Since Tidying Up With Marie Kondo went up on Netflix on New Year’s Day, an unusually high number of unwanted belongings have gone to charities and landfill. The show is based on Kondo’s 2012 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up which outlines her theory (Kondo calls it ‘the KonMari method’) of managing household stuff. Her premise is joy. You pick an item, you ask yourself, ‘does this bring me joy?’ If yes, you find a space for it (Kondo spends quite a lot of time explaining how to store things and fold clothes). If no, you thank it for its service (Kondo seems to believe that objects are sentient) and banish it from your house. Those featured on the show are always happy after the purge. They say they finally feel at home, peaceful.
Kondo’s technique exists in a context of the rise of minimalism both as an aesthetic and a lifestyle choice. Minimalists try to possess only the things that add value to their lives. Although, in practice, minimalism tends to look like a competition to see who can get by with the least amount of stuff, as can be plainly seen in Dave Bruno’s 100 Things Challenge.
But don’t mistake minimalism’s rejection of material goods for a protest of capitalism. Streamlined spaces are for streamlined people who lead streamlined existences. It’s a labour-intense and potentially expensive way to live.
Some critics of Kondo are vocal in their defence of clutter. Some of us like clutter because it feels homey and a display-home environment makes you feel like you’re intruding. Critics might also have an aesthetic preference for maximalism (which crowds space as fully as possible).
But Kondo isn’t making you declutter your house and fold things in a particular way. The actual issue is adjacent: people are pressured to streamline their spaces, clutter is portrayed as a disastrous character flaw, and ultimately, sparse spaces don’t serve everyone. The burden is particularly hard on people with disabilities and chronic illness, and people who have to manage more financial risks than affluent proponents of minimalism.
Although Kondo maintains that after one big clean out (which for the people on her show, can take well over a month), your home will naturally remain tidy. Perhaps this is true, but in lots of ways the KonMari method nonetheless demands a great deal of ongoing labour. For instance, she writes against having high use objects close to hand – they should always be put away after use. She also advises being very sensitive to the potential ‘needs’ of your possessions. For instance, at the end of each day, she says you should take all the things out of your bag – even if you’re going to use the same bag tomorrow and even if you require the same things. She’s worried that your bag will get tired if it’s forever holding your stuff.
Well, I’m tired! I manage chronic illness, which comes with high levels of fatigue, and it’s impossible to prioritise something like taking things in and out of bags on a daily basis. I’m too tired to fold my socks (Kondo says that they don’t like being rolled) or to agonise over whether or not my spare towels bring me joy. It’s objectionable to me that under capitalism we labour in order to buy stuff, and then we need to put in additional labour to maintain that stuff. It feels never-ending and hollow – a lifestyle built on possessions. I’m almost glad I don’t have the energy to live this way.
As well as energy, chronic illness and disabilities also inherently bring with them a lot of demands on space. I have a connective tissue disorder and require medications and medical equipment such as mobility aids. Sometimes I need these items on a daily basis, sometimes I’ll go several months without them, but I’ll always want them close-to-hand, just in case. Likewise, Verena Hutter, an academic and blogger who lives with Crohn’s disease, writes that many people with irritable bowel disease keep possessions – such as certain clothes, bandages, medications – that they don’t need immediately but may do so in the future when their illness flares up.
Holding off on discarding things in case you might need them in the future is a risk management strategy. Kondo and other minimalists would advise not to plan for an adverse future, to just re-purchase things that don’t bring you joy (and believe me, plastic, BigPharma branded containers of medicines don’t bring me particular joy). This is an ableist premise, as well as a classist one – as writer Charlie Lloyd points out, often people who are less well off financially have more things.
Describing himself as lower-middle class, Llyod uses an example of what’s in his backpack to illustrate his point. He has a heavy old laptop with a power supply (as the battery lives of gadgets diminish the longer you own them), an old phone with a charger, and a range of things he might need while he’s out of the house (pens, a snack, sunscreen, water bottle, raincoat, a book, etc.). In contrast, he writes, ‘if I were rich, I would carry a MacBook Air, an iPad mini as a reader, and my wallet. My wallet would serve as everything else that’s in my backpack now.’ He wouldn’t need to prepare for what he might need, because tons of cash can do that instead. His point is that, overall, ‘poor people don’t have clutter because they’re too dumb to see the virtue of living simply; they have it to reduce risk.’
