The Joy of Clutter: What Marie Kondo Got Wrong
We’re in danger of Marie Kondo-ing our way to empty lives. An artful pile of meaningful objects can be richly autobiographical. But you need a good eye—or these tips from design pros
I AM AN UNABASHED magpie; tchotchkes dot the hill I will die on. They’re mostly vacation mementos, like the silver, Victorian, mussel-shaped “match safe” that I splurged on in a Rome antique shop with my newly minted fiancé. I keep other dust-collectors at hand for a reason. My husband and I are trying to eliminate most of our screen time at home, and having books and playing cards within reach makes it much easier to resist our phones. Besides, the cards are beautiful and graphic.
Yes, some of my knickknacks spark joy, the quality that Japanese organizing dynamo Marie Kondo demands one’s possessions trigger to be deemed worth keeping. But, though I’m sure her 2014 book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” has helped many of the millions of people in 42 regions and countries who’ve bought it stave off hoarding tendencies (now a bona fide mental-illness diagnosis), I’ve always found the bar she sets a little lofty and specific.
My silver mussel certainly conjures the romantic high that buoyed my husband and me through Rome after we became engaged. But other items, with which I feel no less connected, evoke more-nuanced emotions that could hardly be called joy. In that category: the kaleidoscope that my late Aunt Linda made out of stained glass and a marble when she was saddled with MS. I’m nothing but wistful when I look at it. Or the matches I swiped from an Oklahoma restaurant I visited with my dad when I was reviewing it undercover for the New York Times. My hard-won assignment left him teary-eyed with pride, and when I look at the matches I feel a sense of achievement, nostalgia, gratitude—take your pick.
Clutter gets a bad rap. Researchers have found that a muddle of objects can actually jolt creativity. Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, conducted studies in which people were led into a spotless or cluttered room, then tasked with imagining inventive uses for a surplus of ping-pong balls. “The people in messier rooms came up with more creative solutions,” Ms. Vohs said. Their ideas included turning the white plastic orbs into earrings or popping them on chair feet to protect floors. “People in tidy rooms wrote things like, ‘You could use them for Ping-Pong.’”
When she discusses her findings with her students, Ms. Vohs references images of the disheveled office of Albert Einstein, who famously asked, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Other disorganized world-beaters: Mark Twain, Frida Kahlo, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan Sontag and Steve Jobs. Yes, the man who transformed personal technology from mundane, clunky devices to elegant, minimalist machines was the dude with the pigsty desk.
Americans acquire a lot of junk we don’t need. In a study of 2,000 people commissioned by Slickdeals, a website that crowdsources bargains, the amount spent on impulse buys averaged $450 a month. And that soulless schlock you giddily carted home after a rainy afternoon at HomeGoods can undo your décor. As Los Angeles designer Kerry Joyce declared, “If the objects feel personal or collected, they will not feel like clutter.”
Especially if they’re artfully displayed. That’s where the counsel of designers comes in. New York-based design pro Thomas Jayne, for instance, advised that amassing your mess within one designated piece of furniture tricks the eye into seeing it all as one. “I like small treasures and the tales they tell but not on the loose,” he said. In his New Orleans home, an old bookcase with glass doors holds the random bits from life there—a golden mask from Mardi Gras, a cannonball from the Battle of New Orleans. “Because they’re all in a display cabinet, they form an interest in their randomness.”
As if in testament to the timelessness of quality clutter, millennials are picking up the vitrines and curio cabinets their grandparents had sloughed off. Los Angeles designer Oliver M. Furth has installed half a dozen vitrines in the last few years, including a 1940s Queen Anne cherry-wood display cabinet that’s now a tidy, dust-free domicile for his millennial client’s inherited heap of Blue Willow porcelain. “For a long time there was a movement away from what our parents or grandparents had. Now I think that people are adopting pieces of furniture that maybe made sense,” he said. Meanwhile, these bibelot corrals come cheap: A rosewood 1960s Norwegian Curio cabinet on resale site chairish.com is on sale for $750. A simple, 6-feet-tall vitrine with curved-glass sides sold on auction site EBTH.com for $75. “People don’t want bitty things all over the house,” he said, “but they still want to have things, and [a vitrine] serves that purpose well.”
L.A. designer Jeff Andrews suggests rethinking your display now and then; even significant objects can lose their charge when they’re static. “If I get really bored and need a change, I’ll take everything off different surfaces in an entire room and redistribute them,” he said. “You’re looking at the same stuff but seeing it differently, and you appreciate it again.” It’s also vital to build in some breathing room. “It starts to look hoardery if there’s something on every surface,” advised Portland, Ore., designer Max Humphrey.
Clutter can be a pressure point for cohabitating couples, especially when one prefers the life ascetic and the other can’t pass up a bargain or a beckoning collectible. The husband of one of Mr. Andrews’s clients finds resonant meaning in KISS memorabilia, “and she hated it, clearly,” he said. The solution: turning his master closet into a dressing-room-cum-KISS-shrine, hidden from her view.
