Ask Unclutterer: Can a tchochke-free home be warm and inviting?

Reader Helen submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

In the process of getting rid of dust collectors around the house, I find that it can start to somewhat lack personality. I don’t really like having photos around and quite like having bare walls – I could quite easily become a minimalist. I have a couple of prints but these do look rather mass-produced. I’d love some suggestions for adding warmth and humanity to my home without adding clutterful tchochkes.

I’ve been in some minimalist homes that feel warm and inviting, so I’ve never been convinced that tchochkes are a requirement for comfort. Furniture size and materials play a larger role in creating an inviting environment than ceramic kittens.

As long as your furniture is appropriately scaled for the room, or slightly over-sized, you usually won’t feel like a space is bare or cold. If your furniture is right for the room but you still feel that the space is uninviting, a floor covering might be a better alternative for you than hanging artwork on the wall. A textured carpet could be all you need to warm up the space.

Personally, I’m against the idea of having tchochkes for the sake of having tchochkes. If you have a gewgaw or a decoration in your home, it should be because you love it and find it inspiring or entertaining or treasure it deeply. Your home is your refuge from the outside world, and everything in it should be there because you have consciously chosen it to be a part of your sanctuary.

Also, consider playing with paint color on your walls. A white with a hint of gray in it can feel clean but a little warmer than a bright white. Different shades of white in squares painted directly on a bright white background wall could be interesting, like Kazimir Malevich’s famous suprematist painting. Or, paint one wall in a room an intense, non-white color and keep the other walls white in sharp contrast. In our previous home, we had the walls painted like a Mondrian painting. Most walls were white, but if there was a small wall, we painted it in a primary color.

I hope I was of some help, Helen. Please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers. Thank you for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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.

Start an instrument-free band

We’re pretty late to the game on this one, but on the slim chance you haven’t seen it — check out Atomic Tom performing their song “Take Me Out” on a New York Subway car:

The band’s “stolen instruments” claim is just a concept for the video — their instruments weren’t actually stolen. However, what they show is that a band can produce decent music simply using iPhone apps. (The video was even shot using three iPhone 4s.)

To create your own iPhone band, all you’ll need is $11, some practice, and the following apps:

Assorted links for October 18, 2010

Interesting articles and services relating to uncluttering, organizing, and simple living:

  • Patrick at Minimal Mac asks “A Most Important Question.” If you don’t know where something belongs, it may “… not have a place in your home, in your relationships, in your job, or or in your life,” and, “perhaps it should not be there.”
  • Alton Brown, the celebrity chef who is the inspiration behind our Unitasker Wednesday posts, wrote a diary about his (bizarre?) minimalist eating practices when he travels in last week’s New York magazine: “Alton Brown Makes His Own Avocado Ice Cream, Does Shots With John Hodgman.”
  • Learning Express Library is an online resource for practice tests on hundreds of topics. The free and digital tests range from the U.S. Citizenship exam to college entrance tests. Save your money and some trees with these helpful resources.
  • Lose the equipment and your gym membership, and get an uncluttered workout using only your body weight. From Nerd Fitness, “Beginner Body Weight Workout.”
  • The Art of Manliness has a tribute to all things minimalist in “Go Small Or Go Home: In Praise of Minimalism.”
  • Clean up your iTunes digital music collection with Tagalicious — a simple and easy to use application that gets rid of all of those “Track 01” files you have in your directory.
  • Are you on Twitter? Does it bother you when someone attends a conference and floods your stream with messages that don’t interest you in the least? Use DeClutter to remove specific keywords from your timeline. (via Swiss-Miss)

Trend spotting: Tech-savvy minimalism

On Monday, the BBC published the article “Cult of less: Living out of a hard drive” about a group of 20-something hipsters who claim digital technologies have replaced all but a few of their possessions.

One of the men interviewed for the article says he only owns “his laptop, an iPad, an Amazon Kindle, two external hard drives, a ‘few’ articles of clothing and bed sheets.” Another says he only has “a backpack full of designer clothing, a laptop, an external hard drive, a small piano keyboard and a bicycle – an armful of goods that totals over $3,000 (£1,890) in value.”

Owning just a few electronics and pieces of fabric is an interesting take on extreme minimalism. In contrast to most ascetics who eschew the conveniences of the modern world, it’s current technologies that make these hyper-digital ascetics’ lifestyles possible.

[Kelly Sutton of Brooklyn, New York] … says he got rid of much of his clutter because he felt the ever-increasing number of available digital goods have provided adequate replacements for his former physical possessions.

“I think cutting down on physical commodities in general might be a trend of my generation – cutting down on physical commodities that can be replaced by digital counterparts will be a fact,” said Mr Sutton.

