I’ve never met a bin, basket, or box (or a store that sells these items) that I didn’t want. The desire to organize—closets, kitchen cupboards, office supplies, the laundry nook—has been fierce for as long as I can remember. Certainly ever since I first walked into the Container Store, which opened just a few years after I was born. By the time I got my first apartment, with a real closet and my own kitchen counters, I couldn’t wait to load a cart with drawer dividers and sweater boxes and over-the-door hooks and soap caddies.
I’m hardly alone in this yearning to get all my duck boots in a row. (I’d prefer they be lined up on a special boot tray outside the door.) We’re living in what some may call the golden age of home organization, thanks to American homes that have grown an average of 1,000 square feet in the last few decades. All that space needs to be organized: in closets arranged by color and full of uniform hangers; in pantries where dry goods can live their best lives decanted into clear jars and labeled with care; in bathrooms with two-tiered carousels of cleaning supplies beneath the sink and pyramids of toilet paper in the closet. As of the first quarter of the fiscal year, sales at the Container Store were up 7 percent from last year.
The National Association of Professional Organizers, founded in 1985, had about 400 members in 1991. Today it has more than 4,000 members. People like Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin—better known as the duo behind the organizing juggernaut brand the Home Edit, and who declined to be interviewed for this story due to full schedules—have a best-selling book and a line of storage goods (at, yes, the Container Store). Their Instagram account, with 1.3 million followers, features the bewilderingly tricked-out closets and pantries of celebs like Jessica Simpson, Khloe Kardashian, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Umpteen blogs, services, and brands cater to our desire to keep things tidy but also jettison our stuff. According to a recent report by market research firm Packaged Facts, projected sales of home organization products approached $17 billion in 2017 and will grow to just below $20 billion by 2021. Just a few years ago the Container Store announced its own in-home organizational service—the Contained Home—which, for $75 an hour, will send someone to fit your house with everything you need to stay orderly.
And of course there’s Marie Kondo, whose Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Netflix show have made a massive impact on how Americans fold and store their clothes (never in flat or towering piles; always vertically, like little hanging files in a drawer) not to mention the way we think about “things” in general. (Thanks to Kondo, I always say “thank you for your service” to my old belongings before tossing them.)
But the dream of an organized space requires a handful of waking-life elements that aren’t always simple to obtain: space, money, time, and dedication. “So much of what you see on social media—those beautiful shots of massive pantries, for example—are still not the reality for many people,” says Barbara Reich, who owns Resourceful Consultants in New York City and organizes homes for many of the city’s one percent, with her services starting at $350 per hour. (Within the last year alone, Reich has had to double the number of people she employs to keep up with demand.) It’s far more likely that people have just a few cupboards. And those dozens of glass jars or containers for grains and cereals add up. “You can easily spend a few hundred dollars just to put your dry goods on display,” Reich says. “Never mind that you have to be extra mindful when you use those jars to always use it to the very [end], lest you forever leave a few inches of stale goods at the bottom.”
There are two aesthetics in a tug of war here, says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, whose latest book, Outer Order, Inner Calm, looks at how our spaces affect our emotional lives: one of simplicity and one of abundance. The look that’s dominating our feeds is, in many ways, a mashup of both. Someone may have five varieties of lentils, but those jars aren’t jammed into every available space. The translucent or white containers filling a massive, high-ceilinged pantry probably cost about $500 when all tallied up. This aesthetic is minimalist, yet maximally wrought. It’s Khloe Kardashian’s two-gallon glass cookie jar completely filled with beige Vienna Fingers—layered in a painstaking cross-hatched pattern, with not a crumb out of place.
There are very good reasons why more and more of us feel an extreme need to clean, purge, organize, and label these days. We’re living in a time of massive upheaval and uncertainty. Faced with these anxieties, some self-medicate with masks and meditation; others clean out and streamline their closets. Organization professionals like Jen Robin, of the site Life in Jeneral, see this approach as a positive one. “We are in a time of self-care and self-love, and this mentality has carried over into our homes,” she says. “Creating a simple space that brings joy and owning things you love can make life easier and more enjoyable.”
Reich says she has seen many people turn to organizing during challenging times in their lives. “A lot of times when you can’t control anything… the one thing you can control is your surroundings. I had an older woman who was dying, and she wanted to get her apartment in order, in part for practical reasons, but also ... to control the one thing that she could. I see that over and over again.”
Tidying can be a distraction from other emotions. “It’s somehow both a symptom of and the antidote to my anxiety,” says Sarah Knight, the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k. “My husband knows when I’m getting anxious because I start walking around the room wiggling my fingers; he calls them my ‘decluttering fingers.’ But then I rearrange the contents of the fridge and refold all the towels in the house just so, and I feel better.” (I call mine “itchy fingers.” My husband is not a fan.)
