Strategies for keeping clutter off your dining table

If your home functions anything like mine, your dining table isn’t used just for eating. In addition to providing a dining space, our table is used for meal preparation, my son’s coloring surface, an alternate work station if my husband or I need a change of pace from our desks, a hang out spot to sit and read, and dozens of other purposes. Keeping clutter off the table so it’s ready for eating or whatever chore we want to throw at it can be a challenge, and these are some of the strategies we use to keep it clear:

  • Have a mail processing station by the main entrance. First and foremost, the dining table is not a place for mail. Create a mail processing station by your main entrance where you can sort, shred, trash, recycle, and properly handle all of your mail.
  • Install hooks for coats and bags by the main entrance. Similar to the previous point, the dining table is not a place for coats, hats, bags, and briefcases. Hang hooks for coats and bags near your main entrance so these items don’t end up on the table.
  • Keep a trash can near your dining table. If you have a formal dining room, you likely don’t have a trash can in this space. Find a way to hide one in a buffet or side table, or keep one very close by in another room that you can easily pick up and move into this space. You’ll be amazed by how useful a simple trash can will be for keeping clutter off your table. Earn an additional point if you can hide a recycling bin in the room, too.
  • Organize your buffet or sideboard to meet the needs of the space. So often sideboards and buffets are full of china that is rarely used or silver service you pull out just once a year. If you want these special event items, store them someplace more remote (the high shelves of kitchen cupboards are usually good locations) and use your sideboard or buffet for things you actually use in your dining room. In addition to storing place mats and napkins, our sideboard holds crayons and coloring books, a pair of scissors, an extra set of my reading glasses, table cleaning supplies, a few pens and pencils, a spare power cable that works with all the laptops in the house, an extension cord, and a radio.
  • Set the table as the first step of meal preparation. If you don’t plan to use the table while you’re making the meal, set it with plates, cups, silverware, etc., as your first meal preparation step. This way, when housemates come through the dining room, they won’t deposit items not related to the meal on the table. Setting the table is also a wonderful chore for any child three or older.
  • Don’t pick up and drop stuff someplace else. Although it is incredibly easy to just scoop up what is on the table and set it on another surface, try your best to properly sort through items when you remove them. Throw out the trash, put toys away, shred the credit card applications, and file papers that need to be filed. The top of the sideboard or buffet is as bad a location to hold this clutter as the table was.
  • Wipe down the table and sweep the floor after every meal. To keep from getting ants, this step is imperative with a toddler in the house. However, it might not be such an obvious step if the people dining at your table aren’t in the habit of dropping half their food on the floor. Completely cleaning off the table after every meal makes it a welcoming space for the next meal or whatever other use you need. This is also a great thing to do after every alternate use, too.
  • Avoid having a catch-all container that lives on the table. In some homes the catch-all container is a circular rotating tray, in others it might be a decorative plate or bamboo platter. Devices that are made to hold salt, pepper, sugar, napkins, and condiments are great for containing small items — but they’ll end up holding other non-meal related small items if the tray isn’t removed from the table after every meal. Have a place in the kitchen for this service to live in between meal times.

What steps do you take to keep clutter off the table? Share your additional strategies in the comments.

Wood Peg: It’s a multitasker and a space-saver (but not a floor wax or a dessert topping)

As it it isn’t cool enough that the various components of the Wood Peg furniture system by Studio Gorm can be assembled into a variety of different configurations. The whole system can also be stored on on a wall-hung rail when not in use.

(via Swiss Miss)

Super storage closets

A well-organized storage closet can be a beneficial attribute in any home or office. You can easily find what you need, when you need it, and have an exact space to return an object when you’re finished. On the other hand, a disorganized closet will end up wasting your time and energy when looking for items, and make putting things back after you use them even more difficult.

