Can someone be a collector and be uncluttered?

The quick answer to the question posed in the headline is yes. Being uncluttered and being a collector are not mutually exclusive states.

I will be the first to admit, however, that being an uncluttered collector is not an easy task. The temptation to collect beyond one’s reasonable limits is high, and can thwart even someone with the best of intentions.

An uncluttered collector, by definition, takes pride in his or her collection and displays it fully and respectfully. A collector wants to enjoy his or her collection and share it with others. Conversely, a collection is clutter when it’s stored out of sight, in a disrespectful manner, and for no other reason than just to have more stuff.

So what does an uncluttered collection look like? Unclutterer Jerry wrote about PlasmicSteve’s memorabilia office in our Workspace of the Week feature. I see this office as a perfect example of how someone can be an uncluttered collector and honor the things he or she chooses to collect:

Are you a collector? How do you display fully and respectfully your collection? Or, are you storing your “collection” in boxes in your attic in less-than-desirable conditions?


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

23 Comments for “Can someone be a collector and be uncluttered?”

  1. posted by Taisha on

    This is a great topic and I think you hit the nail on the head. I have attempted collecting in previous years, but quickly realized that I am a Minimalist and simply don’t like having that much useless albeit beautiful stuff around. I am a book lover and fancied myself collecting some notable first editions and ended up giving away about 400 of my books instead. ๐Ÿ™‚ But the office you picture is the way to go when it comes to displaying a collection, honoring it and also giving a great peek into the owner’s personality.

  2. posted by Libby on

    As a collector and someone who is trying to unclutter one step at a time, I do believe you can be both without driving yourself crazy.

    Right now, I collect three things: American Girl dolls (and their furniture, clothing, etc), anything Stitch (from the Disney movie Lilo and Stitch) and anything Ariel (from The Little Mermaid). My collections are contained (with the exception of some of the American Girl items, which are contained to a re-purposed jewelry cabinet and a set of drawers) to two book cases which are prominently displayed in my living room. Stitch and Ariel each have one shelf on one bookcase (the rest actually dedicated to books) and the dolls have the other bookcase to themselves. I live in a studio apartment and find that while my collections take up quite a bit of space in comparison to the rest of my home, they’re displayed lovingly and bring joy to me without being a clutter hazard.

  3. posted by Jarick on

    By definition, museums are collectors, and they are pretty uncluttered.

    The problem with most people’s collections is that they aren’t presented properly and/or too much stuff is crammed into a small space (like that picture above). If you do it right, it can be very clean and appealing.

  4. posted by Cole Weston on

    I collect G.I. Joes from the 1980’s and my efforts at uncluttering have met with some success while still having a viable collection. The key is not to have all of one year, or line, but carefully selecting key pieces that can recall the rest of what you like. If you have enough evocative pieces, you don’t need a million things. In fact, though my collection once bordered on 1,000 pieces, I found the more I got rid of the more the collection seemed well-put together. If you get rid of the mid-range to junky stuff, the gems shine all the brighter.

  5. posted by Jack on

    I love that office and I’m glad it’s being shown again, I think it’s a perfect example of how you can be uncluttered without being minimalist or spartan. The walls in my apartment have stuff on them, and I refuse to apologize for this.

    Most of what I collect is religious statuary, which you can imagine is a bit odd to display sometimes. I have a few pieces in less-than-ideal locations right now because I’m temporarily in a smaller place than I’m used to, and I’ve been seriously considering what to do with them for about a month now. At what point do you stop thinking about “when I get a bigger place”? (In case you’re wondering, I’m planning on getting that bigger place within two years.)

  6. posted by Barbara on

    I collect copper. However I think there is an important point which wasn’t touched on in the article. I don’t collect every piece of copper I come across. I have one copper boiler, I don’t buy every copper boiler I find. I try to pick items that are unique, that I love and keep it simple. For example, I have some old handmade turkish copper pots, very unique and I love them, but they’d be lost in a sea of copper. I pick a few things and use and display them around my home. I’d rather display 10 lovingly hand-picked pieces, than drown in hundreds.

  7. posted by Shana on

    One thing to think about is framing – almost any item can be framed in one way or another. Shadowboxes – either ones that can open with hinges, or those permanently sealed closed – can be a great way to display small three-dimensional items and avoid both the clutter of them on a shelf, or the dust that attacks small collectables.

