A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance

In the process of installing some new floors and rearranging a few doors and walls we’ve had to completely empty most of the rooms of the house. In the process I’ve come to realize that I like the look of an empty room or, at least, a room with nothing more than a few pieces of furniture. Call me one of those controversial minimalists (with, in my youth, maximalist tendencies).

A few years ago a group of archaeologists and anthropologists at UCLA undertook a meticulous study of the cluttery habits of 32 families in Los Angeles and published a book Life at Home in the Twenty First Century. The book has the distanced vibe of what it would be like if a group of archaeologists from the future excavated a 21st century home and reported the results. Why the photo shrines on the metal food storage units?

The book is worth reading (ironically, I just sold my copy to reduce book clutter). While I no longer own the book I was happy to discover the short, three part video series on the project which I’ve embedded for your weekend enjoyment.

Part II

Part III

What was especially interesting for me about these videos is that they address the complex intersection of clutter and child rearing, something that we don’t have experience with.

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  1. Two years ago we moved into our dream house. My husband and I are minimalists at heart (both of us grew up in cluttered homes and left us with a horror of tchotchkes) and our house is organized, serene and has zero clutter. It is an oasis of visual calm.

    Now when I go into other houses I’m struck by the sheer visual clutter and it makes me viscerally nervous. I don’t know how people *think* in those homes.

  2. I do not like clutter at all, it makes me feel claustrophobic. Sadly, I am married to a wonderful man who is a pack rat and comes from a family of pack rats. When my brother-in-law died suddenly two years ago (no wife, no children), it fell to my husband to clear out the house, which had been in his family for almost 70 years. There was stuff from the grandparents, the parents, my BiL – a total mess. I made it clear that, aside from a couple of well-chosen items of great sentimental value, none of it was coming into my house. We’re still struggling with that, but I’m not leaving a mess for my kids to deal with.

  3. I’m not a pack rat at all but definitely have ongoing issues with clutter. I have “cleared” many other areas of my life, but this is one weak link that persists. Always, always, always an area for improvement in my life.

  4. The last time I moved, there was a point where about half the stuff had been removed from the old place (which was less than 500 sf) and I realized how nice it would have been to have that much less stuff all along. I’ve always found decluttering to be like pulling teeth, but when I’ve done it successfully, it’s made life happier.

    My current place is about 900 sf, and I’m seriously contemplating converting a school bus to a tiny house on wheels to live in for a few years. That would be about 200 sf to work with. It would necessitate the mother of all declutterings, but I love the idea of being so unencumbered.

  5. I am definitely NOT a fan of clutter. However, when I go into a minimalist space, I am sad for the inhabitants. It seems there are no memories or fun incorporated into their homes. All I see is cold, sterile, lifelessness.

    Rearing children is a cluttered existence. You can throw out all day long and in a day or two, it’s all back. I blame the schools and activities for the influx if clutter. LOL Some days were better than others.

  6. Life creates clutter. Creative interests create clutter. Children create clutter. Humans are diverse creatures in many ways–and one of those is a continuum of tolerance for clutter. A sure-fire way to alienate children (and make them hesitant to return home to visit as adults) is to constantly chastise them for not meeting the parents’ (usually the mother’s) high standards of neatness. Certain standards can be expected (no old sandwiches in the room), but otherwise, concentrate on enjoying one another–not on having a sterile environment.

  7. I forgot to mention Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay. What did archaeologists make of an American motel, unearthed in the distant future?

    • That book’s great! The photo shrines comment made me think of it too. I bought it for my son a few years ago after it was recommended, possibly on here…

  8. Really interesting videos. I have cluttered spots (largely around papers) but not the piles of clothes and belongings.

    I have a similar view to many of you readers, I think, in that the classic image of a Minimalist interior always feels a bit joyless. I am drawn to simple (not Minimalist) rooms but don’t seem to be able to manage quite that level of simplicity. Having a family with different interests doesn’t help and having children definitely adds to the amount of ‘stuff’. Mine are past the age of plastic toys but still leave their own detritus around the house. Maybe my house is messy, rather than cluttered?!

  9. Thanks for including the videos, even though my cortisol level went up watching them. I second Amy’s comment – how can people think in such spaces, let alone sleep and relax? It is neat hearing how anthropologists analyze the different areas of a home.

  10. I see two sides to this coin.

    First, Americans tend to have entirely too much stuff that we all collect because we can. We have large homes and the cash to accumulate objects. At the same time very little of this stuff is useful.

    Then again, our hyper efficient just-in-time supply chains for essential items have resulted in a three day reserve of food on the supermarket shelves and no one knows how to do anything for themselves anymore.

    So we get a funky mash up of “hoarders” who stockpile frozen chicken nuggets (not useful in a power failure, earthquake, flood…) and Hummel figurines (not helpful if you need to keep warm/cool etc.)

    I personally have reskilled and supplied my home with a deep pantry of essencial, useful tools, and productive activities. But because of the “hoarder” white trash meme there are endless municipal regulations and HOA rules that prevent many people from growing a garden, maintaining a workshop in the garage, etc.

    • Yep. Interesting how those HOA rules and zoning regulations support a lifestyle of hoarding useless plastic goods.

  11. There two issues here,

    1) too many stuff

    2) a means of classifying and arranging

    I don’t have a lot of stuff (by choice), so problem number 2 for me is easier to tackle.

    But I do know folks who have too many stuff, some don’t have a number 2 but it’s those who have some sort of number 2 that really interest me.

    I for one just have a bunch of shelvings, other number 2’s I’ve come across range from having their own Dewey decimal system for stuff ex. by colors , to a bunch of hidden compartments throughout the house.

    Now a blog post on various number 2’s would be awesome.

  12. Oh, man! So many thoughts and feelings! I MUST track down a copy of this book through the library. (As it happens I recently made peace with my book-hording tendency and donated hundreds. It was an almost physical sigh of relief when they left the house.)

    As a person with minimal consumer/shopping habits it is astonishing to me how “stuff” still accumulates. We, too, are child-free so I cannot speak directly to that–but I’ve sure got siblings, cousins, and friends whom I witness first-hand.

    I see no end in sight until we once again have a major shift in cultural priorities.

    Also: It is amusing to me how “loaded” the word minimalism is to many people. Like if you want clean lines you must surely hate your family or art or something. This sentiment toward the word is fascinating in its own right.

    Over the past decade I’ve re-framed my vision of minimalism in which the life one loves to live shines like a beacon in ones home, rather than being propped up or obscured by material goods. Example: I used to have to clean off my sewing desk every time I wanted to sew because my craft supplies ran rampant. Now it is just clear. The sewing desk ISN’T clutter for me (it is a creative pursuit, hobby, and meditation), but when I had too much other stuff that table would get cluttered…and it couldn’t shine. So, the clutter had to go so the sewing could have space to blossom. (If that makes sense at all.)

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