In our previous home and workspace, we outfitted an existing closet with Elfa shelving to create an ideal storage space. I usually referred to it as our “Mary Poppins Closet” since it held so many things:

It took us one weekend to tear out the old wood shelf and clothing rod, paint the walls and ceiling, install the Elfa shelving system, and put objects into the closet. A week later, we rearranged some items and added a few storage bins (such as the crate holding the records in the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph). We ended up spending a few hundred dollars on the makeover, but for six years it improved the quality of our living and working experience.

Our new office doesn’t have a closet as makeover-friendly as the Mary Poppins Closet. For starters, it only has a coat closet that measures a mere 22″ x 36″. Additionally, since we’re renting the new space, we can’t rip out the existing shelf and rod and replace them with Elfa shelving. To create a storage closet that will still meet our needs, we had to make some adjustments:

  1. Got rid of clutter. I had already purged the vast majority of my yarn collection before the move, but we still had to let go of a number of things. The board games were significantly culled, we decided to store the record albums in another room, and we gave away most of the print photographs since we had them all professionally scanned.
  2. Used steel shelving that sits on the floor of the closet and doesn’t need to affix to the walls. It’s not as pretty as the Elfa shelving, but it’s sturdy and does its job well. Plus, we can take the shelving with us when we move.
  3. Labeled the lips of shelves since different types of objects are co-mingled on the shelves. With the help of my trusty label maker, I created category labels to make finding and returning objects easier (media clips, payroll records, etc.).

If you’re looking to create a storage closet that helps instead of hinders your life, try a similar method — get rid of the clutter, have a storage system in place that works best for your needs, and make it as easy as possible to retrieve and return objects. Also, don’t forget to store the objects you use the most often on shelves that are between your knees and shoulders. Heavier objects should be stored on shelves at waist height or lower, and lighter objects should be stored on the shelves above waist height.

Do you have a storage closet that needs organizing? If so, what steps can you take to get rid of the chaos?

Finally, I apologize for not having a picture of the new closet. I have yet to unpack the camera or the cables that make it possible to transfer the images to my computer. When we do a post with a final reveal of the new office, I’ll be sure to have a picture of the new closet at that time.

When whimsy and utility collide

As a child, I loved to go to story time at the public library. The storyteller would come in costume — typically a supporting character from that week’s story — and a few dozen children and I would gather and intently listen to the tale. I looked forward to story time each week with the same fervor modern children might anticipate a trip to Disney World or meeting Justin Bieber.

I enjoyed the books shared during story time, spending time with other kids, and seeing the storytellers dress up in costume. My favorite part of story time, however, were the stools on wheels.

I now know these stools are called Kik-Steps and they are in many homes and businesses, but at the time I thought they were the most amazing and rare toys found only in my hometown’s public library. As it is with many desirable things, there weren’t enough stools on wheels for every child at story time. You had to get there early to get one. I would dream about them, tell everyone I met about them, and would cry if there weren’t any available by the time we got to story time. You could sit, stand, or push them around — they were magical!

I bought my first Kik-Step when I was 30, and seeing it in my home takes me back to wonderful childhood memories of story time. Even though I bought it for nostalgic reasons, it has surprisingly turned out to be one of the most useful objects in our home.

I use it a few times daily in the kitchen, to reach high shelves. I use it when I need to change light bulbs, dust, and put things away in closets. I’m 5’9″ barefoot and have an arm span of close to 5’11”, so I am genuinely surprised by how often I use it. It also provides a place to sit, if needed. As its name implies, the best thing about the Kik-Step is if your arms are full, you can simply kick it into place and then step right up on it. You don’t have to unfold it or carry it.

I don’t have a lot of things in my home that I purchased on a whim that turned out to be extremely useful. Usually, sentimental purchases fall into the knick knack category and are eventually passed along to someone else to enjoy for a few years. Have you ever made an impulse or sentimental purchase that turned out to have high utility? I’m interested in reading your stories of surprise in the comments.

