Clutter Is A Sign Of Confidence

On the pitfalls of less and the virtues of more.

Author by RM Vaughan
Art credit: Megan Schaller

I don’t get the current rage for conspicuous minimalism. Empty rooms make me anxious, and bare walls are for prison cells. Sterile, all-white decor is fine if you’re a particle physicist who lives where they work.  

And what are you going to do with all that closet space after your annual clothing purge, rent it out to tourists? Think about it on a global level: There are millions of people in the world who desperately need things — any things — to make their lives more comfortable, more whole. But you’re proud of having next to nothing?

I know minimalists. I know the drafty laboratories they call home. I once watched a strict “no clutter” friend agonize for more than an hour about the placement of a single, pale palm leaf in a matte gray vase. Would it be too much, he fretted, to have two dime-sized pieces of washed-out beach glass on the windowsill?

You’re making yourself crazy, I said. You don’t have an aesthetic, you have a disorder, I said. Rigid minimalism is a perverse decadence, I said.

I have not been invited back.

To be fair, I have been called a clutter bug, even a near-hoarder. I like stuff, and it is arguable that I like it too much, in both senses: I delight in having a lot of stuff and I’m overly fond of my junk. But I sincerely believe human beings are wired to fill their habitations with visual information. Our ancestors painted their caves for a reason, and now we crowd our shelves and end tables with objects to achieve the same primitive goals: to anchor our complicated life stories and to remind us of what we’ve achieved, where we’ve been, and who we’ve loved and love still. Every dollar-store knick-knack tells a tale, to abuse a cliche (and landfills everywhere).

For reasons too complicated to repeat here, I have moved homes about two dozen times as an adult, from city to city and even continent to continent. Each time, I’ve given away mountains of things. And then I’ve started over, almost immediately. For instance, I just moved back to Canada from Germany with two suitcases to my name. And the first thing I did when I got here was buy a few bits and bobs to decorate the guest bedroom of my friend’s house, where I will live for less than a month. I can’t stop, I won’t stop.

Clutter, or, as I like to call it, augmentation — that sounds like a bonafide lifestyle philosophy, right? is comforting. Domestic minimalism, as promoted lately by everything from home decorating TV programs — you know the type, the shows that pair neutrals with more neutrals but don’t shell out for the antidepressants — to hoarder-shaming pop psychologists and professional “intervention” de-cluttering services, also promotes a nasty, self-esteem-bruising agenda: Don’t trust your own taste. Leave that to the experts, you mad doily-fancier. You are not smart enough or sensitive enough or fashionable enough to have free reign over your own home and your own things. Your personal expression needs monitoring.

To hell with that. Sticking something on a shelf that you cherish is an act of ownership that everyone is entitled to. Sticking something next to it that you also cherish doubles the empowerment. Likewise when you do it again, and then some more.

Clutter is often described as a weakness, but it’s really a sign of confidence. I live here and I like things this way, clutter shouts on your behalf. I have lived and done things and kept souvenirs of my triumphs, clutter heralds. This space is mine. This clutter is my clutter.

And for those of us who need to declare our territory and put up a wall between the outside world and our domestic havens, clutter has the added benefit of keeping busybodies out (where will they sit?). The comfort of clutter is a primal nesting comfort, but with porcelain figurines — or souvenir fridge magnets, or last week’s weekend paper — instead of twigs and straw. Whatever works for you, with emphasis on “whatever”.

Ah, clutter. The great equalizer. How I love it.

Years ago, Vanity Fair ran a photograph of Truman Capote lounging in his Manhattan apartment. Every flat surface of his home groaned under dozens of objets d’art, mostly paperweights. No one needs more than one paperweight, the minimalist might say, entirely missing the point. (Just imagine asking Truman Capote such a foolish question. The answer would be gutting.)

From that photo, I learned that clutter abhors pretense. Despite all his glamour and international fame, Capote’s downtown New York apartment looked a lot like my grandmother’s tchotchke-filled farmhouse in rural Atlantic Canada. And my grandmother was no pushover, either.

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About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.