Browse any glossy magazine with photos of gorgeous interiors and you’ll never see any clutter. Yet we all know that in the real world just about every home has some.
One of the main challenges facing interior designers these days is how to make a home look stylish as well as being practical and comfortable to live in, and that nearly always involves tackling clutter of some kind. This article has been written to give professional interior designers some insights into working with clients who need help to clear their clutter.
Why clutter is a problem
Interior design involves consciously placing furniture and items in a home for specific effects. Clutter, by definition, is the exact opposite of this because it’s the unconscious accumulation of things, usually stored in a disorganized and untidy way.
Most people have no idea how much clutter they have or how much it affects them. They think that all the things they are keeping just in case they come in useful is a good thing. They don’t realize that the stagnant energy that accumulates around these items causes a corresponding stagnation in their life and causes them to feel stuck.
The good news, though, is that when someone clears out their stuff, their life usually starts moving again very quickly.
Why people have clutter
Clutter is only ever a symptom of underlying issues. When working with clients, this means becoming adept at spotting the everyday kind of clutter you can easily work with, such as clutter that mounts up when someone gets too busy and has become a bit overwhelmed, and the more serious type that needs to be referred to a trained clutter clearing or health care professional.
Accumulating clutter can sometimes be a person’s way of coping with a traumatic event in their life. It can also be a symptom of depression, other mental illness, or a side-effect of a brain injury or abnormality.
The four categories of clutter
There are four main categories of clutter:
- Things that are not used or loved
- Things that are untidy or disorganized
- Too many things in too small a space
- Anything unfinished
Let’s look at these, one by one…
Things that are not used or loved
Many people keep things just in case they come in useful one day. They don’t use or love them, but they don’t want to let them go because they fear they will later regret it.
When someone engages an interior designer, they are essentially asking for help to create a home environment that more accurately reflects who they are or who they want to become. To get the most from this, it’s an excellent time for the person to make a fresh start by clearing out all the things they are keeping from the past that no longer fit with how they want their life to be. Support them in keeping the best and letting go of the rest.
Things that are untidy or disorganised
Mess on the outside is always indicative of some kind of mess or lack of structure on the inside. Creating better storage facilities can help, but when a home is excessively untidy or disorganized, it’s usually best to refer the client to a professional clutter clearing practitioner who you can then liaise with to devise an entire new storage system as part of a complete life makeover.
Too many things in too small a space
If your client owns too many things for the size of their space then they will either need to upgrade to a bigger home or downsize the quantity of possessions they have. Either way, this decision needs to be made and acted on before you begin work with them.
This includes repairs that need to be done and renovation projects that need to be finished. If your client has a tendency not to complete things, make sure they actually manage to finish the project they will be working on with you. Agree completion dates for each stage right from the start.
Dealing with clutter
There are three main approaches you can take to dealing with clutter:
Create more storage space
Many homes can benefit from the creation of additional storage space. But before advising your client to go to this expense, make sure the items they want to keep are worth the cost of doing so.
For example, some people build an extra garage — not to store their car in but to create more space for their fairly worthless clutter while their much more expensive vehicle is parked outside in all weathers. Help your client to decide if this investment is really necessary. Isn’t there some beautiful design feature they would much rather spend their money on?
Store things that are not used very often
Favourite options for this are:
- An attic or loft
- A basement or under-house crawl-space
- A garage
- A garden shed
- An offsite storage unit
In my book, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, I explain that people are connected to everything they own. So wherever clutter is put, it has an effect on them. Even keeping it in a storage unit separate to the home is only recommended as a temporary measure. However, it’s fine to put winter clothing away during summer and vice versa, or to store things that are used every year such as Christmas decorations. Items that are used at least once every year or every two years are not classified as clutter.
Clear the clutter
This is the best option of all. Most people find they can even make some money from clearing out their stuff. At the very least, they can donate things to charities so that other people who need the items can use them.
Tips for working with clients who have clutter
When creating a home environment for a client, it’s important to take their treasured possessions into account rather than hoping they will learn to live without them. On the other hand, it’s not necessary for them to have everything out on display all the time. Most people are happy just knowing that the things they love and value the most are somewhere in their home where they can find them if they want to.
The golden rule is to NEVER, EVER clear someone else’s clutter unless they specifically ask you to do so. People have very deep attachments to their personal possessions and can get very upset if someone even touches their belongings without their permission. But there are many things you can do to help your client to sort through their clutter themselves.
A good way to start is to go around the property taking photos of each room from a number of different angles, and then sit down and go through them with your client. You can either print them out or look at them on a screen, depending on their preference.
Photos reveal so many things that can easily be missed or glossed over. They show up things that look out of place, that have been put somewhere “just for now”, that are unnecessary, that detract from the décor rather than enhancing it, that overcrowd the space, and so on.
Rather than pointing these out, ask your client questions in such a way that they see the clutter for themselves. For example, point to the tired old plant in the corner and ask them how long they have had it and has it seen better days? Point to the pile of paperwork on their desk and ask them how it makes them feel to see it. Does it inspire them, or does it make them feel stressed? Help them make a list of all the items that need to be moved, repaired, replaced or let go of.
Create a Rescue List
Another good technique is to ask your client to make a Rescue List. If their home were on fire and they had five minutes to save a few personal things, what would they choose? Most people say they would save people, pets and their digital devices first, and then a few personal things that are meaningful to them. What items would your client choose?
This list is a good way for the person to gain perspective and for you to learn what is truly of value to them. If they become indecisive about letting things go later on in the project, you can remind them of their Rescue List to help get them back on track.
The trick is to always break down cluttered areas into small manageable chunks. Clutter clearing can feel like a chore when people first begin, but after they feel how good it feels with each small success, they feel inspired and encouraged to do more. Help your client to create a clutter clearing plan that is achievable for them.
The old maxim ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ is a good one. Wait until your client has completed the bulk of their clutter clearing before taking a general inventory of the items they will be keeping. Make sure the design you create for them will comfortably accommodate everything. If not, you will either need to go back to the drawing board yourself or discuss another round of clutter clearing with them.
Clutter tends to accumulate in poorly lit areas. To help prevent it from building up again in the future, design lighting solutions that eliminate dark areas of the home.
For clients who own a lot of things or are prone to untidiness, install cupboards with doors rather than open shelves. This creates clean lines rather than the constant visual assault of seeing so many items, and it makes the space less prone to cluttering too.
Interior designers often ask me, what is the single most important piece of advice I can give them about dealing with clutter? My answer is the same one Richard and I always give to the clutter clearing practitioners who train with us:
Do your own clutter clearing first before giving advice to anyone else!
This will enable you to appreciate the kind of feelings that clutter clearing brings up, and also how good it feels when you’ve done it. There is also no better motivation for a client than hearing you talk in glowing terms about your own experience of this and your own results.
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Copyright © Karen Kingston 2018, updated 2020