Jan 262011

To give the contrarian perspective on this month’s cleaning theme,  I was intrigued by the title of Mary Randolph Carter’s latest book,  A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life. Unexpectedly,  this is one of my favorite organizing books of all time!

Who is Mary Randolph Carter?  Carter,  as she is known to friends,  grew up as one of nine children in the historic Monument Avenue neighborhood of Richmond,  Virginia.  Her childhood role in the family led ultimately to her future career:

“When I was growing up, I was in charge of ambience.  Possibly the task fell to me because, of the nine of us, I was most helpless in the kitchen and had a knack (along with others) for pulling a room together. To create a mood for rooms already burdened with the character of so many years of living was more of a supporting role for sure.  My task was to garnish each, in summer, with cut herbs from the garden, and in winter, pewter pitchers filled with holly, bayberry, and branches of magnolia; to light candles tipped into tin chandeliers dangling from the dining room ceiling and in the wobbly silver and pewter candlestick holders scattered everywhere; to see that fires were crackling; and to ensure that Frank Sinatra crooned out a welcome as the first guest walked through the door.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

She went on to become Vice President of Advertising for Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand and supervised all of the brand’s photoshoots. She has written several books on interior design and a series of books on “junk.”  She has a website at carterjunk.com chronicling her “junking” activities.

First of all, this book has one of the most beautiful layouts I have seen.  It feels like an art book as you page through it.  Carter takes us to visit eight of her close friends and family and lets us in on how they live interesting lives while surrounded by lots of stuff.  Many are professional artists whose homes serve a dual role as studio space.  Every single one of these people has a creative bend in some way.  Most are surrounded by lots of physical objects and some have lot of animals. One home housed 4 dogs and another 8 cats!

The biggest challenge to describe to you is the main point of this book.  I am not sure there is just one.  Based on the title alone, you might think it is entirely about how you can be as messy as you want to be and have the freedom to do whatever you want in  your own home.  It is,  but not entirely.  Even Carter and all her friends acknowledge there are limits on how you have to keep your house.  She wants you to make your bed every day and never leave dirty dishes or party debris sitting overnight.  She wants you to make extra effort to set out candles, put on music and whip up great food when guests come over.

There are a couple of key messages I took away from this book that make this a standout from most books on organizing and interior design:

1.  All mess is not equal.  There are those that know how to give their homes an “it” factor by displaying treasures in a beautifully cluttered way. This type of display is often more appealing to the eye than a sterile,  plain,  perfectly organized home.  Carter is queen of this style.

“There is mess and there is clutter.  If you grew up with the former . . . you probably make no distinction.  Clutter vigilantes contend that clutter is always a mess;  clutter connoisseurs contend that clutter is liberation from the rigidity of over-organization.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

2.  We all suffer from a continuing tension between wanting tidiness and wanting to surround ourselves with treasures we discover.  For Carter and her friends you tend to see a perfectionist all-or-nothing streak where they either want lots of artful clutter or a zen-like space with none at all.  The tension is ongoing and unresolved with some moments calling for clutter and others for zen.

“I have always worked in the comfort of personal clutter both at home and at work.  . . . When colleagues pass by my office door . . . I hear them whisper ‘Oh,  this is Carter’s office–she’s creative,’ as if that is the best excuse they can offer for what lies inside.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

Just how cluttered is her office?  If you want to see pictures of Carter’s office you can click here to view them at theselby.com.

Yet even Carter has her limits and you will be shocked to see the studio she creates for herself at the end of the book.

3.  The biggest lesson in this book though is that too much organization and tidiness is not human.  Rather than making us feel relaxed it makes us feel tense, inadequate, and nervous about messing things up.  When you aim to clean to welcome others into your home, give them a little artistic mess to relate to.  Let them see your human side.

As Italian photographer Oberto Gili shares:

“[T]hough he understands the hygienic case for cleaning,  he hates everything about it,  mostly the sound of the vacuum cleaner.  . . . He tries to do a little cleaning up when company is coming,  but if he can’t get to it,  well,  a little mess isn’t so terrible.  ‘If someone comes to my house it’s because he or she truly likes people,  and I try to make my home as friendly as possible.’ And that he does by allowing friends to share his life whether at work or at play, perfect or imperfect.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

Come visit Oberto and he will treat you to handmade pasta while you peruse his latest photography stills stacked in artful boxes around his home.  Sounds pretty heavenly,  eh?  I wouldn’t notice his lack of cleaning either.  If you can’t be tidy, be interesting!

This book has tips and ideas mixed in with stories, beautiful photography and charm.  It would be a delight to meet Carter and all of her friends. They have amazing and interesting lives which they reflect in their avant garde homekeeping.

Even if you disagree with the basic premise of this book and your own style leans toward a sterile zen-like space you can learn a lot from this book about creating warmth through picking the right combinations of beautiful objects.  Accessorizing a room is a complex art and this book has many inspiring photographs to show you how.   You don’t have to take it to the extremes of some of the homes profiled. Most of the homes you will encounter are not hoarders’ paradises but rather relatively tidy homes but with lots of visual interest.  I know my own home could benefit from these tips and I intend to return to this book again and again for inspiration.