The tech-savvy Los Angeles “transplant” credits his external hard drives and online services like iTunes, Hulu, Flickr, Facebook, Skype and Google Maps for allowing him to lead a minimalist life.

However, the tech-savvy minimalists are quick to point out that their decisions have made some aspects of their lives difficult:

Mr Klein says the lifestyle can become loathsome because “you never know where you will sleep”. And Mr Yurista says he frequently worries he may lose his new digital life to a hard drive crash or downed server.

What do you think of these modern minimalists? Discuss your reactions in the comments.

With perspective, it’s normal to feel an emotional attachment to your possessions

Many years ago, a friend of mine tore her favorite jeans and cried. My friend is an extreme minimalist, and I was surprised by her disappointment regarding a physical possession. When I told my husband about the incident a few hours later, I’m ashamed to admit that the two of us had a hearty laugh about my friend’s misfortune.

“Real tears,” I mocked. “Over jeans!”

As the years passed and I went through my personal uncluttering process, I began to understand the tears my friend had shed. When you don’t own many things, and you are conscientious of all of your purchases and your budget, it’s hard not to become emotionally tied to the things you own. You’ve invested time, energy, and great thought deciding if you should let something in your life. What you’ve chosen to keep is the best of the best, and bidding it farewell isn’t always easy.

I’m not saying you should or will cry over your things when they wear out or are used up, but you certainly take notice of their parting. Saying goodbye to one of a handful of things is usually more difficult than saying goodbye to one of thousands.

Instead of beating myself up over feeling a tinge of loss about a physical possession, I simply take note of it. Acknowledging my disappointment is usually enough to keep things in perspective. My internal dialogue might be something like:

“Huh. Look at that. I’m actually sad to see [X] run out/damaged/wear out. I didn’t realize how I’d come to depend on [X]. I’ll wait a week and check back in to see how I feel. This might be something I’ll need to replace.”

I keep a list of things I’m considering purchasing (it’s similar to a grocery list), so I add the item to the list. When I’m determining my budget for the month, I’ll review the list and decide if buying it continues to be a priority. It it remains a priority, I’ll budget money for the item. Sometimes, though, after the initial sting of losing the item, I realize I don’t need to replace it. Over the course of days or weeks, the emotional attachment simply wanes. Time helps put emotional attachments to physical objects in perspective.

Less stuff, more adventure

Today’s guest post is from Sean Ogle a location independent writer and entrepreneur who is currently based out of Bangkok, Thailand. Welcome, Sean!

For years I’ve strived to live a simple lifestyle. And, up until four months ago, I had failed miserably at it. I’ve always been a pack rat, and the amount of meaningless stuff I’d acquired would make a pawn shop owner blush.

So how have I chosen to go about uncluttering my life? I quit my job, sold my car, and am working while traveling throughout southeast Asia. Oh, and I’m doing it all with nothing but a backpack the size of one an eighth grader might use.

Yes, it’s a drastic way to go about changing my life, but drastic times call for drastic measures. I wasn’t happy with my job as a financial analyst, and I knew that if I didn’t have my global adventure soon, my obligations would get the better of me. With the help of my trusty North Face Surge, I disposed of everything I owned, except that which I could fit inside my new pack.

I have no affiliation with North Face whatsoever, but I have to tell you, this is one of the most well designed and useful packs I’ve ever used. It’s much more flexible than a traditional laptop case, and has enough room for everything I’d hoped to bring on my six month trip. That’s saying something.

I’ve been on the move for about three months, and it’s incredible how simple my life has become. No longer do I worry about all of the details that seemed to be such a big deal. Does the car have enough gas to make it to work? Did I leave the coffee pot on? Am I going to get that big raise this year? Sure, I have my own set of concerns, as I’m now working for myself on a variety of web-based ventures, but those hold true for any entrepreneur; giving myself the freedom from overwhelming amounts of “stuff” has been well worth it.

I fully understand that this is an extreme way to reduce clutter in your life, and it is certainly not for everyone. However, for those looking to make a change, and perhaps experience a little adventure, living out of a backpack for a short (or long) period of time is the perfect way to figure out what is truly essential in your life.

Celebrity minimalist: Vincent Kartheiser

Actor Vincent Kartheiser plays the loathsome Pete Campbell on the hit television show Mad Men, and he does it extremely well. (In fact, he does it so well, I can’t watch the show because I truly disdain his character.) In addition to being a great actor, he also appears to be in the running for the most extreme minimalist celebrity in Hollywood. From an April 25 interview with the actor in The Guardian/Observer by Tim Adams:

Some of the ways that Kartheiser has chosen to [search for who he is] are unconventional, at least among Hollywood TV stars. He has, for example, in the city of cheap gas and freeways, given up on a car.

