Simple ways to organize your home.
Fate says that opposites attract, which in my case is true. I’m a writer, designer, and minimalist who loves simplicity and order. He’s an artist and collector who just can’t have enough beautiful things. Combine those two elements in our tiny house and the only way to maintain the peace is with clear organizational rules. The records can’t start piling up in the living room and that paper tiger of a zine collection must go roaring into a box. It’s a messy tango, an Oscar and Felix combo that keeps us on our toes—and me constantly in search of new storage devices to keep our place lively but sane.
The bedroom closets in our 1904 house measure 2 feet deep and 12 feet long and come complete with cranky sliding doors that must be coaxed open and shut. Our clothes barely fit and, contemplating the clunky, crowded arrangement, I often think that these closets could desperately use some love. For fresh ideas, I check out California Closets, a custom-shelving franchise that’s been in business since 1978. Their East Bay location on Berkeley’s Fourth Street offers an airy showroom staged with models of walk-in closets, nurseries, laundry rooms, and kitchen pantries where customers browse for inspiration.
“We see a lot of first-time homeowners and new families looking to improve their living space,” says design consultant Joni Lorber. “We can offer ideas that people might not think of, like creating a system that can expand with the child as he or she grows, simple things like storing shoes up off the floor in sliding drawers, or installing a valet rod, a short extension pole that you can swing open and hang your work clothes on for the morning.”
California Closet designers do a complimentary on-site visit during which they help clients inventory all those Kate Spade totes and Jimmy Choo pumps, separate out winter and summer gear, and determine which sweaters and slacks are worn more often. With that info, they come up with a computer-generated sketch of an organizational system that can be built and installed in about four weeks. Every job is custom, with different styles and finishes and unique configurations of drawers, poles, and shelves; prices can range from $4,000 to $11,000. For a simple reach-in closet like ours, the estimate is $150 to $250 a linear foot.
As a renter, California Closets’ price tags don’t make sense for me—although I have to admit the personalized design consultation seems tempting. For a look at more inexpensive options I head to IKEA in Emeryville, where organizing on the cheap doesn’t get much cheaper. Milling through the weekend throng and plunking down my hard-earned dollars at an international chain doesn’t thrill me, but the Billy and Expedit shelves ($50-$70), the Antonius wire clothing racks ($50-$200), and the chic, black-and-white Målla clothing storage boxes ($4-$10) offer a quick and easy fix.
And, if I don’t like the particle-board furniture, I can always cover it up, break it down, or reconstruct it with inspirational ideas from IKEA Hackers, a website devoted to the ingenious repurposing of the megastore’s cookie-cutter melamine designs. Say you’re looking for a Victorian parlor vibe—they’ll show you how to cover a Hemnes chest of drawers with paintable wallpaper to give it a lovely raised-relief surface. Or how to wrap a Malm dresser in mirrors and turn it into a 1930s Art Deco dressing table worthy of a Thin Man movie set.
But I don’t have a lot of time on my hands right now, and between the sleeker, pricier solutions at California Closets and the generic, DIY packages at IKEA, I figure there must be some middle way. At the Container Store (in Walnut Creek and San Francisco), the elfa—a modular, customizable shelving system created in 1978 by a Swedish company—offers a component-based model where you mix and match drawers, shelves, and closet rods. It comes with an in-store design consultation and the option to install it yourself or have employees do it for you. The downside is that the consultation, because it’s not done at your home, can’t get at how you really use your space.
The San Francisco floor manager—and elfa expert—gives me a whirlwind tour, pointing out the hanging mesh drawers with liners, the belt and tie racks, jewelry storage, and wooden décor shelves. She helps me punch in my closet dimensions and what I’d like to store and—whoosh, a new design pops up. Installed, it would cost $750; $550 if we did it ourselves. The Container Store also carries shelving solutions for kitchens, media centers, and offices.
Elfa’s airy, minimal steel shelving racks work well in the clothes closet, but for our ever-expanding book collection in the living room, I need something solid. Fenton MacLaren in Berkeley carries heirloom wooden shelving from Simply Amish; this stuff is built to last. One popular item, though, isn’t a traditional bookcase; it’s Oakland-based furniture maker Greg Stumasa’s unfinished pine cube ($30 each), originally designed to store LPs.
But you don’t need to be a DJ to own multiples of these solid, approximately 14-by-14-by-11-inch cubbies. “People love that they’re very modular and they’ll mix and match them to invent their own systems—like a shoe shelf in an entry way or toy storage in a children’s bedroom,” says store manager Mark Menary. The biggest supply of these handy units can be found at the store’s unfinished furniture outlet on San Pablo Avenue, also a fine source of unfinished pine bookshelves in myriad shapes and sizes, either ready-made or custom-built, from $35 to $400.
With clothing and book storage ideas safely tucked away, it’s time to consider the office: the desktop of unpaid bills, the stacks of magazines, the jotted notes and business cards piling up. In today’s e-billing, e-reading, e-writing universe, paper seems old-fashioned. But while I love my iPhone, I also love paper to-do lists, and for stylish paper goods I head to Elmwood Stationers in Berkeley. Manager Tangerine Little Bear (whose taste in paper is as unique as her name) stocks, among other things, the classics: planners by Letts, Filofax, and Moleskine; plaid-patterned Clairefontaine notebooks; and those sturdy workhorses dear to Francophile note-jotters: orange Rhodia pads.