Do you agree that a welcoming home needs a little artful clutter or does Carter’s style turn you off?  Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , , , ,
Nov 202009

When I tell people I am an organizational consultant, one of the first and most common reactions I receive is an embarrassed confession that someone is disorganized.  We have been conditioned to expect neatness from ourselves and others and the failure to achieve true neatness leads to profound feelings of shame or inadequacy.  One of my primary motivations for founding Ruly was to challenge traditional thinking on organization.  I don’t believe that we all need to be compulsively tidy or that our lives need to exist in perfection.  When I see a messy home or office, the first thought that runs through my head is not a negative one about how disorganized or dysfunctional the person must be.  Rather, I am thinking about the good and best attributes of the person and figuring out how the back end systems the person currently has support those best attributes and how I can add to and improve upon what is already there.  There is not one universal “system” that is going to work for everyone but sometimes people do need a core set of ideas to start with in order to build a system that functions for them.

This month’s Ruly Bookshelf choice is a work that challenges traditional notions of organization.  “A Perfect Mess” subtitled “The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on the fly planning make the world a better place” by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman gives voice to the millions of us who are naturally messy.    Is that such a bad thing?  Abrahamson and Freedman argue no.  While they admit that there is a limit of messiness (just as there is a limit of cleanliness), a little mess can be a good idea.

“The truth is, we are all at least a bit of a mess — and all the more interesting for it.”


–Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, A Perfect Mess

Abrahamson and Freedman argue that there are six key benefits of messiness:

  1. flexibility
  2. completeness
  3. resonance (i.e. being in tune with the outside world and our constantly changing environment)
  4. invention
  5. efficiency (i.e. it takes time to properly organize things and one system of organization will be a time-waster to at least someone who does not categorize their own thinking in the same way as the system)
  6. robustness (i.e. messy systems have an easier time coping with unusual objects, concepts or thinking, whereas neat systems try to change those items to fit a predefined category or eject them from the system)

The book then details interesting examples from a variety of sources, including business, science, art, politics, and language showing how some of the greatest achievements have been made as a result of an exposure to a random idea, a chance encounter, a novel way of thinking.  Abrahamson and Freedman argue that constraining processes and thoughts into highly ordered systems squelches this type of innovation.

The book profiles businesses like Harvey’s Hardware that stocks an infinite variety of hardware implements in a completely haphazard fashion essentially requiring that customers ask for help from one of their knowledgeable clerks.  “[W]hat the store excels at is providing an opportunity to find what you aren’t looking for.”  Similarly, the book has praise for search engine “BananaSlug” that inserts a random word (like “poodle”) into your search terms in order to provide you with a set of results that is both relevant and thought provoking.

Like all organizational systems, however, the hypothesis is not entirely perfect.  The book was published in 2006.  Some of the business profiled for their innovation have since failed, such as DayJet (a system for scheduling plane flights to smaller cities for business travelers based on unpredictable scheduling) which ceased operating September 19, 2008.  The author also contrasts the fluid management style of Microsoft and the success of Xbox 360  with the “fastidious, turtleneck-only control freak” management style of Steve Jobs.   While he acknowledges that “Apple finally scored a large hit with the iPod,” he tries to end on a sour note stating “by early 2006 analysts were predicting the iPod would soon be losing market share.”  There is clearly room for business success for both “clean” and “messy” management styles.

The book makes the case as well as I have ever seen it made that messy people are not disasters but rather creatively organized.  A messy person can be very functional, efficient and sucessful.  I have met many people like this.  However, even messy people have room for improvement. Just as obsessively tidy people may be missing out on detail, nuance and flexibility, obsessively messy people may be missing out on opportunities to expand their opportunities for achievement through introduction of more discipline.

This book is beautifully written and an interesting read.  I have three pages of quotations written down that I love from this book but I will restrict myself to just a few of my favorites.

“There is an optimal level of mess for any aspect of every system.”

“Office messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, increasing salary and increasing experience.”

“Many of us are already operating at a more-or-less appropriate level of mess but labor under the mistaken belief that we’re failing in some way because of it.”

“Our brains evolved to function in a messy world, and sometimes when we insist on thinking in neat, orderly ways, we’re really holding back our minds from doing what they do best.”

“Even though you can’t count on serendipity, it’s more likely to find those who are open to disorder.”

“It we were always good at recognizing our powerlessness to control randomness– that is, if we fully accepted how disordered the world is — we might too often become paralyzed by indecision or hopelesness.  Being quick to imagine that we can assert order and improve the odds to a greater degree than we actually can is what often inspires us to act boldly.”

This book is appropriate for a variety of audiences, including a tidy person who is trying to understand a messy spouse or child and a messy person who needs some validation and support.  Some of the business information could use a little updating but it is also an interesting snapshot in time of 2006.  I encourage you to experience it for yourself.

Have a messy weekend!

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
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