When I was a child, my mother would take me to see a friend of hers who lived in an old house riddled with cubby holes and secret spaces. Each time, as we left, the friend would reach into a drawer and press something into my hand as a parting gift: a piece of blue glass, a single pine cone. Once, a white plaster elephant. These, I was meant to understand, were great treasures.
Today that friend might be regarded as a good candidate to appear on the kind of TV show in which a “decluttering professional” arrives, Mary Poppins-style, on the doorstep of a chaotic family home and restores peace and order with the aid of some wicker baskets and a label printer.
We were set on this path by organiser-in-chief Marie Kondo, whose bestselling books evangelised the “life-changing magic of tidying up”. A ceremonial purge, she promised, would purify our souls as well as the cupboard under the stairs. It sounded extremely good. So much so that there was uproar last week at the news that Kondo has relaxed her standards now that she has three kids to look after. “My home is messy, but the way I am spending my time is the right way for me . . . at this stage of my life,” she said.
The reaction ranged from schadenfreude to fury: had all those hours of meticulously folding our underwear really been for nothing? If Kondo was ready to give up on tidying then perhaps it did not hold life-changing magic after all — perhaps it was just a massive, self-inflicted pain in the arse.
When did we get so organised? Since Covid-19 forced us to spend long days at home contemplating our clutter at close range, the maxim “a place for everything and everything in its place” has become almost a moral imperative. The popularity of decluttering TV programmes — with titles like Sort Your Life Out, Hot Mess House and The Minimalists: Less is Now (yes, really) — suggests considerable interest in the fantasy of a hyper-organised home. Not just a tidy one, but the kind in which individual crisp packets hang on alligator clips from a rail, in colour order. Sales of home organisation products (all those stacking boxes, hangers, drawer dividers and labelling devices) are now estimated to be in the tens of billions in the US and rising. Professional organisers even have their own industry bodies.
But we should give Kondo a break. It’s not her fault that the craze she helped popularise has begun to feel oppressive. As her methods gained traction, a new generation of organising gurus emerged, with ever more outlandish philosophies.
Consider the Netflix series, Get Organised With The Home Edit, whose relentless mantra “edit, categorise, contain, maintain” sounds suspiciously like a shopping list for what the show’s hosts refer to flintily as “product” — the accessories required to realise their Rainbow Method (and which are helpfully sold on their website). These women transform jumbled kitchen cabinets and overstuffed bedside drawers into perspex vitrines to display each pasta shell, teabag and artfully arranged cotton bud. The resulting aesthetic has a cold, pristine quality, a little like a modernist gallery, a little like a morgue.
This punitive style is deliberate, as one host explains. “One of the main purposes of ‘product’ is to hold people accountable,” she chirps. The implication is that once installed, this Benthamite organising scheme might constantly spy on us in case we stuff some kitchen roll into the bin labelled “healthy snacks”.
Of course there are benefits to a good clear out. There’s evidence to show that decluttering can destress us. Studies attempting to measure the effect of domestic disorder on our cortisol levels suggest that the owner of a very messy house lives under its cloud all day. I was more convinced by the mum of two featured on the BBC’s superlative Sort Your Life Out who confessed to sitting in her car after work, gathering the strength to go inside and face the tottering piles. Her family’s purge not only removed that dread but turfed up nearly £2,000 in lost cash and unbanked cheques — a bounty that brought the couple to tears of gratitude.
The freedom from anxiety, guilt and shame that comes with tidying up is a goal in itself. But the brutal solutions proffered by the extreme organisers are a distraction. We should be able to ditch the junk without excavating the mystery from our homes. There is wonder in a dusky corner — no one would believe a door to Narnia existed in the back of The Home Edit’s clinical wardrobes.
Nor would the magic drawer belonging to my mother’s friend have survived a visit from the professionals. After all, how do you categorise the great treasure that is a pine cone?