A Conversation about Clutter with Nicolette Toussaint

I met interior designer Nicolette at a networking event (we are indebted to Irene Kohler, moderator of Linking Northern California, for introducing us) and found a lot of common ground in the subject of clutter. Her clients have needed organization as much as the space planning solutions she provides, so she had quite a few questions for me.
This post, which is a conversation between the two of us, is also up on Nicolette’s site. She has also posted about storage, clutter, and “too much junk.” Below are links to several earlier posts she has written about related topics.

I love the furniture she suggests here! Beauty and organization should go together.

Nicolette: Claire, I admire what you said on your website about your services being confidential and “non-judgmental.” Although I am scrupulous about confidences – I name clients only when they have given me permission and otherwise use pseudonyms – I’m challenged when it comes to being judgmental!
I confess that I once turned down a date with a guy mostly because the floor of his car was awash in six inches of flotsam and jetsam. To my mind, that meant that he wasn’t good relationship material. (Perhaps this was because I had recently divorced someone who filled every nook and cranny of the house with magazines, books, collections, clothes, you name it!)

I think that “Collectors“, like my ex, who can’t bear to part with anything, need to work with an organizer before they even consider interior design. While only a few people fall into my Collector category, everyone you work with needs organizing help. How do you go about working with your clients?

Claire: I like to find out what kind of person the client is. Usually I start by asking questions about the space in question:

I ask obvious questions because I find that people overlook those themselves. Once I know what they want, I figure out what’s realistic and simple.
I have a client whose home office is also a playroom. This combo works for her because she likes being in the room with her children, and it’s next door to the kitchen so they are nearby when she’s cooking. For someone who needs quiet concentration time, I would not recommend this.

On the other hand, sometimes people set up fancy home offices that they never work in. When I ask why, it turns out that it’s too cold, it’s too far from the rest of the house, it’s too dark, it’s too noisy, they can’t hear the doorbell, etc. Personal work style and preferences have to be accounted for. Just because your house has a room labeled “home office” it doesn’t mean that you have to work there.

Nicolette: Your questions are similar to a questionnaire I use to create the “program” that guides my design work.

EcoSystem’s Bada table folds to become a love seat

Many of my clients need to create what I call “hybrid rooms” in their homes. You know, a kitchen-office, or a laundry room-play room. But I haven’t come across a playroom-office before. When I work with these rooms, I often recommend “convertible furniture” – pieces that can serve more than one function or change size.

Claire: Wow, that is some cool furniture! My focus is more on process than products, although I do recommend simple things such as using an artist’s taboret for office supplies because it can roll away when you’re not using it. Some taborets are unassuming enough to stay in view in the dining room and not scream “I work here too!”

Earlier, I mentioned the beautifully appointed office that isn’t used. I’ll suggest setting up a real work area in the dining room (there are often tell-tale items in there already). I like to work with what my clients have, and who they are, and keep it as simple as possible.
I look for ways that dining room workers can store their supplies so that they’re easy to put away. I urge them to get in the habit of stashing everything away in the evening and getting it out again the next day so they can use the dining table to eat.

For those who rely on seeing a pile of paper to do the work, this is a challenge. In that case, we create ways to organize their workflow so they know what to do in the morning.

Nicolette: What common hybrid rooms have you seen? What combinations of activities work well, and which don’t?

Claire: Guest rooms are mostly underused, in my experience. Either they’re wasted space, or they become storage rooms, the bed piled high with boxes of Christmas ornaments, old tax returns, etc. I’ve recommended that clients ditch the bed and get a convertible sofa instead. If the mattress isn’t that comfy, they can top it with an Aerobed. That makes space to use the room for something else, such as an office or playroom. If a room is in use, it’s less likely to fill up with junk.