“I go on the bus, I walk. A friend left his car recently at my house and I took it out one day just for 15 minutes and it was terrible. You know why? I felt like I was back in LA again. Four or five years ago, when I had a car and I had been out of the city I wouldn’t feel I was back until I got in the car, you know. But now I feel off the grid. I feel that I am not part of the culture. And because I don’t have a car I don’t really go anywhere to buy things. In fact, I have been in a slow process of selling and giving away everything I own.”

He has? Like what?

“Like, I don’t have a toilet at the moment. My house is just a wooden box. I mean I am planning to get a toilet at some point. But for now I have to go to the neighbours. I threw it all out.”

(As he says this, I’m wondering whether this is just another of the parts Kartheiser might be trying on for size, but to prove the point he later takes me back to his house, which really is an empty wooden box, a small one-room bungalow on a nondescript Hollywood street and indeed it has no lavatory.) Is that a Buddhist thing, I wonder, or an early midlife crisis thing?

“It started a couple of years ago,” he says. “It was in response to going to these Golden Globe type events and they just give you stuff. You don’t want it. You don’t use it. And then Mad Men started to become a success on a popular level and people started sending me stuff, just boxes of shit. Gifts for every holiday, clothes. One day, I looked around and thought ‘I don’t want this stuff, I didn’t ask for it’. So I started giving it to friends or charity stores, or if it is still in its box I might sell it for a hundred bucks. I liked it so I didn’t stop.”

Does he have a bed?

“I do,” he concedes, “but that might go…”


“Actually, that was the big discussion today, when a friend came over: I was wondering, should I have a screen in my home? It seems like the next step. I haven’t had a mirror for six or seven years, though I admit that causes a lot of problems when I have to tie a bow tie. Or if I have to, you know, comb my hair for something. I’m forever looking in the mirrors of parked cars.”

It sounds a bit like an extreme reaction to the venal material desire of Mad Men (and Money [a forth-coming movie on BBC Two in Britain]). He’s not worried about this tendency at all?

He laughs. “I probably should be worried. Sometimes, I look around my house and think: is this normal, Vinny? I mean it’s a bit more than just a remodel…”

Giving up most everything you own — especially your bathroom — isn’t my preferred uncluttered style. (And, can you imagine how annoying it would be to be his neighbor?) However, I like knowing that there is at least one celebrity out there embracing the minimalist life (even if he seems a little wacky) and turning his back on the consumer-obsessed image of the celebrity that most often is represented in the media.

Thanks to all of the readers who sent us the article from the The Guardian/Observer. The image with this article is by Barry J. Holmes for The Observer.

Embark on new adventures: Erin’s second set of 2010 resolutions

Back in early January, I marked the Ides of March as when I would officially check in on my first set of resolutions for 2010 and finalize my resolutions for the second quarter. In the post “Increasing energy: Erin’s first set of 2010 resolutions,” I outlined what I planned to do for January, February, and March.

For the most part, I’ve kept to the resolutions I created. Unfortunately, I had to take six weeks off from the gym and withdraw from the race I planned to run in April because I kicked a rocking chair and significantly injured my foot. I’m just now getting back into a modified gym routine and can wear regular shoes again.

One of the highlights of my first-quarter resolutions was discovering new recipes for my healthy meal plan. One of the things I did was add the Canyon Ranch Cooks cookbook to my collection. With it, I have successfully made and enjoyed dozens of new recipes. During the doldrums of winter, it was nice to keep mealtime interesting and nutritious. Additionally, simply having more energy has been a wonderful thing.

The theme for my second-quarter resolutions is “Embark on new adventures.” Now that I have the much needed energy I was craving, I’m excited about putting it to use. The following are the resolutions I’ve set for April, May, and June:

  • Plant and tend to an herb and vegetable garden.
  • Take a knife skills class.
  • Go rock climbing.
  • Accomplish all 67 tasks on the “Spring Cleaning for the Overachiever” list on pages 189 and 190 of Unclutter Your Life in One Week.
  • Go through my entire home and office and play the uncluttering game I’m moving overseas! (Just to be clear, I’m NOT moving overseas, I’m simply playing the game.) Essentially, take on a full-home minimizing project.

To help me achieve these resolutions, I’m going to reference the post “Creating a plan to achieve your 2010 resolutions.” I’m also going to keep up with all of my first-quarter resolutions to maintain the energy levels necessary to help me with these second-quarter goals.

