‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It was textile designer William Morris who said this in the 19th century, but his words have never been more on trend.
The decluttering craze which is sweeping the world has people rethinking their spaces and throwing out their unwanted possessions quicker than you can groan “the place is a mess”. Those candlesticks bequeathed to you by a late great aunt that are tucked away in the attic? Perhaps they’d fetch a few bob on eBay. Those jeans that you haven’t fit in to since 2008? Off to the charity shop with them. And those cute little crayon squiggles that are your child’s first ever work of “art”? Consider taking a photo of it and consigning the original to the black sack too.
The act of decluttering can be harsh but clutter can negatively affect self-esteem, psychologists say. Instead of boosting our sense of happiness, our possessions can become a burden. Instead of us owning our things, our things can begin to own us.
We have one woman to blame for this current obsession: Marie Kondo and her hit show Tidying up With Marie Kondo. Kondo believes that you should keep only the possessions that spark joy, and her philosophy has won over her 2.1m followers on Instagram.
But Kondo’s not the only one making a killing from our newfound love of neatness. Mrs Hinch, the name that cleaning queen Sophie Hinch goes by, has 1.7m Instagram followers hoping that they’ll get their home as immaculate as hers. And minimalist queen Bea Johnson travels the world as a speaker, telling audiences how she fits the annual waste for her four-person family into one small jar. So what’s behind our appetite for advice on household management?
“I think every third house you knock on, everyone’s in the same boat,” say Carolynn Doyle (57), from Family Flow. Carolynn and her team have been overhauling Irish homes for over 10 years, for an initial consultation fee of €100, and then a daily rate of €650.
“It’s like the ‘broken window syndrome’ with the house that no-one’s living in – after a while people notice there’s no-one living there and then someone comes and [throws a rock and] breaks the glass. Then next thing, over time, the house is falling down.
“Part of it is it’s not actually taught in schools unless you choose Home Economics, and that’s a much broader topic now; there’s a lot more science to it. And a lot of mammies would have been too happy to carry all the workload instead of making sure people grew up to be independent. It’s all done through love, but a bit of tough love goes a long way too.”
Cork nurse Vera Keohane is Ireland’s first Konmari consultant, having trained under Marie Kondo last year. After reading one of Kondo’s books, she decided to enroll in one of her seminars in New York as a birthday treat.
“I realised this was having such a positive effect for me and my family that I enrolled. And to enroll, you had to have your house completely done,” she says. “Clutter does affect everyone in a negative way, really it does. It just causes stress. I felt myself – having cleared out areas and seeing it look good – you get such joy from it.
“The positive effect of clarity is just liberating. I’d open a drawer just to look at it after it was done because I loved it.”
The Marie Kondo method involves a big declutter so that you’re left only with things that make you feel good. It teaches folding techniques for clothes, and advocates for buying less and choosing well when you do. A wool coat over a cheaper acrylic, for example, will last you longer.
“Discarding is the very first step, and sometimes a lot of discarding is done by the time I get there,” Vera explains. She charges €300 for a six-hour session, but she believes “I’m teaching them how to fold things, what way to display them, and everything is standing up and in order so that when you open your wardrobe, you can see them straight away. And it’s about finding what sparks joy for them, and putting these all around for them to see so that they can experience that joy then.
“One lady I visited had a collection of buttons that she’d collected over her lifetime, and she was 80 years old. The buttons were all in biscuit tins and she never saw them, only when her grandchildren and her children used to take them out and play with them. So I said, ‘Why don’t we put them in glass jars and you can see them?’
“In my own bathroom I have a glass filled with tiny little shells and coloured glass that I picked from a beach in Greece. Every time I see it, it just brings me back.”
When Vera whittled down her family’s possessions, she found she needed less storage. Two chests of drawers and a wardrobe became superfluous and she got rid of them.
Have there been any regretful purges – one thing she’s thrown out and is now kicking herself?
“I threw out a load of baking tins and then at Christmas when I was baking I thought, ‘Oh god, I’ve thrown the tins out’. But I found them then in the shops going for half price and the ones I’d had were rusty, so anything that you can throw out can be replaced.
“What’s amazing is people don’t actually know what they have until they see it. By the time you empty out the wardrobe, you’re finding things that are 10 years old. It’s called the power of the pile, and they realise ‘I definitely don’t need this stuff going back into my wardrobe’.”
But it’s important to have respect for people’s feelings, too, she adds. “Before this method, I was a bit of a discarding machine, but this has taught me to have a lot of appreciation for people’s things. It can be quite an emotional role as well as a physical one. People can struggle for all sorts of reasons for moving things on. You’re empathising with this as well.”
Sentimental possessions like letters might still bring you joy, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you might want to keep them either, Vera says.
“Once the letter is read, you have it in your heart. I would sit down with the person and ask, ‘Do you want other people to see the letter when you’re gone, or is private just to you?’. If you do want to keep it, put it in a box with a ribbon and just store it nicely. If there’s anything personal in it, I ask them to ask themselves, ‘Could I photograph it?'”
In Carolynn’s experience, a two- or three-bedroom house can take anything from two and five days until it’s “flowing” again, but a very messy house can take up to 10 days to fix.
“It’s not about perfection, it’s about keeping your room or home in such a way that it doesn’t cause stress,” she says.
A good storage system, a place for everything, a big declutter, and even cookery lessons for kids can help a home to flow smoothly.
“My clients sleep better once they’ve got the bedroom back in order, they tell me that,” she says. Her philosophy centres around “conscious living, conscious parenting, conscious being with your partner.”
“A lot of clients contact me because they’re overwhelmed, they’ve no idea where to start. I like to meet the whole family and get an idea of what everyone wants. The children might say, ‘I hate the mornings because mum’s always screaming when she can’t find the keys’, or ‘I can’t have friends over as it’s always a mess’.
“Some houses, they’re actually not messy, they’re just full of clutter, which can be quite hidden, but it hits them every time they open the cupboard. You don’t realise it until it’s gone and you feel so much lighter.”
Carolynn’s four boys, now adults, were all cooking, cleaning and managing their own spaces from an appropriate age.
“If they need a bit of a prodding, they’ll get a prodding, but the youngest is 20 now so they know what to do. They’ll all help out at home. They’re not perfect but I’m happy to let them out there and whoever they meet is going to go, ‘They’re not a burden’,” she laughs.
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