Nicolette: As a designer, I find that it’s not only important to have enough storage, but that the convenience of storage is also an issue. When I design a room, I make sure that the things that a person uses daily can be accessed without crawling on the floor or climbing on ladders. Recently, I planned a layout for a couple who was moving into a condo, and in the early stages of the project, I visited their old, pre-move apartment. Every available surface was piled high with books and papers. This is exactly how the offices of the attorneys I worked with years ago — at a nonprofit, public-interest lawfirm that shall remain nameless — looked. I was afraid to walk in for fear of knocking over piles of “discovery” papers.

But they knew what was in the piles.
I saw this as a symptom of poor planning, not as an indictment of their behavior – they seemed organized in other areas of their lives. But they really didn’t have places for newspapers, for books, and for projects that involved writing and reading papers. In their new space, I made sure that they had about a dozen baskets that would hold 8.5 by 11 inch papers and would fit neatly into their bookshelves. I also recommended hassocks that could be used for storing newspapers and books, and I used credenzas as room dividers. So far, their new place has remained neat.

Can you tell me how, as an organizer, you help people who are drowning in papers?

Claire: The biggest challenges my clients have regarding paper is that they won’t put it away for fear of forgetting about it, or they resent doing the work of putting it away. So, making it easy and/or keeping it visible is paramount. Open shelving, literature sorters and stacking trays can help. For reading material, open baskets and containers near seating (where they will read) works well.

I like the Pendaflex Pile Smart line of office products. They have a binder clip with a big label area on it. That way, you can pile papers, but they can be clearly marked with the clip. The label area is re-writable too. I am not against piles. I’m against not being able to find things.
Labeling containers is also helpful. I like your idea of having baskets on the bookshelves. For a unified look, they’d probably be all the same size and color.

Labeling is good so it’s easy to see what goes in which container. I also think labeling has a motivating effect. When you see the label Dwell Magazine, you want to look around for one to put in there. It’s like doing a puzzle. Not everyone needs labels, but I have had clients whose lovely baskets eventually turn into miscellaneous catch-alls.

Nicolette: In some ways, designing interiors that help people to live happier and healthier lives is a bit like herding cats. I have owned cats for years, and I have had quite a bit of success in training them. For example, they trot off to their “den” at night when I give them the command! The secret is to observe and understand what they are inclined to do naturally, then bend that native behavior in desired direction, rather than trying to counter it. People are not all that different.
I got the idea of shaping a room’s interior around the occupant’s habitual behavior after reading a book written by journalist Amy Sutherland. Amy used reward and non-response to condition her husband to perform chores, and then wrote a book about it. It’s called What Shamu Taught Me about Love, Life and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers.  Here’s a cool coffee table from BoConcepts. I love how papers can be tucked out of sight inside.

I recently told a client to “observe the animal called Lena for the next week and tell me what her habits are.” I wanted her observations because if I understand my client’s natural tendencies, and learn what features of the built environment are helping or hindering a desired change, then I can re-design the room accordingly. In Lena’s case (that’s not her real name) she needed a place to hang book and gym bags that was near the door – not a dozen steps across the room and in a closet that was already too crowded.

Claire: What you told Lena is similar to what I tell clients when I coach them to “become a detective of your own life.” The idea is to watch yourself when you come in the house. Where do you put the keys, the mail, your bag, the newspaper? Does it all go in one place? What about your jacket? Then where do you go?

Make things easy for yourself. If you have a front hall, put a table there that’s big enough to accommodate the mail and your bag. If you don’t, set up an incoming-outgoing station as close to the door as possible where those things can be parked.

Nicolette: Many of us here in the Bay Area live in small spaces. Do you have any special advice for us?

Claire: Well, the first step is always paring down. Deciding that you really can live without the spare blender in the back of the cabinet, the stack of magazines you’re going to read this weekend, etc. People keep a lot of stuff “just in case” or because they stopped using it but never got around to getting rid of it. As for occasionally used items, you should ask: Could I borrow or rent one? Could I make do with something else?

