Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Bleah for Beautiful Closets

As someone who loves-loves-loves organizing time, and space, and closets, and . . . well . . . and everything, I just want to do a rant against "Closet-Beautiful" type magazines.   Because the kind of "beautiful" these closet magazines show isn't even normal, it's airbrushed and unhealthy.   (Sort of like other kinds of beauty magazines, I hear, but I don't even look at those).
Why is this kind of closet "airbrushed"?  It's a closet for a person who has only three dresses (identical and pink) and two (identical) bathrobes.  This closet beautifully holds 8 shirts, and about 8 pairs of slacks.  If you have more than that, well, things are going to look cluttered. Note also the stacks of identical shirts.  Would this closet look as good if the clothes were, um, real?

 The unhealthiness comes also from the way these so-called-organized photos interact with our things, rather than with us.  To get the belongings to conform to space, their owners often use lots of plastic boxes.  Stacked, full plastic boxes are my least favorite "glam" shot: how the heck are you going to get the gold scarf out of the middle of the box that's third from the right on the next-to-bottom row?  This is a format archival storage, not for actual day-to-day use.
Oh, well, at least all the shirts that hang below are evenly spaced 6 inches apart.  That's a relief.

Okay, but I don't just want to rant.  Underneath this, there are some guiding principals that help to make a messy place look (and possibly even actually be) more organized.  Two keys to the aesthetic sense are symmetry and space.  So to get a good-looking space, you should (a) declutter, (b) group like objects together, and (c) use containers -- not only to group things, but also to make them appear more similar.

Here's a quick example:  the before (left) and after (right) photos are those of a proud person who has gone through a very satisfying bout of organizing a garage workspace.  What makes this feel so successful is that the after looks so uniform -- there are red containers (well labeled) on one side, and big gray containers (again, well-labeled) on another shelf.  Symmetry and space in action.

Here's another before-and-after.  I know I'm missing a larger part of the kitchen, so I'm not judging this particular effort, but these pictures make me twitchy.  What makes the "after" below look so good is the uniformity -- the absence of commercial containers, for example.  But where did the tomato sauce go?  And (the Miser) part of me asks, how much does all this plastic container cost the owner, and the environment?  
At the same time, I admit that I'd rather look at a pantry like the one on the right than on the left.  I mean, pretty.

So I did a little experiment with my husband's dresser, one afternoon when he was out bike riding.  (Fortunately for this experiment, I have a husband who conveniently sports a mildly cluttered habitat and who also doesn't mind if I play around with his stuff).  

Behold the "Before".  It looks disorganized because there are a variety of objects, and there is no space between them.  Indeed, the things overlap and heap up.  

Even from this other angle, the dresser top is really a pile-o-stuff:

Of course, I did not purchase a host of plastic storage bins for this experiment, but it just so happened that I have a stash of canning jars on hand.  (You knew I'd have to bring up canning jars at some point, right)?

And lo-and-behold the "After"!
 Gorgeous, right?

There are several take-aways from this experiment.  One is that grouping things together, especially if you can get them into similar-looking containers, really does make thing look nicer.

But the boost in appearance often comes at the expense of practicality.  I mean, you might not want your mouthwash in canning jars, and it's a dangerous idea to keep your medicine there.
Don't put medicine in glass jars, especially if they're unlabeled!
Much less dangerous, but no less ridiculous, is the idea of keeping bike gloves and important papers in a jar.  I mean, even *I*, who love canning jars, don't do that.  

And what you don't see in the photo is just as important.  To get everything to fit in the containers, I had to get rid of a bunch of stuff, some of which was clutter, but some of which really belonged.  Here, I've added that back in:  there is packaging (because commercial labels ruin the "after"photo) and trash, and also a few things like a calculator that are actually useful, but don't fit into my particular containers.  

In other words, caution is advised when deciding how successful the "after" is compared to the "before".

So the organizational enthusiast in me wants to close with one more example of why things that look like a mess (different sizes, different shapes, different colors, different markings, overlapping and unevenly spaced) might actually be a better way to be useful and organized.

