Why It's Okay to Have Clutter In Your Life
Clinical white walls and sparkling surfaces? So last year. In 2017 it's all about letting go of your inner Kondo
I used to have a recurring dream in which I walked through a previously unnoticed door at home, only to find myself in a secret extension, painted sparkling white and devoid of furniture. I would wake with a sensation of wistful regret.
For a brief period, you see, this dream had seemed to be a possibility, after I discovered Marie Kondo’s seminal work, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. Kondo’s philosophy appeared simple yet irresistible: you should own nothing that does not spark joy. Falling on her book with the zeal of a convert, I promised myself that I would obey her instructions and completely purge my house in six months.
At first, it was so easy. The 62 supermarket bags for life that lurked in a broken laundry basket sparked no joy (especially as I never remembered to take them with me to the shops). The holey tights that slowed me down every morning, as I tried and discarded pair after pair, followed them straight into the bin.
A friend organised a timely “shwopping” event in aid of a cancer charity and I handed over two rubbish bags of designer mistakes, including a pair of agonisingly painful Chanel heels and a made-to-measure jacket that no longer fitted.
For the first time in years, I could see the back of my wardrobe. My T-shirts, now colour co-ordinated, were carefully folded, my sock drawer looked like a bento box, and I felt purged and pure, as if I’d been on a fast.
Instead of falling on an assortment of ornaments, books, photographs, dried flowers, hairbands, dead batteries and novelty rubbers, my eye skated over clean, polished surfaces. I proselytised to my family; “koning” became part of our domestic vocabulary. I shelled out on see-through shoe boxes and under-bed receptacles.
Alarmed by my zeal, my husband banned me from his study. I itched to get my hands on the tottering piles of books, the heaps of papers on his desk, next to the broken light-up bar sign, the collection of toy vintage aeroplanes, the stuffed bird and every home-made birthday card he had ever received.
My daughters were equally resistant: mindful of Kondo’s insistence that throwing away other people’s stuff is not good etiquette, I spent a fruitless weekend trying to persuade them to prune their menagerie of teddies.
In the end, I decided to tackle the fridge; not the inside (which is frankly always a little too bare) but the exterior. I’d spent a fortune on a silver fridge, but you could barely see it beneath the novelty magnets (bought on every family trip), amusing newspaper headlines I’d cut out, photographs, shopping lists and school forms — the miscellaneous stuff Kondo lumps together as “komono”.
I swept everything into the recycling bin and waited for that familiar little thrill at the sight of another clear surface. My response startled me. I realised to my surprise that my denuded fridge looked bland, while the room appeared shabbier than before.
The eye, as Diana Vreeland famously declared, has to travel. Deprived of anything interesting to travel to, my eye was fixing on irritating details. How had I previously never noticed the mould stain behind the kitchen tap, the sagging slope of the kitchen ceiling? That creative clutter on the fridge had been camouflage for mess elsewhere: the crumbs on the counter, the tangle of phone chargers.
I was reminded, suddenly, of a visit to the house of a renowned minimalist architect. Photographed for a glossy magazine, it had looked inspirationally Zen, but when I was actually invited in, I was startled by how untidy a few scattered toys had made it.
The effect in my sitting room was even worse. I had cleared the mantelpiece of its jumble of photographs, candles, flowers and bowls. The room just looked a little smaller, a little darker, and, now that the heaps of cushions had been removed from the sofa, the dog’s muddy paw prints were horribly visible all over the upholstery.
The phone rang. I had a brief resurgence of enthusiasm when I realised how easy it was to find, no longer buried under heaps of newspapers. It was the friend who’d organised the shwopping event: as I’d donated such a lot, she’d picked me out a particularly nice pair of shoes as a thank you.
Without pausing to reflect, I leapt in the car and drove over. Admiring the green stilettos she handed me, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, my old made-to-measure jacket hanging, unloved and unwanted, on the rail. It reminded me painfully of my carefree youth, when I had had the time and money to be chic and slender. How could I bin it so casually? Furtively, I slipped it off the hanger and over my arm.