The second step is maximizing storage. This is a dance of using that hard-to-get-at space vs. being able to access things easily. Naturally, people want to just pick something up off a shelf without climbing up a ladder. The trick is to identify the things they want to keep but don’t use often. I had some clients who have a huge book collections and many of the books are over-sized; art books, coffee table books. They installed a bookshelf about 18 inches down from the ceiling that went around the kitchen, down the hall, and into the office. They have a portable library ladder to reach them. This saved two large bookshelves worth of space.

Nicolette: I have used that trick too. Many older Bay Area houses have high ceilings, and it’s often quite easy to put a bookshelf above a door frame, or extend it across two door frames. The frames even help support the shelf. It’s not like you need to look at that photo book about the museum’s Samurai Exhibition every day.
But if you’re going to use that high space well, you need to be clear about what you’re going to store there. I’m going to specify a different width lumber for a shelf that holds over-sized art books than I would for paperbacks.
Then again, a high shelf like that is great for things that are bulky and lightweight, such as guest pillows or towels. If I know that we’re going to store linens, I will probably specify an enclosed cabinet or a shelf that can hold storage baskets, because linens usually aren’t going to make good display items…
Claire: As a first step, it’s important to find out how clients want to use their space. Many times clients want to rush out to the Container Store and buy some cool containers. You probably run into this too. Clients who want particular pieces of furniture regardless of how they’re going to fit in or work with their lifestyle. I’ve often worked with folks who already went out and bought a bunch of baskets or boxes and they turned out to be completely useless. But they looked nifty!Nicolette: Oh, yes! I had a client run out and buy a wonderful desk, only to discover that once it was in her office, she couldn’t open the drawers wide enough to get things in and out of them. And then there was the family of seven who didn’t have enough living room seating for everyone – but they did have an over-stuffed Chesterfield chair that had a footprint as large as a loveseat that would seat three people!Claire: Encouraging clients to be realistic about how much time and energy they want to spend on organizing is really important. If they want their home office to look like Martha Stewart’s, they need to realize that she (or her assistant, more likely) spends a lot of time keeping it Martha-ized. I suggest that “done” is better than “perfect.”

Nicolette: Some people – I call them “Collectors” – have trouble getting rid of anything. (I alluded to one, my ex-husband, at the beginning of this blog, and I wrote about Collectors in an earlier post.) Have you encountered them? If so, how do you help them?

Claire: I write haiku poems about clutter. Here’s one about Collectors:

Museum loversCreate their own collectionsBut lack the warehouse.

When Collectors really can’t part with anything, no matter what condition the things are in, it doesn’t work to apply logic. As you mentioned, this is a tricky topic. I will ask if there are other family members who would want some of the heirlooms. Sometimes I suggest photographing them. These days you can make lovely coffee table books yourself and that would be a great way to preserve and honor the memories associated with the possessions. Sometimes it works to sort the things and then have the client select the ten best from each category. Another tactic is to buy a display cabinet for the objects and then choose only what will fit inside it.

The collection is about the past. I had a client who consulted me because his sweetheart feared there was no room for her in his life. His home was still full of stuff that belonged to his deceased wife. We worked on ways to honor his previous marriage, while still welcoming the present and future.

Nicolette: (Laughing) I have a very similar story about a newlywed couple who had quite a contretemps over a Mexican sculpture called a “alebrije.” Even though he liked primitive art, he hated this particular little dragon of hers. He knew that it was a souvenir of a trip his new bride had taken with her old boyfriend, and he just couldn’t stand to have his rival in a place of honor on the mantle of the fireplace!

Claire, I love your haiku. It’s so uncluttered! Did you know that I often end my blog posts with a bit of poetry? Would you mind being the poet laureate for this post?

Claire: Not at all!

Resource Links

The Haiku of ClutterIf I kick that box
Under the desk one more time
I’ll just have to scream.

A Finnish art student decided to inventory every object in her 250 square meter home (about 2,700 square feet) and present it as her thesis. Using archaeological methods, she found that she owned 6,126 objects. Here’s her analysis of how often she used each object: