Is your office cluttered with books, papers and teetering piles of business cards? Does your house sometimes feel more like a storage facility than a home? If so, I wish you could have joined me the other day for The Beauty of Being Organized, an event sponsored by Herman Miller, the furniture company, which featured a talk by a funny and insightful “professional organizer” named Peter Walsh.

 

The purpose of the event, held in Herman Miller’s Washington, D.C., furniture showroom, was to sell stuff – specifically, a stylish new line of storage furniture named Teneo that you can see here. Walsh, meanwhile, argued that many of us are drowning in our stuff. “The things you own end up owning you,” he said, quoting from the movie Fight Club. He hosts a cable TV show on TLC called “Clean Sweep” and wrote a book called “It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff.” That’s not what you typically hear when a company is introducing a new product.

Yet somehow the combination worked. Partly that’s because Herman Miller is a class act. I’ve been a fan since I wrote about the company in my own book, Faith and Fortune. Based in beautiful western Michigan, Herman Miller was way ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability. (The story is told that the company founder, D.J. Dupree, was staring out his office window when he first saw Nellie Miller, the woman he later married; from then on, he decreed that everyone who works at Herman Millers should have a view of the outdoors.) Teneo, like most of their new furniture, is designed according to the strict environmental requirements of the McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) Cradle-to-Cradle protocol. The company treats its people well, and has enormous respect for creative gifts of the people who design its furniture. Teno was designed by Ayse Birsel, a Turkish-born woman, and her husband, Bibi Seck, who have also worked with Hewlett Packard, Target and Renault.

For his part, Walsh does not hector people to be less materialistic. Instead, he argues that we will be happier and more fulfilled if we are able to make do with less. “It’s got to be about quality, not quantity,” he said. “It’s got to be about the good, rather than the more.”

Part therapist, part organizational guru, Walsh said, “We live in a culture that says if one is good, two is better. The size of the average American house has doubled in the last 30 years. The fast-growing type of real estate in this country is self-storage facilities.” Larger houses and more stuff in storage! It goes without saying that this way of living is unsustainable. “If everybody on earth consumers like we consume, we would need six planets,” Walsh said.

Shrewdly, he argues that clutter is not about the old clothes in the attic, the shoes piled up on the closet, the kids’ toys all over the house, or the pots and pans you never use—it goes much deeper than that.

Most clutter, he says, falls into two categories. One is “memory clutter”—the boxes of photos, the years-old school projects, the kids’ first pair of shoes or even (yuk) an umbilical cord. The other is what he calls “I might need it clutter”—the fondue pot high in a kitchen cabinet because you just might have a fondue party some day.

Put another way, clutter is about either living in the past or living in the future. Which, of course, makes it harder and a lot less pleasant to live in the present.

Walsh has some smart ideas for getting rid of your stuff, and getting your life back. I won’t summarize them here, but basically they are about starting with a vision of what you want your office or bedroom or kitchen to be, and then working backwards from there by asking whether the things you own bring you closer to or farther away from that vision. He also says that people need to “honor and respect” the things that they do choose to own, and the spaces they create because if you don’t, your relationship with your stuff and your mood in the space will sour very quickly.

“The word organization and the word organic oome from the same root,” he noted. I think he’s onto something.