Kitchens in particular—and their cupboards, pantries, and other adjacent spaces—are so hot these days, says Robin, because of what they represent to us and the role they play in our lives. “A pantry can tell you so much about the family that lives there,” Robin says. “It reflects their lives, whether it’s filled with baking goods or kids’ snacks, or simply stocked with the latest and greatest keto diet.”
And yet, I can’t help but feel like trying to keep up with a Kardashian’s kitchen is idiotic, or at the very least an exercise in futility. Spending an hour taking stuff that’s perfectly fine in its original packaging and dumping it into pricey air-tight containers that still need to be labeled: Is this necessary or make-work? Is this for the ’gram or for a real reason? Once I’ve put all the paper, crayons, and art supplies in my kids’ craft cart in rainbow order, it stays that way for about 15 seconds, and I feel myself flinching when their little hands start jamming stuff back in wherever they can. The acrylic drawers that sit inside my bathroom drawers are great—except when I buy a jumbo roll of dental floss or a bulkier hair clip and suddenly the compartments no longer work for me. Do I trash them and start over? Do I go without?
It’s not a new problem. The adoption of certain time- and labor-saving home devices has long had this effect: When the vacuum cleaner came around in the 1920s, it was assumed that it would chip away at the amount of time women spent doing housework. Instead, it increased the expectations and standards for floor cleanliness, and women ended up doing more household chores during their newfound “leisure” time. Has the availability of more aesthetically pleasing storage options only created more work in our closets? Here, too, that work is being done primarily by women—a fact underscored by the fact that 95 percent of professional organizers are female.
It all depends on how it makes you feel, says Rubin. The old adage that a cluttered desk means a cluttered mind isn’t true for everyone. “If you find focus and serenity in spaces that lean toward simplicity, then that’s great and [you] should aim for that. If more ‘abundance’ is what you like—a profusion of choice, tons on the walls, lots of collections—then that’s your thing,” says Rubin. Tension arises when you feel somehow pressured into a style because it’s the fad, or because it’s “supposed” to be the “right” method. “We see this acted out on Instagram every day,” says Rubin.
Knight thinks that social media can be quite harmful. “I can imagine a really busy, stressed, or financially struggling person looking at gorgeously ’grammed California closets full of color-coordinated clothes and shoes and just getting overwhelmed and sad that they can’t make that happen in their own lives,” says Knight.
Take the rainbow theme that has turned bookcases into ROYGBIV tableaus or the color-coded refrigerator. (The Home Edit has made this a big part of its signature look.) “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never actually gone into a home where there is a rainbow fridge in action,” says Reich. “So much of that is artifice; someone ran out to buy purple and blue items for the photo shoot. You have to find a balance of aesthetics and function so that you aren’t making yourself crazy.”
The more tethered our closets get to our emotional equilibrium, the more they can influence many other decisions, including how we spend money or even what house we buy in the first place. In fact, the mere idea of a perfect closet can be a factor in selling homes. “People love to see those spaces,” says Julie Provenzano, a real estate agent in Dallas. “I think it becomes an experience in aspirational living. People want to be that person and aspire to that lifestyle.” And the more organized the house is when it’s on the market, the better, says Provenzano. “Buyers can be forgiving about some spaces—like garages and the occasional junk drawer,” but ready-for-their-close-up closets transmit a level of care and living “with ease” that’s intoxicating to buyers.
While I’m not buying a new home, part of what draws me to the idea of upgraded storage spaces is the idea of being able to “do it all” and have things look good all the while. It’s never running out of toilet paper or ketchup. It’s the inner calm that comes with knowing where everything is so that your life can feel one step closer to the rest of our increasingly one-click world. But what it takes to keep such a tidy home can be like what it takes to keep an impossibly trim figure: more work than I’m willing to do. Sarah Knight sees it like this: “Whatever your goal is, you have to want it before you can realistically achieve it. And it is 100 percent okay if you admit—to yourself and everyone else—that you just don’t give a fuck about something like home organization! If stocking your shelves with matching containers of dry goods doesn’t make you happy, spend your time, energy, and money in the pursuit of something that does.”
So the idealized closet continues to be curated but complex; stripped-down yet stacked up. The world continues to feel chaotic. I feel like I have evaluated nearly every single kind of cutlery storage, pantry system, or shoe rack that’s currently on the market. When I think harder about all the layers (and colors) of the organizational tricks and tips, I realize that I can only go so far—for reasons of frugality, fatigue, and a simple lack of fucks. Unless a national photo crew is coming to my house, there will always be a few drawers that are painfully overstuffed and cabinets full of clutter and curiosities, right next to the handful that are clean, clear, and almost fully optimized. After all, I have to give my itchy fingers something to scratch.
Liz Krieger is a writer and editor in Brooklyn who covers topics including health, wellness, and cultural trends.