    As a framer myself, I have framed hockey pucks, jerseys, military pins, ceramis tiles and plates, and right now am working on a project for 16 watches to be displayed wrapped around a rod so they hold their shape rather than laying them flat.

    There is really no limit to the size of a shadow box, and often it is easy to find frames for shadowboxes that also have matching shallower frames for two-dimensional items so that all the frames blend for a clean look in a room.

  8. posted by Kristen on

    That is pretty impressive. Usually I associate collections with clutter. It’s nice to see that’s not always the case.

  9. posted by Susan on

    I am married to a darling geek boy who loves his action figures (but NOT dusting them). And since I’m a bit of a neat-freak, I’m the one stuck with dealing with the dusting/display issue.
    The first thing that saves our marital harmony is an uber-feather duster from (other just don’t compare), the second thig is silica-based museum wax that sticks the figures down without damaging them so I can dust without having to re-arrange every one of the little guys each time I clean.
    If I have my TRUE druthers, I’d put them all in deep, dust-free shadow boxes arranged in some appropriate way. As it is, since I clean them and arrange them, I occasionally pose them in erm…. mildly inappropriate ways to see if he even notices. And it’s funny when he DOeS!

  10. posted by Sheryl on

    I have a collection of teapots that I display on the wide windowsill of the picture window in my kitchen. I also have a collection of vintage clear glass pyrex, and I use that, and the teapots, all the time.

    I like to collect things that I love, but are useful, and I’m very careful to practice “one in, one out”, so that it doesn’t become a clutter problem.

    Though I must admit…lately I’ve been pondering the idea of having my husband put a shelf up above the window so that I have room for more teapots…

  11. posted by Anne on

    I threw or gave away all things I collected…teapots, frogs, siliquetes(sorry, spelling horid), because I was done, kaput with cleaning and recleaning these things…
    I was fearful of becoming my mom who once said in passing she liked owls….she must have 1000’s of the little birds all over her home, because people gave them and she felt burdened to display them.
    I love looking at others collection, but I only collect things on a computer now…(scrapbooking digi person here) and they must be all in order! I don’t have the umph to just have a few, because as a collector I become a cluttered mess! ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. posted by Louise on

    We live in 300 square feet, and so have very little space to collect anything. We are also live on the road and like to have something to remind us of our travels. Our solution?

    We collect lapel pins and display them on a small cork bulletin board. Photo here.

    Like Shana said above, I think the key is framing: keeping the collection in a defined space both honors the items by making a “special” place for them, and corrals the clutter.

  13. posted by Dream Mom DBA on

    I not only think it’s possible to be a collector and to be uncluttered, but I think it’s desirable to be a collector. In fact, many times a designer will recommend that a person start a collection of sorts.

    I started a collection of teapots in 2006. I actually collect a teapot and one cup/saucer so that I have a set. I saw a teapot show in Chicago and throught they were beautiful. I typically collect teapots with roses or flowers on them. I don’t collect all kinds of teapots nor do I go for volume. I buy it only when I see something I love. I put boundaries on them, no more than one or two sets a year. I currently have three teapot sets and I display them-one on my coffee table since they match my rose prints and another set on my dining room table. I move them on and off depending on the season. At some point, I hope to have a special display cabinet made where each set will have a spot light on them. For now, I love having them in the rooms.

    Collections are a way to showcase your personality or what is important to you. The point of being organized is not to ever display everything, it’s to find things easily and make your life easier and simpler so you can do the things you are passionate about.

    Finally, I think not having a home with a collection of things you are passionate about would be like wearing a uniform to work every day. While a uniform may be functional in terms of clothing, creating an outfit speaks more about your personality. I think a collection in a room would do the same. Sometimes, you need a room to do more than function, you need it to be beautiful or showcase your passions.

  14. posted by Shalom on

    I “collect” different objects to decorate my home and they don’t belong to any one theme. I do have a storage closet where I keep the overflow, but I regularly rotate the pieces to refresh my living space, and I try to keep the storage space somewhat organized and contained – it is not spread all over my house.

  15. posted by MadMolecule on

    I collect vintage cameras, but I keep the collection limited to the 30 or so that I use; if I buy one, I get rid of one.

