A joy to be holding: Marie Kondo is wrong, we love our clutter
Her minimalist manifesto has gone global, but the tidying-up guru's strict methods aren't for everyone
It all looks so easy. And, indeed, time was when the hit Netflix series Tidying Up would have inspired me to start frenziedly sorting through my cupboards and folding all my T-shirts using Marie Kondo’s method, which allows them to stand up by themselves, so you can line them up in your drawers like sushi in a bento box. As early as 2015, I outed myself as a Kondo-phile. I bought her book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying, and gleefully cleared about a dozen bin bags’ worth of outgrown children’s toys, supermarket bags for life and trashy airport novels, sending them off into the world to delight somebody else. Then I started on my wardrobe.
As the heaps of clothes piling up on my bed grew, so did my fantasies of leading a newly orderly life. A colleague on the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar had famously solved all her wardrobe crises by adopting a uniform of exclusively white shirts and black trousers. Perhaps I could do the same? But when I started sorting through my attire, almost everything appeared to spark joy in one way or another: this jersey had been knitted for me by my beloved granny, now deceased; those designer trousers (alas, a size too small) had been bought with my first pay cheque, and I still dreamt of fitting into them again one day.
Another afternoon, opening a suitcase, I uncovered a cache of love letters written to the 14-year-old me by a long-forgotten boyfriend, which led to an enjoyable afternoon’s reminiscing. I didn’t even attempt to tackle our books, which line practically every single wall of our house (Kondo suggests a limit of 30). Even binning the accumulated swimming and music certificates, shopping lists and novelty magnets stuck to the fridge door proved a sticking point. Still, I had to start somewhere, so I overrode my instincts and swept them all into the recycling bin, revealing the fridge’s gleaming silver surface. Standing back to enjoy the view, I was disconcerted to find that rather than revelling in its elegant simplicity, the fridge just looked bland. Joyless, in fact.
Meanwhile, my eye, deprived of the visual distraction of this domestic moodboard, was drawn inexorably to the kitchen’s flaws – that water stain on the ceiling, the cracked tile by the sink ...
As politics become ever more intractable, it’s no surprise that so many of us are turning off the news and tuning into Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.
For the uninitiated, this programme follows the Japanese decluttering guru as she sorts through the bursting garages and overflowing wardrobes of her hapless guinea pigs, sorting out their lives in the process.
I boggled at a couple of empty-nesters who, as well as amassing an Everest of Hawaiian shirts and collecting thousands of baseball cards, which they stored in boxes for some unspecified purpose, had managed to stockpile an entire roomful of Christmas decorations. When the brigade of giant nutcracker dolls had been purged, a hitherto unsuspected pool table emerged from beneath, and the final scene showed the pair bonding happily over a game, something they had obviously been unable to do for years.
A couple with young children had started to squabble over the household chores; a Kondo session later, their relationship appeared to have been rendered as smooth and serene as their newly decluttered kitchen worktops. Kondo’s philosophy is itself seductively minimalist: you pile all your things together by category and pick each item up individually, asking yourself if it sparks joy. If those maternity trousers with the sagging elastic or the agonisingly painful designer stilettos no longer ignite a warm glow, then you ceremonially thank them for their service and pass them on. You will end up with a house that looks like a Shinto shrine (not coincidentally, Kondo used to be an assistant at one) and a greatly simplified life.
Besides, I was still scarred by a misguided early attempt at a purge when I had given away a silk trouser suit I loved because I felt I wore it too much. Fifteen years later, I still feel a pang when I think about it. Meanwhile, my attempt at creating a purist office uniform foundered at the first hurdle. I enjoyed buying lots of extra white shirts and black trousers, of course; but, for me, clothes have always been a means of self-expression, and some days just called for colour and print.
Matters became worse when I had to tackle the “komono”, which is Kondo’s term for miscellany. Getting rid of everyone else’s junk would have been so much easier. I knew exactly what to do with my husband’s stuffed wild boar’s head, the collection of pebbles on his mantelpiece, the tottering piles of biographies rising like stalagmites from the floor around his desk, and the biplane mobile hanging from the ceiling. I was equally clear on the value or otherwise of my daughters’ loom bands, Pom-Pom Puppies sets and Enid Blyton collections; but, alas, the Kondo approach only allows you to tackle your own clutter, rather than everyone else’s.
And indeed I had obvious candidates of my own for recycling, such as the towers of unused copper pans gathering dust on a kitchen shelf, the cookery books and the antique cabbage-leaf plates lurking in a sideboard. Getting them all out into a pile was meant to inspire me to let them pass out of my life; instead, I found myself dreamily leafing through the cookery books, planning delicious feasts; my husband offered to have the pans re-tinned as a birthday present, and, having rediscovered the antique plates, I immediately commissioned a carpenter to make some shelves so I could show them off.
So nowadays, I watch Kondo’s show for pure pleasure, and the reassurance it gives me that my own domestic clutter is not that bad. I am a long way from having a room devoted to year-round Christmas, after all. Besides, following her basic approach has restored a different sort of harmony to my own home: it is only by adopting her precepts that my husband and I have finally made peace with our conflicting magpie tendencies.
Today, we are both blithely ruthless about binning unidentified power cables, out-of-date technology and last year’s admin, because it leaves more room for the clutter – copper pans and cookery books for me, pebbles and planes for him – that has the power to spark our joy.
• Lydia Slater is the deputy editor of Harper’s Bazaar.
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