Updated: Oct 19, 2019
My daughter recently showed me a photo of Kanye West’s ”closet.” It showed five white T-shirts hanging on a rack in front of a brick wall in an otherwise empty space. I said, “Honey, I assure you, that is not Kanye West’s closet.“ But the die was cast: my daughter is a minimalist. Score one for Marie Kondo.
On the other end of the clutter spectrum stood Albert Einstein: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” (Einstein, organizer on a universal scale, knew where to put his prepositions.)
When it comes to clutter, I’m closer to Einstein.
Consequently, one of my favorite design books is Dominique Nabokov’s New York Living Rooms (1998, Overlook Press). I love it because it’s full of photos of rooms inhabited by writers, photographers, publishers, musicians, composers, choreographers, dancers, filmmakers, architects, poets, performance artists, and socialites—Jerome Robbins, Philip Glass, Susan Sontag, Louise Bourgeois, Richard Meier, Sonny Mehta, Allen Ginsberg, Elie Weisel, Joan Didion, Sidney Lumet, Lipsinka, and, oh yes, the de la Rentas and Bill Blass—names my daughter would hardly recognize. Vibrant revealers of the personalities and interests of the people who inhabit them, these living rooms are atmospheric, evocative of experience, chock-a-block with comfortable furniture, reading lamps, antiques, carpets, textiles, folk art, African art, paintings, ceramics, books, art—lots of books, lots of art. Most seem never to have been touched by a professional decorator, or, if they were, there’s been a lot of living in them since. Objects drawn from vastly different places and points in time relate to one another in wonderful ways.
World of Interiors is the kindred magazine for spaces like these. Architectural Digest, sometimes. Mostly, magazines do not show rooms as they are really lived in. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, if a home was planned as a feature in a major magazine, stylists and a photo crew would show up for the photoshoot with five truckloads of furnishings and spend a week at the house. This was never about truth in decorating.
In real estate, clutter is a dirty word, because potential buyers must be able to appreciate the space and light in a room, not be impeded as they move through a house, be turned off by a style that isn’t theirs, or be distracted by the owners’ possessions. How we live in our homes differs from how they must look to please the HGTV-trained eyes of today’s buyers. De-cluttering is about paring down, editing, choosing. It encourages the flow of energy and signals buyers that sellers are ready to let go.
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,“ William Morris opined. That’s good advice.
In my home, decorative objects remind me of places I’ve been or want to go, friends, family members, and loved ones long gone. They are useful in that way. They are also beautiful as individuals, beautiful together. And, there is enough space between them so each can be appreciated.
At the moment, in my living room, atop a Philippine drum table, are an alabaster lamp, a Japanese conch shell ‘trumpet’, a Burmese lacquer box, a repousse deer, an ankle bracelet ashtray from an Indian friend, my grandfather’s pocket watch, which hangs on a carved bone watch stand (a gift from another friend), an old Chinese compass depicting signs of the zodiac, and a diminutive reproduction bust of Athena, which gazes at the compass and the pocket watch. (Travel more, she says.)
My daughter actually likes it, she loves to travel, and she’s still in her 20s. There’s still hope for her.