Critiquing clutter

I’ve written before about decluttering in the sense of evaluating your possessions and getting rid of what you no longer need (in a responsible way). More recently, I’ve written about decluttering in the sense of removing personal items from view to make it easier for people to imagine your home as their home.

So, the word “decluttering” has two wildly different meanings:

  • making your home more livable by removing things that are not necessary for your life as you’re currently living it
  • removing necessary things from view to create the illusion that your home is not occupied by a person with human needs.

Who benefits from the conflation of these two very different meanings? A good cold-reading answer to any question beginning “Who benefits…?” is “People who already have privilege,” but let’s step back a bit.

The UK has the smallest houses in Western Europe. Unlike most other countries, the UK focuses on number of rooms rather than actual size when houses are bought and sold. (The type of house is also taken into account, so we talk about a “three-bedroom semi” rather than an “88-square-metre house”.) A report from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) entitled The Case for Space: The Size of England’s New Homes (PDF download link) has some eye-opening info about this.

Humans are generally pretty rubbish at judging space in absolute terms; we tend to use visual cues. That’s why narrow cycle lanes can be more dangerous than no cycle lane at all; because motorists use lane markings as a guide for how much space to give cyclists rather than making their own assessment of how much space there is. So, when buying a house, we ask “How many bedrooms? Is it detached?” and treat that info as a guide to the space available.

Professional house-stagers exploit this human tendency to use visual cues to judge space. Someone once told me about viewing an expensive flat as a potential buyer. She and her mother both flopped down on the two-seater sofa and were very surprised to find that they could barely fit on it. That’s when they realised it was a piece of “staging” furniture designed to deceive the eye into thinking there was space for a two-seater. I wonder how many other people would also find that their bottom is a better judge of space than their eyes and brains.

I’m new to all this, but I’ve seen plenty of tricks already. Like the “double bedroom” with a double bed in it but literally no other furniture – and when I looked properly, I realised there was no room for a wardrobe or bedside table or anything else. The bathroom where it was clear you had to be below a certain body size to sit on the toilet (like some really boring fairground ride?). The kitchen with a dining table and four chairs pushed against the wall to make it a “kitchen/diner”, except that there wasn’t room for anybody to actually sit at the table.

If you downloaded that RIBA report, you’ll see that the space-shaving tricks start before the house is even built. A house-builder won’t reduce the number of bedrooms, because that’s so key to how we judge houses. But they might remove a cupboard here, some hallway space there. As a result, British houses are distinctly lacking in built-in storage.

So why do we talk about “clutter” as if it’s a moral failing, rather than a structural problem?

Yes, some people are capable of keeping a house free of “clutter” (visible evidence of occupation) all the time. Who are those people?

  • property developers who don’t actually live there
  • buy-to-let investors who don’t actually live there
  • second home owners who keep the place as a pied-a-terre but don’t really live there
  • people with access to more space-per-person than average, plus enough control over that space to fit it with the storage they need.

Are you sensing a theme here?

At the other end of the spectrum you’ve got people who can’t keep a place free of clutter (for long). And there you have people with mobility problems, people with kids, people with difficult family members who keep crashing on the couch because they have nowhere else to go, people with depression, people whose landlords won’t provide any storage despite having advertised the house as “fully furnished”, people with chronic fatigue, people with too many damn housemates.

So when you talk about clutter as something to be overcome, like a moral failing or an illness, you’re ignoring the privilege that makes it very easy for some people to have zero clutter. And you’re ignoring the vulnerability and powerlessness of people who can’t get on top of clutter.

I would like to find some different words to talk about this, because I still believe in the power of getting rid of things you truly don’t need or want. But I don’t want to contribute to the shaming of people who have their books stacked up in piles because the landlord won’t let them put up a set of shelves, or boxes in the corner because there’s no space to unpack. I’m sure other people have gone further in thinking about this issue than I have. Suggestions for further reading welcome!

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One Comment on “Critiquing clutter”

  1. […] Critiquing clutter On how the concept of clutter as a moral failing privileges the already privileged. (June 2015) […]

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