Monday, September 3, 2012

Have a Cluttered Home? Join the Crowd.

book cover - life at home in the twenty-first century

Want to see how other people really live? "Glossy architectural publications feature the ostentatious and professionally decorated houses of celebrities and the wealthy. ... The spaces are staged and tidied. This volume is the counterpoint to those images: an unflinching examination of actual homes amid all of the joys and messiness of real life."

And what a fascinating volume this book — Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century — is! It's capturing a slice of American homes: 32 households in the Los Angeles area, all of which self-identify as middle class, all two-parent households with at least one child ages 7-12. Both parents work at paid jobs at least 30 hours per week. The observations behind the book were made between 2001 and 2005, so some technology that would be ubiquitous today is missing from the study. But that doesn't matter too much; it's still enthralling.

Here are the themes I found most interesting:

1. We have an enormous amount of stuff.

The authors include some counts of the numbers of things in the various homes, but only included those in plain sight — not those in drawers, etc. But the photos tell the stories; the families have lots of stuff.

What kinds of stuff? Lots of kinds, including toys. "Several of the L.A. households have more than 250 visible dolls, plush toys, action figures, and other toys, and most have at least 100. Untold numbers of others are tucked in closets and under beds."

And here's a figure I'd not heard before: "The United States has 3.1 percent of the world's children, yet U.S. families annually purchase more than 40 percent of the total toys consumed globally."

2. The clutter is oppressive.

The authors speak of the "assemblages of goods burdening ordinary, lived-in homes" — and I found the word "burdening" to be illuminating. They say that "the Los Angeles parents experience real psychological stress associated with clutter and disarray."

And here's more: "Many find their accumulated possessions exhausting to contemplate, organize and clean. The visual busyness of hoards of objects can affect basic enjoyment of the home."

3. Garages really don't store cars any more.

Want some figures? "Cars have been banished from 75 percent of garages to make way for rejected furniture and cascading bins and boxes of mostly forgotten household goods."

And here's more: "The typical chaotic garage bursts at the seams with 300-650 boxes, plastic storage bins, and many spillover items from inside the house."

I'm wondering if the figures would have been different if the households had been in an area which gets bad winter weather, where a garage for the car might be considered more important. But I certainly see the "garage as storage facility" phenomena all around my part of the country.

The pictures in this section of the book tell the story well. You see how things have been placed in the garages helter-skelter, in all sorts of boxes and bins and bags.

4. Getting rid of stuff is hard for people.

This isn't really a theme — it's just mentioned in passing — but the words here really caught my attention. "U.S. families have trouble getting rid of their possessions. ... Whether they cannot break sentimental attachments to certain objects, do not have the time to sort through and make decisions, or believe objects have value and could be sold on eBay, most families struggle to cope with stored clutter."

5. Many possessions reflect our affiliations.

I guess I knew this, but I never actually put it into words. The authors note: "Quite a few parents in the Los Angeles study identify with a specific cultural heritage or religion, and they display material markers that signal their affiliations." Another affiliation noted was that with sports teams.

Of course, the organizer in me wants to note that anyone feeling overwhelmed by possessions, or anyone who'd like to reclaim that garage — or those having a tough time getting rid of things, even though they want to make a change — could consider working with a professional organizer. But it's not this book's job to suggest this; it's just presenting the results of an anthropological study, and it does that very well, indeed.


Cynthia Friedlob said...

"Material World" is a favorite book of mine. A more focused examination of life here in Los Angeles would be illuminating. Thanks for the tip!

Garages: when I drive down the alley behind our townhouse and notice open garage doors of our neighbors along the way, I'm always surprised by how many of those garages are packed with stuff. Parking's at a premium in our area, so a lot of people are having to shift their cars on the street because they can't use their garages!

Jeri Dansky said...

If you get your hands on the book, Cynthia, I'd love to read your reaction. It seems like a perfect match for The Thoughtful Consumer.

MarySees said...

It's disturbing, isn't it! Overwhelming! Frustrating! Wow!

I've made a lot of progress on my own mess, but I still have a lot to do.


LeeAnne said...

