Domino (r.i.p.) article where a man was talking about decorating his house, and that “decorating was expensive”, so he wanted to make his 2 year old son’s room something classic that didn’t have to be redecorated again. So, classic involved super spendy Lucite lamps (that wouldn’t shatter if dropped) and a wall treatment that involved SPRAYING THE WALL WITH MARBLE DUST so that it looked like the inside of a shell. It also involved the hilarious mention of a “flea market desk”…. that was then COVERED IN FAUX OSTRICH. Now that’s great that he wanted to find nice, well made pieces that would stand up to time and a small child, but how presumptuous of the dad is to think that his son won’t grow up to want to plaster his room with punk rock fliers or paint his own walls or cover it with tiger beat pictures? Not only was the article a massive fail on the point of this dude being frugal (sorry Domino, but if you’re frugal you don’t spray your walls with marble dust), but I felt sorry for that poor kid who is going to have to live with that assy taxidermy-ed swordfish that your dad thought was classic hanging over your bed until you escape to college.

  15. July 27, 2010 11:05 am

    We ended a lot of our “clothing and belts on the bed, floor, chair, etc” problem by putting hooks up everywhere. Hooks. Everywhere. And baskets in places where random stuff (keys, change, lego people heads, etc) normally accumulate, to contain that stuff. What WERE we doing, and how can we CONTAIN what we were doing?

    We still live in a mess, but it’s a slightly better mess.

    I love org shows and magazine articles because they can give me ideas, but a lot of them are very eye-roll-y. Even if they don’t involve spraying walls down with marble dust, they often include things like people who have closets larger than my living room, or really expensive shelving units or whatever. They just aren’t solutions for non-wealthy people.

    I do fall victim to the fallacy of “now I have the perfect home organization solution and my entire life will be totally and entirely improved!” However, I totally found the perfect hanging closet organizer for my son’s room and now my life is about 35% improved so that is SOMETHING at any rate.

  16. July 27, 2010 12:08 pm

    @poplife – I miss Domino, but saw the end coming when editors seemed unable to accept there was a RECESSION/ECONOMIC CRISIS and nobody wants to be told that lucite/acrylic furnishings like the “Ghost” chair or Kartell’s “Bougie” lamps (each well into the 100s of dollars) were a requirement for the well-furnished home! In addition, the ikea snobbery probably got to be a bit overwhelming. Most people who adore decor probably don’t have unlimited budgets. Most of the time, for what the editors spent on ONE item, I could use to furnish my entire home. In fact, as a challenge, that’s exactly what I did. I rehabbed the death star with $200.00 (75% of it was proceeds from selling off OTHER things) and a map to ikea. (thrift stores around here have hapless and hopeless 80s 3’s company laminate furniture which usually costs more than less cat piss ridden pieces from ikea.)

    @Brigid: So true. I think the magazines work best when used as inspiration. I think they labor under the delusion they are relevant for anything other than inspiration. Most people don’t really need to spend 4k for a couch when a $300 couch does just fine or a nice thrifted one. Also, most people really underestimate how long they’ll want to deal with/stare at/use a piece of furniture; clutter happens when people spend too much on an item, thus are unable to let go it when it no longer meets the needs of the household.

  17. badhedgehog permalink
    July 27, 2010 3:36 pm

    The aspirational thing of designing and decorating for the person you’d like to be rather than the person you are is quite explicit on some shows. It tells people that the person they are isn’t suitable or good enough for “nice things”. It also suggests that the person they ought to want to be would use space in a conventional way, and would have conveniently similar taste in decor to the programme’s style/organisation guru.

    @Octavia – you have an office where colour and style are irrelevant, too! We’ve lived in this house for 10 years, and the home office is the one room that we have done bugger-all with (except for putting some photos on the wall), and can’t really be bothered doing anything with, for exactly the same reasons you give.

  18. July 27, 2010 4:40 pm

    I have to echo the fact that this post is timely for me as well. I have recently moved from a monster mess of a two bedroom apartment into a studio, which has been an incredible exercise in downsizing. Clutter was a dysfunctional way of life for so long I had to use this move as an opportunity to de-clutter, but as you’ve stated all the “how to” shows and books were not feasible for me– I am notoriously cheap, and have a strict landlord so there won’t be tons of wall unit shelving, that requires lots of holes in the walls, even though some of it appeals to me. (I really like the Umbra Conceal Wall book shelf) I am still sorting through various outlets to make my studio my relatively neat slice of heaven. One of the thing about those shows (and I haven’t seen one in awhile) is that they often made things seem as if they had to happen overnight. “Going from chaos to calm in twenty-four hours!” isn’t in my range of powers, but being patient with myself, tidying a little bit everyday and allowing that some pieces of furniture and accents will come later in the process is.

    Once again, I enjoyed reading such a smart, thoughtful post.


  19. August 3, 2010 9:21 am

    As someone else blessed with ADD, I’ve read dozens and dozens of organizing books. The only one I own is Julie Morgenstern’s because her philosophy is all about the process and making your space and the things you want / need work *for you.* She even has anecdotes about offices where the person has what to others looks messy, but is in fact organized and working for them. Sure, she has guidelines and suggestions on stuff to toss or keep or zones to consider, but it’s all about analyzing *your life* and making it work for you. The first three chapters I think are on analysis, starting with what’s already working.

    I can’t watch those organizing shows on cable. Not just because I don’t have cable, but I start yelling at the TV: “Don’t throw it in the trash! Freecycle, Goodwill, recycle, rummage!” And there is, as you imply, so much classism and paternalistic judgmental attitudes in the shows.

    I love your ideas about repurposing areas and rotating your desk among a set of empty tables. In my new apartment, I placed my old wooden desk in the bedroom, using the drawers for medicine, my tights collection, jewelry, and a few pens & papers. One of my favorite German phrases for a household is “zweck entfremdet,” which I suppose you could translate as repurpose, but “zweck entfremdet” just feels more decisive and bold about creatively separating an object from its original purpose.

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