Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Space: the Frugal Frontier

I'm not a Disney fan, but even a stodgy ol' wet blanket like me can understand why my daughter (and other gals of her generation) fell in love with Belle. 
In particular, I can totally relate to falling in love with Belle's love of the Beast's library.  Wow! Even now, I remember the first time Belle, my daughter, and I came into this room . . . 
Again, wow.

I'd had my own library-lust moment at a similar age.  Many years earlier, when I was a young teen, I'd fallen in love with the Peacock Room in the Smithsonian Museum's Freer Gallery.  The peacocks were painted by James Whistler, and there's a great story behind that.  But what I loved was not so much the walls, as the shelves that lined these walls.  Oh, *I* wanted a room full of shelves like that!

I'm bringing all this up because Jen asked a great question on a post I wrote about de-cluttering:
I'm very good at getting rid of stuff, I need to do better at not buying it in the first place (though, like you, I tend to always buy my things secondhand anyway).
My question is if I truly get rid of everything I don't "need"...what do I do with the empty room? Moving to a smaller place isn't really an option (or a desire). Do you keep things just to fill up the space?
Yeah, how do I reconcile all my "get rid of excess" delight with my multi-generational shelf lust?

This is how I do it.  I say, "Space is a design element".  Even more importantly, it's a luxurious design element.  If you look again at the Beast's library, you'll see that around the shelves, there is empty space: a giant window, a stairwell (with no books or papers on it), a shiny floor.   The same goes for the Peacock room.  The shelves aren't jammed with belongings; there is one (or no) item on each open shelf.  It's beautiful.

[As an aside, about 15 years ago, I used to volunteer to help fix things up at a local women's shelter, and there I saw the an even more striking example of this phenomenon.   There, the women who had moved in certainly owned less and had many fewer material belongings than I did, but the women had to keep it all in just one bedroom.  No one there seemed to wish she owned more things, but they all wished for more space to spread out.  Open space is a luxury.]

Artists know about this open space; they call it "negative space", which makes it seem like a negative thing.  But the open space around your stuff is a positive thing; it makes space for people.
You can use open space in a bunch of ways.  

Space helps us separate objects into zones so it's easier to tell one area from another.  (You can see this especially with avid gardeners -- my neighbor's garden looks much better than mine not just because of the plants, but because there's a mulched border between the grass and the flowers, and also between different patches of flowers).

Space helps to focus our eyes on certain areas; to say, "there's nothing important here; look over there instead."  That's why designers tell you not to evenly space all your photos across the wall, but to gather them together.  If your whole room were "gathered photos", it wouldn't be as effective a look; it's the gathering together with the empty space that makes your photos stand out.

Space allows for easy access.  It's easier to pull something out of a drawer that has 3 items in it than it is to pull something out of a drawer that has 30 items in it.  

And finally, space acts as a frame -- a halo of space can turn ordinary objects into art.  You can stand a single plate up on each shelf (as in the Peacock Room).  You can open one of your favorite books to one of your favorite pages, and that becomes a display in and of itself. 

And just in case you think that this is just one person's quirky opinion, here's a bit more visual evidence for the "space = luxury" argument.  I googled "beautiful shelves" and clicked on images, and here's what I saw.   Some of these shelves are completely empty because it's just the shelves of course, but some of the shelves are in use.  And when you look a the shelves, look also at the space around them. 

Don't you just want them all?  Ah, shelf lust!  It runs in the family. 


  1. I think Amy D of Tightwad Gazette had a piece w/ that title. Great minds think alike. Loved your last post too--you are my role model.

    Sent from my cluttered abode...

    1. Amy D is my hero and my role model! It is not so much that we think alike, as that I read (and re-read) her books and have come more and more to think like her.

      Now, if I'm *your* role model, does that make Amy your grand-role-model? I think not! I think really you and are are more like sisters . . . -MM

  2. Ringing in beautiful and clear!

    I am constantly frustrated as each newly cleared surface gets filled up again, working on changing my own habits and those of dear ones. I'd like to build more space/slack into my daily schedule to allow for putting things away and not just down.