When Decor Becomes Clutter

I discovered something that surprised me when I started preparing my apartment for my impending renovation. I was removing the framed photographs from my living room to keep them safe and to prevent them from getting covered in construction dust. When I had removed most of them, I realized that I like the sparer, emptier look.

When had my decor become clutter?

I started out with framed photos on the mantel of my fireplace, as well as on top of my handsome wooden file cabinets. The photos on the file cabinets did double duty by hiding my cable modem and router.

But as more photos accumulated over the years, I started putting them on the bookshelves in front of the books. A few more things accumulated: a glass plaque commemorating my service on the board of my professional association, an award my husband had won, a framed gift from the cast of a show I had directed.

For many years, one non-negotiable piece of decor was my wedding bouquet, which I had made out of artificial flowers. (You can get away with a lot when it’s a second wedding!) I kept the bouquet in a ceramic vase that my daughter had made in elementary school, making it a double piece of memorabilia.

When I realized that I liked the sparer look, I started reevaluating things. I made the decision that the wedding bouquet had to go. It has been on display for over 28 years, and the white flowers were looking a bit gray. Besides, there is a wedding photo just a few feet away, so the bouquet is well represented there.

As I threw the flowers in the garbage, the punster in me relished the new meaning of “tossing the bouquet”.

When I removed the last of the photos from the mantel, it started to look too bare. So I know that when the renovation is over, I will be putting some of the photos back, just not all of them. I will also be keeping things off the bookshelves. The books are colorful and attractive, and I’m enjoying having them fully visible once again.

Take a look around your home. Have you accumulated so much decor that you feel a little overwhelmed? Is it hard to dust everything? Consider taking everything away and then putting the most important things back one at a time until it seems full enough. That’s what I intend to do.

My photos piled up for safekeeping

Living With Less

Recently I wrote about an impending renovation project in my apartment (see Would You Keep This If You Were Moving?) Well, it’s no longer impending — it’s starting in a few days. Yikes!

In order to get things out of the way for the contractors who will be tearing up parts of my kitchen and bathroom, I’ve been reviewing and relocating stuff. Even though I do that fairly often, I can still find stuff that I don’t use and don’t need. Sometimes we keep something because we have the room for it. But when room becomes scarce, it has to go.

My daughter happened to visiting here a few days ago when I was taking everything out of the kitchen cabinets. She was giving me a needed dose of reality, saying things like, “You’ll never use that again. Get rid of it!” In most cases, she was right.

Everything that we use frequently found a place in the cabinets that didn’t need to emptied. The rest ended up in three piles: stuff that got donated, stuff that went into trash or recycling, and stuff that went home with my daughter. She was enthusiastic about some of my castoffs and I was happy they would get a new life with her.

Although I’m dreading the inconveniences that we’ll be dealing with over the next few months, I’m excited that we will be living with less.

Would You Keep This If You Were Moving?

I think it’s pretty clear that we will keep accumulating stuff until we run out of room. Sometimes we continue even after we’ve run out of room. (That’s usually when people contact a Professional Organizer.)

If you’re someone, like me, who has an abundance of of storage space in your home, then it may take a while before you run out of space. So I’ve developed a question that helps me identify things I should let go of even if I have the space to keep them: “Would I keep this if I were moving?”

Relocating is a great opportunity to revisit everything you own and decide if it has a place in your future life. Unfortunately, many people panic prior to moving and don’t leave themselves enough time to do that. They think they will make those decisions when they are unpacking. But getting resettled into a new home is even more stressful than preparing to vacate your old home, so those decisions don’t get made.

I’m in a quasi-relocating situation right now. I’m about to do some upgrades to my home. This will require us to start living in our second bedroom while work is being done to our bedroom and en suite bath. We haven’t moved in yet, but I’ve been making preparations. I’ve already moved a couple of bookcases from our bedroom to the second bedroom since they will just be in the way of the renovation. This required us to take everything off those shelves, which meant giving them a thorough review. A lot of books got donated — and a lot of magazines and sheet music got recycled — as a result of that exercise.