Which of these two objects below is less cluttered?  Which of the two is easier to use without even thinking hard about it?

Exhibit A

Exhibit B


  1. You are so right! I could rant the same kind of thing about bedside tables. In the "Beautiful House" magazines bedside tables have a lovely photo in an antique frame, some fresh flowers, and maybe a clock (the old-fashioned kind). Where in the heck are the books, magazines, notepads, pens, pencils, glass of water, bottle of lotion, nail clippers, etc.? Or am I the only one with those things next to my bed? Oh, and a box of tissues, a trash receptacle, slippers, or shoes on the floor, and the letter or card you were reading; how about a phone, ipod (or other mp3 player) along with all the attendant cords! Perhaps part of our stress comes from trying to live like a pictures instead of like real people. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about closets. I use shoe boxes, tins, some plastic boxes, or whatever else I can come up with to corral my things and make order out of chaos, but it never looks as nice as any pictures, because I'm real not staged

  2. This is great! I just moved in with my new husband, a serious hoarder, and we're struggling with things like "where does this object go?" both in terms of are-they-near-where-we-need-them and in terms of containering. I really wanted to get some huge glass containers for the bags of flour and sugar I have, mostly out of interest of keeping them better protected from bugs and spilling. However... $20 per 2-gal. jar whether it's acrylic, plastic, or glass - and I'd need at least four. No thanks! They'll stay in the bags, thankyouverymuch.

    1. If you're going for long-term storage to avoid bugs, and not for aesthetics, ask your friends with cats to save you their cat litter buckets (provided they buy the kind that comes in plastic buckets). You'll wash them out carefully, but of course -- they're wonderfully airtight, and they hold 5-10 gallons (?). Plus, they stack!

      When I buy 25-lb bags of flour, that's how I store the flour, down in the basement. Then you can have somewhat smaller 1-gallon jars (old pretzel or pickle buckets) in the kitchen, if you're lucky enough to snag those.

      But yes, definitely not worth throwing serious amounts of money at right now.

    2. I will say that I purchased some large bins that fit 10 lbs of flour and 5 lbs of sugar. I do like them because I don't have spillage from bags on my shelf (something that has happened before, ugh). It's easy to scoop from the bins. I also did purchase a few smaller bins for various types of pasta. But that's where my organization of the pantry ended in terms of purchasing. The bins, for me, serve a practical purpose. That they look nice is a bonus, but the aim for me was fitting in items. With the pasta, we like the bins because it's easy to see how much we have left. We found we were regularly getting to the end of pasta and not realizing we were all out.

      My dad built in some shelves for canned goods and such, and that has also helped. My pantry isn't 100% picture perfect, but it is functional. To me, functional should be the goal of all organizing.

  3. this is awesome. so cool that you actually DID THE EXPERIMENT! I only buy storage containers for "keeping out vermin" purposes, and we had to get a lot in a hurry (vermin invasion) so we did just spend the money & buy plastic rubbermaid bins. My mom would get these huge ice cream tubs from neighbors who owned a franchise and used those for rice/flour/beans---seems more sightly than cat litter maybe?

  4. I know. The dresses and bathrobes should be in all the colors of the rainbow, not just one color. And then they should be hung in rainbow color order. Just kidding!

    I laughed aloud when I read "Of course, I did not purchase a host of plastic storage bins for this experiment, but ..." and saw the canning jar picture peaking out below. My boyfriend made me show him your pictures.

    Then I thought--where are the papers, then saw them rolled up in a canning jar and laughed again!

    I think it might be okay to store gloves in a canning jar. Not sure--depends how easy it is to get them in and out. Probably super easy with two hands but a pain with only one hand.

    I actually stuck a small spice rack on the edge of my desk to hold small things where I can get at them. It's not working quite as well as I hoped, but it does hold a small clock, pencil sharpener, stapler, jar of paper clips, jar of thumb tacks, glue stick, and hand lotion.