    When I go through the collection, it’s usually easy to see which one is the next to go. There’s always one that I haven’t shot with in a while, or don’t like the look of, or wasn’t too impressed with the lens, or some such.

    My fear is that someday the collection will fill up like the photo at the top of this post. To me, that doesn’t look like an uncluttered workspace; it looks like a claustrophobic hell. Everything’s lined up or hung on the wall, but I need empty space to feel comfortable. To my eye, that photo is untenably cluttered.

  16. posted by Steve Spatucci on

    Hello – that’s my office in the photo, and I’m sitting within it as I write.

    I realize people have varying definitions of “clutter”, but I think of clutter as items that have collected over time, usually unintentionally. I can tell you that I don’t consider a single item in my office to be clutter. Everything was placed very intentionally, and some items were purchased specifically to fit in the available space.

    Some people prefer empty space to think – I don’t. I’m a designer, illustrator, animator, writer, and a musician. My first work area was in the tiny corner of a one-bedroom apartment, butted up against a futon and a hallway leading to the front door. That environment sucked the creativity out of me, and I knew that when I bought a house I wanted a fairly dense collection of inspirational, meaningful items around me. These things don’t prevent me from thinking and being creative – they enhance those abilities. The overall feeling the room creates puts me at ease and helps me enjoy the time I spend working within it.

    I’ll also say, I had many more items – small toys, collectibles, even framed artwork – that didn’t fit on the walls, were redundant, or didn’t fit the theme of the room, and I didn’t try to force them into the arrangement – they’re sitting in a guest room closet.

    My wife and I have had a lot of friends and family with children visit, and no child has ever picked anything off the shelves, even though many are within their reach. They typically look at one small section at a time, taking it all in. I attribute that to the way the pieces are displayed – the framing, shelves, etc. tell kids and other visitors that the items are there for them to look at and enjoy, and not because I didn’t have anyplace else to store them.

  17. posted by Jen on

    I collect quite a bit. I’m in the process of culling out the collections I don’t plan to expand ever again, which will help with my clutter. However, the majority of my collections are displayed throughout my house, and I use what I have, as well. Buying things that are good only for display is #1 on my list of things to get rid of right now. I try my best to keep only what I really care about or what I will use.

  18. posted by Molly on

    Now this hits home! I “collect” a couple of things: books and yarn. They’re both functional, but my buying tends to exceed my use enough that I have a lot lying around.

    So, I store both out on bookshelves. The books are an accepted kind of clutter for intellectual snobs, and the yarn can be displayed attractively because I tend to buy hanks of single-color or subtly variegated yarns in a variety of shades. I arrange them by color and they add a kind of textural attraction to the room without my needing to buy something useless as “decoration.”

    Could I do with less yarn and fewer books? Absolutely. But keeping them constantly in view gets me closer to that goal than hiding them away would.

  19. posted by Sandra on

    @Steve – I’m glad to see some of the shelves on kid-level. Whether that was intentional or not, it’s great that even little kids can probably see some of them and appreciate them. ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. posted by Ruth on

    The photo of this collection is fabulous! I often have clients that want to display a collection. If they are using display shelves of some sort, I like to split up the collection (i.e. Hummel figurines)among other items, such as their crystal stemware. This way they unique figurines don’t complete with one another. Each individual piece is lovely, but when you put a dozen or so together they loose their individuality. My question is…Why do people collect things? I’m especially interested in why grown-ups collect dolls.

  21. posted by Michael on

    I think the distinction between a displayed and hidden collection is very good and useful; I don’t collect anything myself, but it only makes sense to me to collect something only if you can see it/access it.

  22. posted by Rae on

    When I lived a house-bound life (I’m now a full-time RVer) I collected inexpensive blue willow dishware. I kept on hand no more than four covers at a time and went hunting only when I needed a new bread plate/bowl/teacup, etc. It was definitely a collection, but not clutter since it was used daily.

  23. posted by Audrey Johnson on

    I think it’s very possible to be an uncluttered collector. Collections can be wonderful. They put a special value on the things that we love. I think many people are afraid to “collect” these days in fear of being thought of as a hoarded. But there is a big difference between a collector and a hoarder. A hoarder tends to have a messy or dirty space and a collector would never want that to happen to their collection. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

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