Elmwood Stationers also offers indie brands like Portland-based Red Horse Shoes journals with quirky covers (tarot cards, Día de los Muertos, rodeo girls, vintage shots of the Eiffel Tower). To keep writing tools and desktop flotsam in check, head for the Prada pencil bags in electric hues or the amusing Yummy Pockets—photo-printed cloth organizers shaped to look like real tacos, burgers, cupcakes, and potato chip bags. The store is also a source of practical items like Rolodex metal mesh storage bins and baskets, binders with tabbed page separators, and a rainbow of clear plastic pocket file folders.
While I’ll probably never give up my penchant for the paper and notebook aisle in stationery stores, I am discovering the convenience of filing items in the magical ether of “the cloud,” thanks to smart phone apps like Evernote and Springpad. These innovations allow you to take pictures of inspirational items while you’re out and about (a whiteboard sketch, a clothing detail, a book jacket) or scan a product bar code inthe store and file it away on your iPhone rather than in a heap on the desk.
A glimpse of my husband’s jumbled art studio leads to a great gift idea: a session with an organizing pro to coach him through the clutter. For $70 an hour, artist and former teacher Pam Consear of Handy Gal, based in Oakland, turns organizing into a creative exercise. “In some ways, it’s like therapy; you’re going through people’s stuff with them, things that maybe they inherited from family members,” says Consear. “There’s a story behind what people keep so I always ask lots of guiding questions. I never go in with an attitude that ‘this is how you do it.’
“I probably can’t change 30-year-old habits, but usually calling in an organizer means someone’s ready for change,” she continues. “And a lot of times, after a couple of hours of working, they can get unstuck so they can work on their own from there. They just needed the push.” Consear emphasizes sustainability in her organizing practice, advising people to keep only what they need and to repurpose, recycle, or donate what they don’t. Her top three organizing tips? One: Deal with mail when it comes in. Two: Take a look at your stuff and ask yourself “How would it feel if it wasn’t there?” Three: Buy more consciously.
Shira Gill of Simply Sorted in Oakland uses aesthetic appeal as her guiding principle. “Creating a beautiful space makes it easier to keep it organized,” she says. She starts with editing, helping clients identify possessions they truly love. From there, it’s easier to figure out what to let go of. Ninety percent of the time, Gill says, with a little culling here and there, clients don’t even need to buy organizing aids. “Sometimes people feel they’ve been stuck for so long and they’ve wanted to do this but it’s overwhelming, while some people just need me to get them started off and suddenly they’re on fire.”
Gill coaches people to get in touch with personal preferences—the kind of environment they want to live in, the colors and styles they like—then helps set up systems that make intuitive and aesthetic sense. “If a client is used to walking in the door and dumping her purse and jacket, I don’t try to change the habit,” she says. “I create a system with an attractive piece of furniture where the client can still drop her things but have it look nice.” In conjunction with closet consultations, Gill also offers a styling service geared toward clients who want to refresh their wardrobes and let go of unflattering garments. She offers a variety of packages starting at $150.
For those who can’t afford a personal clean-up coach, plenty of blogs and websites offer free, supportive advice. Aby Garvey, author of the blog “Simplify 101,” teaches an online organizing class for $79 and sends out a free weekly newsletter with tips and exercises. Over at the “Organized Home” blog, Cynthia Ewer muses on how to clean up on the cheap, plan a move, or create a household storage plan. She also helps readers dig deep into their psyches to suss out what she calls a Clutter Personality—hoarder, deferrer, rebel, or perfectionist. Whatever the case, she’ll teach you how to conquer the mess—or at least to live harmoniously with it.
That sounds good to me. In the end, I’m not sure I want to completely do away with disorder that’s mostly just the byproduct of a full, busy life. I’ll settle for some good-looking shelves, baskets, and bins to keep the clutter to a low, happy roar.
Jeanne Storck is a writer, web designer, and former art critic for The Monthly. She loves putting things (especially words) in order.
The following is a partial list of local organizing resources.
ALKO Office Supply, 2225 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 848-3356; alkos.com.
California Closets, 1716 Fourth St., Berkeley, (510) 763-2033; californiaclosets.com.
Container Store, 1100 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 934-6662; 26 Fourth St., San Francisco, (415) 777-9755; containerstore.com.
Elmwood Stationers, 2947 College Ave., Berkeley, (510) 841-3073; 3643-D Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 299-6900; elmwoodstationers.com.
Fenton MacLaren, 2575 and 1325 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 848-7643 and (510) 526-5377; 5533 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 658-1414; fentonmaclaren.com.
IKEA, 4400 Shellmound St., Emeryville, (510) 420-4532; ikea.com.
West Elm, Bay Street Mall, 5602 Bay St., Emeryville, (510) 655-1367; westelm.com.
All Things Home Organizing, Gayle Grace, (510) 654-7983; allthingshome.com.
Clutter Free Organizing Services, Andy Hartman, (510) 471-8321; clutterfreeservices.com.
Girl with a Truck, Isabella Guajardo, (510) 229-7231; girlwithatruck.com.
Let’s Make Room, Lis Golden McKinley, (510) 846-1976; letsmakeroom.com.
Handy Gal, Pam Consear, (510) 329-2791; handygaloakland.com.
The Organized One, Meg Connell, (510) 482-5892; theorganizedone.com.
Simply Sorted, Shira Gill, firstname.lastname@example.org; www.shiragill.com.
Straighten UP, Kasey Brenner, (510) 290-6273.
IKEA Hackers; ikeahackers.net.
Aby Garvey, Simplify 101; creativeorganizing.typepad.com.
Cynthia Ewer, Organized Home; organizedhome.com.
East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, 4695 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-6470; creativereuse.org.