“My husband was really opposed to the idea of having a lot of stuff in our bedroom,” said boho Los Angeles designer Justina Blakeney. “He wanted to feel relaxed, and people can feel sort of stressed by too much stuff around.” Their compromise: lining their bedroom with wallpaper she designed that features bold, gold palm leaves. The pattern satisfies her hunger for maximalism without triggering his anxious response to objects that need dusting and just-so arranging.
When Gloria Vanderbilt said “decorating is autobiography,” she was likely referencing the sort of memento that insurance broker Patti Weinberg wanted to display. Ms. Weinberg and photographer Scott Frances wed at age 50 and had to fuse decades of (literal) baggage from separate lives into their Sag Harbor, N.Y., home. Though neither smoke, she clung to a blue-enamel ’60s ashtray she’d inherited from her parents. “It actually brings me comfort to be surrounded by their stuff, because they’re no longer with us,” Ms. Weinberg said.
Ultimately, a bit of decorative messiness can make a space feel homey, said Ms. Vohs. “It’s like when people have beach hair—it’s well done but has a little bit of muss to it, so you know the person is fun to hang out with.”
Law & Hoarder: How to Do Clutter Right
Aerate Your Collections
Los Angeles designer Kerry Joyce takes his clients’ collections very seriously. In this Manhattan dining room, he hung the homeowner’s cocktail party of portraits from the 1860s to the 1920s. But he kept it (relatively) buoyant: “We painted the room a pale aqua color—which brightened what would have been a rather dank room since it had only one window and faced a shady courtyard.” The designer then interspersed the paintings with light-catching antiqued restoration glass in shapes as varied as those of the paintings but uniformly framed in simple frames painted a matte Gustavian gray. “The mirrors were the perfect way to lighten the ambience; had it all been portraits, the effect would have been too heavy, and perhaps serious.” Mr. Joyce advises hanging only what you honestly love. “Filler art will show right away.”
Ask Your Treasurers to Tell a Story
To turn her detached garage in Los Angeles’s Frogtown neighborhood into a hangout “casita,” Justina Blakeney installed rounded niches with reclaimed wood shelves into the walls, lending an Old World feel, then stocked them with loot: among other things, an Indian hand-embroidered bull figurine from the Rose Bowl Flea Market, a bowl she bought at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market, a burro’s-tail succulent in a ceramic pot. “For me, [clutter has] always been about storytelling,” she said. “When you’re cooking, you use certain flavors to enhance other flavors, like pairing basil with tomato seems to make them taste better. The same thing can work with a visual conversation—it helps all the elements look their best.” Fellow Angeleno designer Betsy Burnham also sets up a narrative with diverse materials. “To offset glossy, chunky pottery, I have something wicker or rattan or wood to give it an organic vibe, or something shiny, new and hard-edge.” Ms. Blakeney noted cohering strategies as well: The items take up the same amount of visual weight, and the repetition of terra cotta on each shelf ties the horde of objects together.
Loud, Proud...And in the Other Room
When Thomas Jayne and his husband, food stylist Rick Ellis, moved into their SoHo loft in Manhattan, they fashioned a separate space for their many collections, inspired by the Kunstkammers (or, cabinets of curiosities) of 18th-century Germany. Their lifetimes’ worth of finds—including Renaissance bronzes, German deer antlers, whale vertebrae—become a de facto museum, visually balanced by the two windows, the daybed flanked by identical arm chairs and a symmetrically placed pair of 1870s cast iron plant urns. “I call it calculated chaos,” Mr. Ellis said. Added Mr. Jayne, “The Dutch chandelier and big metal urns are centering devices.” Spreading lots of little bits about the loft would litter the place. “Massed together in concentration, everything looks good,” he said.
Invite the Eye to Wander
“You’ve got to think about things in terms of a skyline,” said Max Humphrey, a designer in Portland, Ore. “Your eye wants to travel around the room and be starting and stopping and moving up and down. If everything’s on one level, it looks like Washington, D.C., which is no good,” he said, referring to the capital’s legendary restriction that no building be taller than the federal buildings there. Atop a credenza in this living room of a 1910 Georgian-style house in Portland, Ore., Mr. Humphrey placed lanky mercury glass vases alongside squat, hexagonal brass candle holders and books laid on their side. To the left, cloud-shaped ceramic “wall pillows” by New York City artist Stepanka Summer ensure that the symmetry doesn’t get too formal and finicky. They also draw the eye up, as does the framed movie poster. Said New York stylist Hilary Robertson, author of the newly revised “The Stuff of Life: Arranging Things Ordinary & Extraordinary” (Ryland Peters & Small), “Varying scale is really the key to having things on your tables. In all fashion photographs, they always have something that’s a little off—the play of big and small.” She recommends using an oversize item, like a vase, plant pot or stack of art books, as a grounding element.