I will also have to temporarily move out of my bathroom and start sharing my husband’s bathroom. So I’m giving everything in my bathroom the once over. All of the items that I have been keeping “just in case” are getting tossed. I plan to move my daily toiletries and makeup into his bathroom, as well as useful sundries like Band Aids and cold medicine. Everything else will go into boxes. My goal is to minimize what gets stored in a box — just the backup items like extra tubes of toothpaste, since I know I will use those in time.

I will be doing some kitchen upgrades as well and I will have to shift things around in my cabinets to make that work. I plan to revisit everything in my kitchen and ask myself what I am likely to use in the future. I streamlined my cabinets quite a bit already, as I’ve written about in Tricking Out My Kitchen and Changing It Up. But there is always more to get rid of!

Don’t wait until you are relocating to give your stuff the once over. Living with less is much more relaxing than living with too much.

Do You Still Have Travel Books?

When I’m helping clients who are overwhelmed with books, we inevitably come across a collection of travel books on their shelves. In the days before you could easily find information about faraway places via the internet, we relied on glossy, fact-filled books by companies like Fodor’s, Frommer’s, and Baedeker. These books not only had listings of sights to see, they also had recommendations of hotels and restaurants.

Many of my clients are reluctant to part with these books, even though they are decades old. I remind them that the information is now out of date, plus you can get more complete information on-line. Besides, how likely is it that they are going to visit that place again?

That’s good logical reasoning, but their connection to these books is usually more emotional than logical. These books represent some wonderful memories. They have transcended the category of books and have become memorabilia. But they are memorabilia that are taking up valuable space.

Sometimes the client will say, “I like to look at these books and remind myself of the places I visited.” My response to that is, “When is the last time you looked at one of these books?” The answer is usually, “Not since I took the trip 25 years ago.”

So what is the solution to this dilemma? If you are overwhelmed with books and trying to downsize, take a few minutes and flip through each of these travel books. Does looking at it give you the pleasure that you expected? Or are the memories you have, and the photos you took, more valuable to you than what’s in the books?

There are probably some books that have more of an emotional pull than others. Keep the ones that mean the most to you, and let go of the rest.

Space as a Finite Resource

I think we are all used to the idea of money as a finite resource. But space is a finite resource as well — not just for those of us who live in small homes, but for everyone. Even if you have an attic, basement, or garage to stash the stuff you aren’t using, eventually it will be so full that you will have to deal with it.

One way to avoid coming up against space limitations is to use them as an ally and not an enemy. Use space to help determine how much you own.

Here’s an example of this. I love cardigan sweaters. (For those of you not up on your fashion terms, a cardigan sweater is a sweater that opens in the front, as opposed to a pullover.) I wear them over turtlenecks in the winter, and I carry one with me in the summer to combat over-cooled restaurants and subway trains. But I can’t have an unlimited number of cardigan sweaters because space is finite resource.

So I have allocated one — and only one — drawer in my dresser for my beloved cardigans. That drawer is always full. If I decide to buy another sweater, I need to figure out which sweater to get rid of. Embracing my space limitations forces me to make choices, which is the key to avoiding clutter. And I can always find the sweater I’m looking for, because they are limited to just one place.

You can apply this method to anywhere in your home. When your bookcases are full and you want to buy another book, figure out which book(s) to give away. Don’t start putting books somewhere else (where you will never find them again) or lay them horizontally across the standing books or start another row of books in front of the existing books. That, my friend, is clutter.

Once you’ve allocated the space for a particular type of item, stick with it. If it’s something that gets used up — like toilet paper or breakfast cereal — you will easily be able to see when you are running low and need to buy more. If it’s something that doesn’t get used up — like handbags or neckties — having a limited number will enable you to find what you are looking for faster and more easily.