February resolution wrap up, and introduction of March resolution

In 2011, I’m trying out small, monthly resolutions instead of large, annual New Year’s resolutions. My public resolution for January was to be more organized in the kitchen, and create and use more nutritious meal plans for my family. In February, my public resolution was to go through everything — absolutely everything — in my office.

Within days of declaring my February resolution, I had abandoned it. My aunt passed away and I ended up traveling to Kansas and tending to family responsibilities for awhile. Uncluttering my office wasn’t a priority on my list of things to do, and I wasn’t even physically near it had I wanted to organize. After returning to the east coast in the second half of the month, my immediate family then decided to sell our house and move. Without intentionally doing so, I ended up sorting through everything in my office after all.

February came to a close and everything in my office had been sorted, dusted, and packed in a box, dropped off at a charity, sold, recycled, or thrown in the trash. Even the Elfa shelving system was disassembled and sold, as we purchased new office furniture for the new place. Packing the office was similar to packing the rest of the house, but with some notable exceptions:

  • Sensitive data. My corporate clients almost always have me sign non-disclosure agreements. As a result, I have to transport their files personally and can’t let a professional mover or friend tend to them. If you’re in a corporate or government setting, you might have similar restrictions when moving offices. I recommend color coding all of these sensitive boxes with bright orange or red stickers and numbering them (Box 2 of 7) to help keep track of them. Then, personally move the boxes last out of the old place and set them up first in the new space. Don’t leave these boxes in your car overnight if you are making a multiple-day move — your job and/or client relationship depend on it.
  • Knick knacks. I realized I had a ridiculous number of personal knick knacks in my office. For example, I had four pictures of my husband on my desk … and he works seven feet away from me. It’s nice to personalize a space (it sends a cue to your boss that you are not planning on leaving), but not let the personal items become a distraction to you or others. In the new office I’m going to try to limit knick knacks to one per every two or three feet of desk space, which will be about three knick knacks total.
  • Cable control. With the help of a label maker, I labeled both ends of every cable before packing it (external hard drive, scanner, stereo speakers). This will speed up the unpacking process and make things easily identifiable the next time I have to crawl under my desk to unplug a device.
  • Office supplies. Painter’s tape is great for keeping cables with electronics, lids on small containers, and little objects grouped together. Don’t use Scotch tape, masking tape, or packing tape for these objects, as you will waste too much time removing the adhesive once you’re in the new office. You can also write on the painter’s tape to identify objects.
  • Scan and recycle. Paper is extremely heavy, and you will want to move as little of it as possible. Use the move as an excuse to sort through all of your paper files and purge anything you don’t need in physical form. Scan the data you want, and then recycle the paper. Also, don’t move any “to be filed” piles — file before you pack to avoid moving something you don’t really need.

It should be no surprise that my public resolution for the month of March will be to completely unpack and organize our new home and office. In fact, my husband’s family is coming to visit in mid-March and my goal is to have almost everything unpacked before they arrive. I’m trying to think of it like an adventure instead of a chore. Wish me luck!

Do you have resolutions? What are you doing to achieving them? Can you do something today to get one step closer to your goal?

Ask Unclutterer: In-home safe or safety deposit box?

Reader Dawn submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Do you have any thoughts on whether it’s best to have a safety deposit box vs. an at-home fire/water-proof safe?

We have a fire/water-proof safe mounted to the floor in our master bedroom closet that stores all of our super important documents, as well as some valuables. Maybe that’s not the best idea? Do you have any thoughts about which would be best for safety purposes? It is so convenient (and obviously cheaper) long-term to have these items stored at home, but maybe a financial institution safety deposit box is smarter storage.

There are positive and negative aspects of both options. Ultimately, it comes down to what works best for your family.

A safety deposit box at a bank is nice because it’s 1. fireproof, 2. waterproof, 3. not in your home (in case someone breaks in or a disaster destroys your home), 4. under tight security, and 5. its contents are legally protected in the case of death.