I've heard a lot about this book and will look into where I can read it. (I hope it's available digitally, so it doesn't add to my clutter... hehe.) The garage thing is a big problem near where I live. I'm in an area with dozens of condo complexes. The complex down the road has attached two-car garages for every unit and then guest parking on the streets sprinkled throughout. But not only are the guest spots full 24/7, the residents are now also parking on a dirt lot next door and in a (half empty) shopping center across the street. All because people can't fit their cars in their own garages. It's frustrating to guests of these residents, but it's becoming a bigger neighborhood problem. Thankfully, my complex has a big subterranean parking garage with rules against storing items in your space. :)

Buttonnik said...

Jeri, I love your blog, read every post - this one is in my 'top ten' list.

JustGail said...

I can so relate to the "clutter is overwhelming", every time I walk into the sewing room. And the cookbook shelves. It's so much easier to go into Scarlett mode ("Tomorrow is another day!") and back away slowly than deal with it :-O . After this weekend, I think I'd have better success if I removed the computer from that room (or at least shut it off) when attempting to put some order to it.

But we can park our cars in the garage!

Jeri Dansky said...

LeeAnne, I don't see any mention of a digital version on the publisher's website - and Amazon shows no Kindle version, and iTunes shows no iBook.

But the photos are such a huge part of the book that it would be hard to do it well as an eBook. However, my local library system has one on order; maybe yours does, too.

Jeri Dansky said...

MarySees, congratulations on your progress! It sounds like you're moving in the direction you want to be going, and that's great.

Buttonnik, I'm so glad you're enjoying my blog - and this post.

JustGail, you're ahead of many since your cars are in your garage! At some point "tomorrow" will come and you'll be ready to tackle those cookbooks and the other things in the sewing room - and then it'll get done.

Ronda said...


I am so glad you touched on this today. I, too, am an organizer and I find that the clutter affects relationships in these precious families. I, also, believe that many may feel they are 'alone' in it and struggle to know where to begin.

So, thank you for sharing. I think this book will be an encouragement to those who are in the midst of the struggle and for those who are experiencing a reprieve!

SueBK said...

I'm wondering what is the difference between a cluttered room and a full room? (Not necessarily looking for answers, just wondering.)
As I read your post, my teenager's room seem like an ideal candidate for inclusion. There is a LOT of stuff; every surface (including the ceiling) is covered in stuff. And yet, I love going in there. Only one corner seems cluttered to me (a corner of the floor, under shelves, with boxes and who knows what jammed into it).
The room is stunningly busy; there is so much going on. She's got knick-knacks, photos, memorabilia, and all sorts of ... stuff everywhere.
As I think about it, I wonder if it's because everything I look at says something to me about my girl. Nothing has been displayed 'just because'; it all has a story. It's all personal; it's all 'relevant' to who she is.
Maybe clutter happens because we lack the confidence to fill our houses (and our lives) with who we are, and instead try to fill them with who we think we should be; who others expect us to be.
We just said goodbye to my sister-in-law who stayed with us for a month. She needed 'space' and she likes our place.
I always think our house is a little 'shabby' (and definitely not shabby-chic!). But it is very personal. There is a reason for every painting, every photo, every quilt, every piece of furniture. We have some junk that needs to be ferreted out and ditched, but in the main, everything we have is either loved or functional. So, even though our lounges desperately need recovering, our floors need repolishing, our walls need a lick or two of paint, and everything could use a thoroughly spring clean, our house seems to say "be at peace". Perhaps because it reflects who we are at heart (a little battered by life, but quite comfortable in our own skins).
Anyway, some late night ramblings and musings sparked by what looks like a very interesting book.

Geralin Thomas said...

Jeri, I've been waiting for someone to write about this book (especially from an organizer's perspective) I'm looking forward to borrowing the book and while I wait, your insightful comments have given me much food for thought.

I guess, if there's a bright side, all the stuff is creating job security for organizers. (I'm joking of course)

Jeri Dansky said...


Here's my take: If your home is pleasing to you (and your daughter's room is pleasing to her), it works for you (you can find things when you want them, etc.) and there's no fire or other safety hazard - then who cares whether or not someone else considers it cluttered?

I've worked with clients where, after we decluttered - getting rid of clothes that will never fit again, DVDs that would never be watched again, etc. - the home still had about twice as much stuff as I'd want in my own home. But so what? The couple living there LIKED having all that stuff.