You don’t need to be in poverty to have a strong aversion to throwing away useful things. The clutter might be worth it, and thus we can opt out of minimalism. But doing so doesn’t mitigate the fact that minimalism has become a social expectation and an ideal, and – among women in particular – one’s inability to be a great housekeeper still evokes guilt, but the standard of shiny neatness and what’s at stake has upped considerably. Throughout her book, Kondo suggests that tidying could be the key to solving a wide range of problems, not just tripping over possessions. She claims it could help overspending, weight loss efforts, starting a business, unhappy relationships, career dissatisfaction, feelings of insecurity, stress, procrastination, not knowing your direction in life, and so on. Under this rubric, any problem could be absurdly blamed on not being tidy enough.
As I read Kondo’s book, I was uncomfortable with the number of times the word ‘lazy’ was repeated, as if laziness was the only reason why your house would have clutter. It was likewise disquieting to watch an episode of her show featuring a family of four, ‘The Downsizers’, where the mother of the family, Katrina, felt upset and guilty about the fact that the family home was so cluttered that nobody felt comfortable in it. To be clear, the house looked full but not scandalously so. There were no health hazards or any perceivable standard of living issue. Katrina was in tears several times through the episode and commented, because her son and daughter’s bedroom was messy, ‘I’m definitely not setting them up to win.’ Although other members of the family say that they’ll help out with domestic duties more now that they’ve seen the effort that goes into tidying (we’ll see if that sticks), Katrina interpreted mess not just as a personal failure, but as a means to perpetuate future failure in her offspring.
Minimalism is becoming standard in public and semi-public spaces as well as domestic settings. Travellers may notice that they can turn up at a hotel, AirBnb, café, or restaurant in their destination and feel as though they could be in any city. The spaces are sparse, industrial, include lots of white things, Edison bulbs, raw timber, and Scandinavian furniture. This phenomenon is identified by Kyle Chayka as ‘AirSpace’. He understands the rise of this aesthetic to coincide with a global spread of white, male, privileged bubbles, writing: ‘the AirSpace aesthetic that Airbnb has contributed to, and the geography it creates, limits experiences of difference in the service of comforting a particular demographic (“the vanilla tourist”) falsely defined as the norm.’ It’s as though the people have to fit in with the aesthetic of the room, and whether or not you fit is determined on elitist, morally bankrupt grounds.
When the world looks uniformly minimal, there’s less room for regional difference, for people who can’t afford exorbitant prices (minimalist cafes charge more for coffee, for example), for needs that take up space, for a range of tastes. Some people are deemed not to fit in and are thus excluded – a Harvard Business School study found that AirBnb hosts were less likely to accept potential guests with African-American sounding names, for example. The myth these spaces perpetuate is, according to Chayka, ‘if you do not fit within its predefined structures as an effective user, you must be doing something wrong.’ The aesthetics of minimalism double as exclusionary aesthetics.
The extent to which architectural, design, and lifestyle industries are able to imagine different and more inclusive aesthetics will also be limited because these industries often don’t come from a perspective of inclusion. In Disability and Qualitative Inquiry, authors Laura Lorenz and Ronald Berger reflect on their respective experiences as interior design and architecture students. Both found that their education didn’t emphasise the people using the spaces they were designing, and were only aware of disability insofar as their knew they had to uphold legal building requirements. We need to approach space with a social model, they argue. For example, under the social model of disability, if a person cannot access or enjoy certain spaces, we understand that it’s not because of their physical limitations, but rather because of problems with the space. People are diverse and have diverse needs, and space needs to be built around those needs rather than making us conform to the space. Collectively, we have the opportunity to imagine what spaces could be if they were designed by or in consultation with people with disabilities, or with others who aren’t included in the AirSpace bubble.
Most people would benefit – not just because most people don’t fit the AirSpace mould, but also because inclusive design helps people beyond the target beneficiaries. For example, when footpaths were changed to have indents at intersections so that people who use wheelchairs could get around easier, it also helped people with trolleys and prams, and people making deliveries. In a softer way, inclusive design can make any user of the space feel welcome.
Despite the privileges minimalists often enjoy, some still herald it as an anti-capitalist movement. After all, surviving on fewer things allows you to opt out of supporting harmful labour practices and reduces your environmental impact. But this is not always true in practice – minimalists may continually buy and throw away useful items and still have very little. Product obsolescence has fuelled post-war capitalism: getting rid of something paves the way for buying something shinier. As well, as Chayka writes for the New York Times Magazine, minimalism as a lifestyle choice is grounded in elitism and capitalistic aspirations. People saw that Steve Jobs survived in a home so sparse that he sat on the floor for a lack of furniture. The ideology mimics Kondo’s assertion that tidying will change your life: ‘pare down, and you, too, could run a $700 billion company.’
Rampant consumerism isn’t revolutionary, but nor is discarding things. What would be revolutionary is an aesthetic – and a society – where those who aren’t streamlined are kept; where we aren’t judged for how well we keep spaces, but spaces are judged for how well they cater for us.
Image: ‘Model Maximalism’ / flickr