Defining “Clutter”

clutter 2

I have friends that have so much Stuff in their homes that when I visit, I feel like I can’t breathe. I need air, give me air. Walking into their house, I feel like I’ve just walked onto the pages of a Where’s Waldo book. I’m not normally claustrophobic…except in their houses…and it has nothing to do with room size. Stuff me in a tiny closet and shut the door…no problem…put me in an overly-furnished room and I start to tremble. There’s so much stuff I don’t actually see individual items; everything blurs into a massive kaleidoscope of indistinguishable Stuff!

By my definition, their homes are cluttered. By my definition, almost anything can become clutter if there’s too much of it: plants, books, art, or furniture. By my definition, stuffing a home is like wearing every necklace you own…at the same time. And yet my friends are not only comfortable but proud of their homes…and their Stuff.

De-cluttering….it’s a critical component of home staging and home design; we are constantly reading or hearing about the need to de-clutter our homes…but what does that really mean. What exactly is clutter? And how do we DE-clutter when we’re not even sure what clutter is?

It’s not exactly helpful when design sites or magazines feature articles on the need to de-clutter and the next article features a room crammed with furniture, accessories, and art. Huh?

And what about the debris that collects when we are relaxed, tired, sick, or busy? Newspapers, half-filled coffee cups, empty pop cans, stray papers, and stacks of mail…surely that can’t be the clutter designers, decorators, and stagers are talking about?

Stagers often define clutter as any item smaller than a basketball…beach ball…football. Easy, but most of us don’t live in staged homes so how does that translate into normal living?

Miriam-Webster gives a more formal definition:

Clutter (noun) a large amount of things that are not arranged in a neat or orderly way: a crowded or disordered collection of things

Clutter-(verb) to fill or cover with scattered or disordered things that impede movement or reduce effectiveness

Hmm! Does that mean that we can pack a warehouse worth of stuff into a 10 x 10 room, as long as everything is neat and orderly and we can move around? Does it count if the columns of stuff are eight feet high?

The word “clutter” also seems to imply something of little value and not much worth. Please! We’re talking about our Stuff here. And how do we define value…by price, size, or quantity? 

Perhaps clutter comes in layers; the first layer being the debris of daily living. Or perhaps it is measureable in units… degrees of clutter…mildly cluttered, moderately cluttered, or totally cluttered. Maybe we could devise a scale, kind of like the Richter scale, that defines the magnitude of clutter and has an attached alarm or siren: “Warning! Warning! You have reached maximum clutter. Please move to higher ground…”

Only this is not a science, this is perception.

What I have finally come to realize, is that there may not be a universal definition of “clutter”, a single meaning that we can all agree on. Just as we all have individual tastes and style preferences, our definition of “clutter” is highly personal, we each define it differently. What is one man’s “clutter” is another man’s treasure.

I’ve also come to realize that “de-cluttering” is a different process based on whether we are staging or creating home, because the goals are different. The goal of staging is visual clarity; the goal of creating home is self-expression.

When stagers recommend that a client “de-clutter” what they’re really saying is limit the number of accessories on the coffee table, minimize the number of prints on the wall, or downsize the amount of furniture in the living room. The terms, downsize, simplify, streamline, or minimize, are more effective, precise, and easier to understand than the ambiguous “de-clutter”. And there is no suggestion of lack of value or worth.

So, I vote we ban the over-used terms clutter and de-clutter and find more precise terminology with less ambiguous definitions and without negative connotations.  What about congestion and de-congestion…uh, no! Or Stuff and de-Stuff…hmm…maybe not.

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