What are your resolutions for April, May, and June? How are your resolutions progressing for 2010? Share your resolution stories in the comments.

Boxetti: Sleek minimalist furniture

If money were no object and I kept a spectacular flat in London as a second or third home, I would decorate it with furniture like this:

The Boxetti furniture collection (beware of the music that starts playing when clicking on the link) by Rolands Landsbergs is a beautiful feat of minimalism. From the product description:

The capability of the modules to be transformed into compactly solid blocks is essential for the design concept in order to obtain an unobstructed and comfortable space – free of uselessness.

When I see designs like this, I really do wish I had that flat in London.

James Jamerson’s Uncluttered Bass Rig

I’ve written before about my constant battle with an affliction called Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). It’s an almost compulsive need to purchase new equipment in the firm belief that the new item, be it a guitar, amp, or effect pedal, will be the spark that ignites stale monotony into inspired genius. Sometimes it works, but I find that more often, buying new equipment is just a substitute for doing the hard work required to be creative.

This isn’t unique to musicians. Most hobbies require some type of equipment, and therefore present the temptation to acquire more or better gear. We’ve covered the topic of breaking up with a hobby, but an alternative is to simply try to do more with less.

Over the weekend I happened to watch a fascinating documentary called Standing in the Shadows of Motown and I was inspired by the minimal amount of equipment that James Jamerson used. His bass playing on hit songs such as “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” helped define the Motown sound, and completely revolutionized the role of bass in popular music. Jamerson’s influence permeates so much of modern music that it would be nearly impossible to list it all, yet his bass rig was very minimalist. Just an upright acoustic bass, and later his 1962 Fender Precision Bass were all he used for most of his studio recordings. The bass was simply plugged directly into the mixing console.

One of my resolutions for 2010 is to buy less hobby-related equipment. Instead, I’m going to try to follow Jamerson’s example, and look for ways to do more with less.

Extreme minimalist living

Voluntarily living in less than 175 square feet is a skill. It is not a skill I possess or wish to possess, but I have respect for the people who do and am inspired by their way of life. They find a way to do without traditional conveniences of a home. They sacrifice a great deal of comfort to pursue whatever it is that matters to them more.

This week, I’ve been mesmerized by two articles on extreme minimalist living I want to bring to your attention. The first article from Salon is about a graduate student named Ken Ilgunas who attends Duke University and has chosen to live in his van instead of an apartment:

Living in a van was my grand social experiment. I wanted to see if I could — in an age of rampant consumerism and fiscal irresponsibility — afford the unaffordable: an education.

I pledged that I wouldn’t take out loans. Nor would I accept money from anybody, especially my mother, who, appalled by my experiment, offered to rent me an apartment each time I called home. My heat would be a sleeping bag; my air conditioning, an open window. I’d shower at the gym, eat the bare minimum and find a job to pay tuition. And — for fear of being caught — I wouldn’t tell anybody.

Living on the cheap wasn’t merely a way to save money and stave off debt; I wanted to live adventurously. I wanted to test my limits. I wanted to find the line between my wants and my needs. I wanted, as Thoreau put it, “to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life … to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

Ilgunas continues in his article to describe how he cooks meals over a propane stove, doesn’t clean his dishes, and has no friends at school so that his way of life won’t be discovered.

The second article from the New York Post goes inside the $150,000 175-square-foot condo owned by Zaarath and Christopher Prokop:

The couple wakes up every morning in their queen-size bed, which takes up one-third of the living space.

They then walk five feet toward the tiny kitchen, where they pull out their workout clothes, which are folded neatly in two cabinets above the sink. A third cabinet holds several containers of espresso for their only kitchen appliance, a cappuccino maker.

They turn off their hotplate, and use the space on the counter as a feeding area for their cats, Esmeralda and Beauregard.

“We don’t cook,” Zaarath said, adding that their fridge never has any food in it. “So when you don’t cook, you don’t need plates or pots or pans. So we use that space for our clothes.”

Once in their running attire, the two change the cat litter box (stored under the sink) and start their small Rumba vacuum — which operates automatically while they’re out, picking up cat hair.

They then jog to their jobs in Midtown, picking up along the way their work clothes, which are “strategically stashed at various dry cleaners.”

Be sure to check out the amazing photo gallery that accompanies the second article.

My immediate reaction to both articles was that I wanted to purge everything I own and give extreme minimalism a try. Then I remembered that cooking is a passion of mine and I would be unhappy if instead of pots and pans I had workout clothes lining my cabinets. I am incredibly impressed by all three of the people in the articles, however. I have more than a few things I can learn from them.

(Image by Angel Chevrestt at the New York Post.)