On the other hand, a safety deposit box isn’t all that great because 1. the bank isn’t open 24 hrs a day or on Sundays, 2. it’s easy to lose the key to it, 3. your bank is probably in the same part of the country you are (a natural disaster that wipes out your home likely would destroy the bank, too), 4. there is an annual fee, and 5. since the contents are legally protected, in case of death, typically your estate has to close before the executor of your estate can access the box.

An in-home safe is nice because it’s 1. locked, 2. easily accessible, 24 hours a day seven days a week, 3. when mounted to the floor a burglar can’t easily run off with it, and 4. it’s a one-time expense.

An in-home safe isn’t all that great because 1. based on its fire rating, what is stored inside of it isn’t protected from heat damage for very long, especially digital items, 2. almost all at-home safes are only water resistant, not waterproof, so a fire hose putting out a house fire can still damage the contents, 3. it’s contents are not protected in case of death (which could be either a pro or con), 4. if a natural disaster destroys your home your stuff is gone.

For more information on in-home safes, check out our article “Fireproof storage, part two” from 2007.

We use both an in-home safe and a safety deposit box. Our home safe stores things we might need access to in an emergency (mostly documents, like our Wills), and our safety deposit box stores hard drives and a few small items we would never need on a moment’s notice (like negatives of our wedding photographs, since we were married in ye olden days). Our home safe is only water resistant and not certified to protect digital data, which is why the safety deposit box is something we need.

I also recommend scanning all documents and photographing the valuable items you keep in either location, encrypting these files, and placing a copy securely online. Services like Carbonite and Backblaze are fine for this. Having a copy online is nice if your home or bank are ever destroyed in a disaster (assuming the online data storage facility is in a different part of the country), so you can at least report to an insurance company what was lost and be able to see what items you’ll need to replace.

Thank you, Dawn, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope my response was able to help you. Check the comments for more suggestions.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

BADA table is more than meets the eye

We’ve always been a fan of coffee tables that convert into full-sized dining tables. They’re a good solution for people who live in small apartments, but still want to be able to have friends over for dinner parties. The BADA table from EcoSystems takes the idea of the transforming dining table even further. It works as a desk, dining table, and loveseat.

If you’ve seen any great furniture that multitasks, please share it in the comments.

Binder clip hack for your wire shelving

Making the rounds on Reddit this week was a great refrigerator hack by Muteboy on Flickr:

Muteboy, a.k.a. Matthew Petty, created an adjustable beverage rack in his refrigerator with a simple binder clip. The clip can be moved to the left for more beverage storage, or to the right for less. It’s a great idea for those of you with wire shelves in your refrigerator.

Since I have glass shelves throughout my refrigerator and freezer, this particular hack won’t work for me. However, it works great in my office closet where I have two rows of these types of wire shelves in my elfa system. I have already put it to use for corralling four poster tubes. It could work wonderfully for wrapping paper and wine bottles, as well.

Oh, and speaking of elfa, the Container Store is currently holding its 25% off shelving sale. Now is a good time to buy if you’ve been wanting a shelving or closet makeover.

Eye candy: Wood organizing products

Knife and Saw is selling a beautiful bike shelf that is perfect for city dwellers in small spaces:

It’s not inexpensive ($270 for Ash or $300 for Walnut), but it is beautiful. And, the top of the bike rack can be used to hold stuff, which makes it a nice multi-tasker:

Speaking of beautiful wood things, have you seen Combine Collective’s Black Walnut Keyboard Trays?

Ranging from $69 to $79, they hold up to three Mac wireless devices in sustainable wood to use on your lap or desk.

It’s nice to see organizing products that are visually stunning and incredibly functional. So many organizing products are designed with utility as the only focus, completely ignoring aesthetics. I’m always on the lookout for items that manage to have high-quality function and form, and both of these certainly meet those standards.