Putting it back in my wardrobe gave me even more joy than I had felt discarding it in the first place. To have any hope of leading a decluttered existence, I realised I would have to get rid of my magpie instincts before trying to bin anything else.
The trouble is, I have always been a collector. As a child, I loved jumble sales and buying doll’s house furniture; as a teenager, I accumulated bags of vintage clothes. Latterly, my long-suffering family were forced to accommodate my brief but intense passion for antique copper pans.
Another year, I became obsessed with antique linen sheets. Then there’s a wall of vintage fashion drawings that needs constant replenishing, and who can resist art-deco coffee pots, let alone those mugs that look like Penguin Classics?
Last Christmas, I asked my in-laws to give me a teapot with legs, to match the sugar basin and milk jug I’d treated myself to; the year before, I requested an antique nutcracker in the shape of a dog. Would I really feel happier if I divested myself of all this komono, and was surrounded instead by bare shelves and blank walls? I feared not.
And anyway, that wouldn’t deal with the issue of my husband’s ever-growing antique butterfly collection, his fondness for odd taxidermy (last birthday, he requested a stuffed boar’s head), his 300 records (though we don’t have a record player) and the political cartoons with which he has festooned the downstairs loo?
So I gave in and, with a sigh of relief, allowed myself to revel in these beloved bits of tat. Minimalism, I realised, wasn’t morally superior to the alternative, it was just another aesthetic choice.
Nevertheless, I had learned one really valuable lesson: I was under no obligation to hang on to things I didn’t like, just because I had spent money on them. With a lifted heart, I binned all the plastic storage boxes along with the library of decluttering books. They no longer sparked joy.
With this new, relaxed approach in mind, I went looking for my own design philosopher. I found her in the shape of the interior decorator and writer Rita Konig.
Visiting her west London apartment for an interior-design workshop, I found pictures hung to the ceiling, walls painted in rich colours, and lamps, books and quirky ornaments on every surface. In short, it was the home of my dreams: the cosiest and most appealing place one could imagine.
Naturally, she too disapproves of the minimalist aesthetic. “People are afraid of their own stuff,” she tells me. “My feeling is that you have to give in to your own taste and style, because you were born with it. So often, when they declutter, people throw away the things that make their house their own. I think it’s rather a shame, this Ikea life.”
Far from merely being clutter, one’s furniture and ornaments delineate and define space, she says. “If you add a console table to your hall, for instance, you turn it from a corridor into a room.”
Inspired, I returned home with permission to fill it with more stuff. I offered a home to a friend’s discarded sofa, which meant that for the first time, we could all sit in comfort, rather than battling for bottom space with the dog. I dug out a folding cafe table from its hiding place behind the piano and resurrected several lamps that had been retired to storage. The sitting-room just seemed to expand in response, and to invite us all to sit down and enjoy it.
Who can fail to have noticed that the decluttering tide is turning? In these interesting times it seems obvious that one requires a security blanket — and other soft furnishings — to ward off the chill winds of economic and political uncertainty.
Last year’s minimalism has been replaced by this season’s “hygge”, requiring investment in furry throws, plenty of candles and cashmere socks, while sales of printed books (to restock those empty shelves) are on the rise for the first time in years.
That’s not to say that one should not declutter at all; but the goal is not, as I once believed, to end up with as little as possible. “Part of the joy of decluttering,” says Konig wisely, “is to reclutter. It’s about giving the good stuff more space. I want to empty my bookcase so I can fill it with new things that I love — I’m looking for some brass pears.”
Perhaps that’s the meaning of my recurring dream: the joy it would spark to fill up those big, blank rooms with shiny copper pans, colourful china and butterflies…
• Lydia Slater is deputy editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country.
— The Daily TelegraphShare this: