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Life Less is more, except when it’s not: Why minimalism isn’t for everyone

The market for advice about decluttering is becoming, well, cluttered. The current less-is-more wave started with last year’s North American release of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. The book amassed heaps of buzz and briskly sold two million copies, thanks to the author’s method of discarding and organizing that equates an ordered house with an ordered life. February saw the debut of a diet tie-in by Peter Walsh called Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down, which cites a study that connects cluttered homes to obesity. To help visual learners, an illustrated guide titled New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks (And Everyone Else) by actress-slash-musician-slash-professional organizer Fay Wolf is slated for next spring.

Clean living, in all its incarnations, is so hot right now, but the concept of ridding your home of unnecessary knick-knacks is nothing new. Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, known as The Minimalists, caught an earlier wave of decluttering in the wake of the Great Recession. Unsatisfied with the trappings of success, the friends purged most of their possessions, quit their six-figure corporate jobs, then started a website and wrote a book to spread their gospel. Nicodemus suggests the trend is tied to a growing discontentment that comes with our consumer-driven lifestyles.

(Paul Dotey for The Globe and Mail)

For Kondo and her ilk, this brand of minimalism addresses all areas of life – work, health, relationships – but focuses most on getting rid of stuff in your living space. The act of decluttering is gateway therapy: Take care of the external chaos and your psyche will follow suit. But is off-loading things – sentimental collections, family heirlooms or even an objet d’art bought on a whim to fill negative space on a bookshelf – really the 21st-century person’s path to enlightenment? And are sparser spaces removing too much joy, inspiration and design potential from daily life?

Decluttering hasn’t hindered clothing designer Alexandra Suhner Isenberg, who joined the tidy tide two years ago. Hours spent breastfeeding her second-born in her living room flicked a switch. “I just looked at all these stupid coffee-table books that I’d never open, these vases and crap,” she says, “I was like, ‘Why have I got all this?’” That compelled The Sleep Shirt proprietor to seek out Nicodemus’s minimalism mentorship. Living in Squamish, B.C., at the time, Suhner Isenberg first purged a quarter of her family of four’s belongings, and then another three-quarters when the brood decided to move to Sweden.

The extra things were burdensome and ditching them felt liberating, but it was hard to let go of certain garments and trinkets. In that second clear out, she had a near regret. Following The Minimalist’s rule that you shouldn’t keep things “just in case,” she’d thought she’d tossed a ‘60s punch bowl she scored at a church sale. She was thrilled to later discover it in one of the moving boxes.

Tidying up is precisely how Kon-verts find their inner peace, and the way Kondo gets clients to clear their interiors is by prompting them to ask themselves one question: “Does it spark joy?” Anything that doesn’t is discarded. But following that logic, someone who does feel fulfilled in a busier space should feel free to guiltlessly adopt a more-the-merrier strategy. In her book Rethink: The Way You Live, Amanda Talbot, a former assistant editor at British Elle Decoration, eschews polished design in praise of optimistic design, and values self-expression rather than perfection. That includes collections whimsically spread throughout a space. “Collecting isn’t hoarding,” she writes, “It’s about surrounding yourself with objects that make you feel happy.”

One man’s clutter can be another man’s magnum opus. Todd Selby has made a living photographing the homes of artistic types (many of which are chockablock with bric-a-brac) and documenting them on his website, TheSelby.com. In multi-hyphenate Lou Doillon’s pad, there’s taxidermy and salon walls aplenty. Model Helena Christensen has conch shells, candleless candlestick holders and ornamental mushrooms about her apartment, while interior designer Jacques Grange favours feathered headdresses, porcelain cabbages and Greek sculptures in his. When asked what he thinks makes a beautiful home, Selby told The Guardian, “the best ones express their owners’ creative personalities. They don’t need to be rich, or follow trends, or tidy up. They just need to be themselves.”

(Paul Dotey for The Globe and Mail)

More or less, happiness isn’t in question, and while most people’s mothers might argue otherwise, productivity isn’t either. A 2013 study by University of Minnesota psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs had participants brainstorm new uses for Ping-Pong balls in either a messy room or a tidy one. Both generated the same number of ideas, but the disorderly environments elicited more novel concepts. The fact that Selby’s clutter-loving subjects are often creatives might not be a coincidence; all those knick-knacks could be part of what helps spark an artist’s mind.

Among the many personal treasures in industrial designer Omer Arbel’s Vancouver home are nuclear glass stemware from a Parisian antique store and discarded bricks metamorphosed by the elements on Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit. A maker and collector of objects, the creative director of Bocci considers objects he lives with lifelong companions. That kind of fidelity lends itself to careful selection, he says, and choosing things based on instilled worth instead of monetary value.

The issue Arbel has with a minimalist ethos is its suggestion of a generic, universal solution. “That’s sad to me because it means there’s very little character,” he says. “Whereas my approach to collecting requires specificity, requires particularity, requires every person to bring their personality into a space.” Brimming with books, artifacts and design prototypes, his own heritage home is a testament to his love of stuff.

Take a giant step back and the larger universe we inhabit might offer some meta-insight on decluttering. Perhaps, like the planets, some of us are better suited to hold more objects in our orbit than others. And if we’re thinking in prospective book titles, the definitive self-help tome on the subject should actually be called Minimalists are from Mars, Maximalists are from Saturn.


To download the fall edition of the Globe Style Advisor iPad app, visit tgam.ca/styleadvisor starting Sept. 11.

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