(Bike shelf via Cool Hunting.)

Multifunctional children’s furniture

Now that my son has outgrown his Jumperoo, my husband and I have been on the lookout for a child-size chair. Like most toddlers, my 15-month-old son is insistent upon asserting his independence, and so he wants his own chair. If you try to sit on the same chair or couch he’s on, he’ll go to great lengths to get you to sit somewhere other than his piece of furniture.

We considered getting the Kapsule Chair because it is cute, inexpensive ($49), and doubles as toy storage. Ultimately, we didn’t buy it because when our son outgrows it in a couple years, the chair becomes another thing cluttering up the house.

In the end, we decided to get the Candu Chair, which can also be transformed into a playtable/desk, bedside table, easel, step stool, rocking chair, and magazine/book rack:

It’s 21″ x 18″ x 18″ and weighs 16 lbs. It’s certainly more expensive than the Kapsule — the Candu Chair is $125 on Amazon — but it’s a piece that should have utility for at least the next 17 years. For families like ours that live in small spaces, the more multi-functional the furniture, the better.

The multitasking sleeper chair

The latest DWR catalog arrived in the mail yesterday, and the Soto sleeper chair instantly caught my attention:

After looking at the picture, I spotted the chair’s $3,300 price tag and quickly closed the catalog. No offense to the designers or the wonderful folks at DWR (it really is an attractive piece of furniture), but $3,300 is way above my price range.

Sleeper chairs are fantastic additions in small spaces because they work double duty as seating and guest accommodations. One of these multitaskers in a living room or office is perfect when you don’t have a guest room or space for a larger sofa sleeper. My husband and I have been considering getting one for my son’s bedroom so that when his cousins or friends spend the night they won’t have to sleep on the floor, and he’ll have a comfortable space to sit and read the rest of the time.

A little more in line with our price range are:

For $130, Target has a single sleeper:

For $20 more ($150), Target has a sleeper lounge chair:

JCPenny has the Sleepy sleeper chair for $500 that is available in nine different upholstery options:

If a modern style is your preference, Amazon has a love seat option for $378:

And, for $1,000, is the sleek Vincent twin sleeper from CB2:

You don’t have to spend $3,300 or add a spare room onto your home to increase the number of sleeping accommodations you have to offer guests — a sleeper chair might be all you need for your small space.

Storage ideas from Where Women Create

Where Women Create magazine is a product of the Stampington rubber stamp company and is published four times a year. Each issue features 10 to 15 offices and studios of women who make their livings in creative careers.

Since artists typically need lots of supplies to produce their crafts, I thought the spaces in the August/September/October 2010 magazine might feature some atypical storage solutions. Although most of the offices were stuffed with supplies, many of them had ingenious methods for storing items. Here are a few of my favorites:

Camille Roskelley covered her closet doors with white felt to use as an inspiration board for her fabric while designing quilts (image by Ryne Hazen):

Wendy Addison uses an old architect’s blueprint chest to store paper supplies she uses in her artwork. These chests are perfect for organizing flat items (image by Michael Garland):

Artist Jennifer Murphy is clearly a visual processor, and as a result uses walls lined with cork board to store her papers and materials. For people who need to see their work or they forget about it, taking advantage of vertical space can be very helpful (image by Jennifer Murphy):

Editor-in-chief of Where Women Create Jo Packham has repurposed antique shelf brackets to hold ribbon rods and new shelves to store craft supplies in her studio (image by Zachary Williams):

Editor and consultant Nancy Soriano utilizes the space above her office door to store books and the back of her door to hold magazines (image by Scott Jones):

Self-proclaimed “junkinista” Ki Nassauer has made a career of rescuing damaged and discarded items and turning them into artful and usable objects. In this case, she took an old table, sanded, repaired, and painted it, and then added a small fabric mattress to create a kitty bed. It’s not necessarily storage, but it is incredibly cute (image by Heather Bullard):