05 October 2009

Reader question: How do I display small objects?

Help! I know that it is better to have a few large items for more impact, but what do we do if we have many small items of interest? Do you have any ideas of how to display such things (ex. teacups, small bottles, pin cushions, button hooks, etc.)?
No. Unless getting rid of it counts as an idea that is.

I am the wrong guy to ask for advice as you contemplate how to clutter up your home. What you're asking me about is room dandruff, but since you asked I'm going to take the opportunity to pontificate about clutter.

Before. Look at the cluttered up home of someone who probably feels overwhelmed by the business of living.

Displays of small objects are clutter, especially when they exist for no reason than to sit there and add "character." Piles of junk don't add character, they add confusion. A couple of objects that tell the story of your life, and that serve as reminders of experiences you've had, are perfectly fine. In fact, I can't encourage you strongly enough to use your living space to recreate the narrative of your life. If these objects have some actual utility, then that's all the better.

After. These folks are about a third of the way through the decluttering they need to do. Happiness will elude them until they get rid of the crap hanging from the ceiling and the rest of the junk on the counters.

I'll use myself as an example. I like to travel. Every time I go somewhere I bring back a rock or a shell or something along those lines. I keep these rocks and shells and sticks and what have you in a jar on top of my dresser. Now if I had those fragments of my memories laying loose and strewn across every horizontal surface I have it would be clutter. In a jar, those rocks and shells and sticks are a display, and they become a single object that encapsulates everywhere on earth I've been in the last 20 years. When I want to remember Rome or Panama or Grenada or San Francisco, I pull out a rock from that place and get wistful for a moment. Ahhhh, that jar's one of my life's great treasures. What makes that jar so useful is that when I put the Colombian pebble or the Costa Rican twig or the Bahamian feather or the tiny Roman bell back in the jar, I'm not held hostage by my own history. I can stay engaged in my life today. Spookily controlled, isn't it? Hah!

I get it that I'm more rigid than most when it comes to these sort of things, but it's what works for me. However, I am convinced that clutter will prevent you from thinking clearly and it serves as a huge distraction from the business of living right now. If you have to display small stuff, put it in a curio cabinet or a jar or a basket so that it takes up less visual space and stays out of the way. Try it some time. Put away all of your small stuff for a couple of weeks and watch how quickly you pay bills and how closely you pay attention to the people in your life. Cleared surfaces will keep you in the now, believe me.


  1. The problem with clutter is that it magically appears every single day. In our house, a clear flat surface (floor, table, bookshelf) becomes a suitable place to put every piece of crap that enters the house. I refuse to be the one who has to pick up after every other person living in the house. No punishment that I have inflicted on family members has worked. They are not bothered by the clutter; clutter makes me insane. It's not a matter of decoration here, it's a matter of people with bad habits who have no intention of changing their evil clutter-filled ways. And yes, I love them anyway.

  2. It's easy for me to wax rhapsodic on the virtues of clear surfaces, I live alone. I have flown solo for most of my life and I doubt I could handle a change in that department. I recommend you implement draconian measures. Pile all of the misplaced crap in the back yard and burn it. But then again, maybe suggestions like that are why I live alone. Hah!

  3. amen.

    I remember learning in a basic psych class that people who are pack rats are hoarding against an uncertain future. They don't believe life can provide what they need at the time they need it. People who are able to live without clutter trust themselves to make good choices. Its really simplistic thinking but I think its valid. But for me, it just hurts my head to look at it. It would drive me nuts and I am sure that is indicative of some other emotional problem....

  4. I say it's freeing. Other people say it's sterile. We're right though Elizabeth.

  5. I'm working at decluttering my life. It's hard when you have memories of people who are gone attached to things. But I guess they're just that, things.

    Hubby has the most annoying clutter-creating habits. Every day, he takes the mail from the mail holder next to the front door and puts it on the kitchen counter. Drives me nuts!!


  6. It is tough. My friend Woody dies in 2000 and left me most of his worldly possessions. It was mostly his clutter but I held onto huge amounts of it for about five years, thinking "I can't get rid of THAT, it was Woody's!" It was as if I'd convinced myself that throwing away his stuff was somehow throwing away my memory of him. It's a load of crap of course, and now that it's gone except for the photos and a single bronze ibex. I remember him as clearly and as fondly as I ever did. In fact, I probably resent him a little less because now my living room's not full of his junk.

  7. I love this post, mostly because it just made me laugh the way you wrote it. The photo captions were the icing on the cake.

    I also remembered this Web site (http://www.lostfoundart.com) from a guy who collects and displays things in a cool way. I'm sure it's not what your original questioner had in mind, or if it's your style, but I love it.

  8. Thanks Erika! Cool site that guy has. I doubt my questioner had this guy's ideas in mind for her collection of thimbles and pin cushions. If she had, I probably would have just encouraged her and let it go. There's a huge difference between Old Lady Clutter and that guy's thought out collections. Great site!

  9. haha! room dandruff. ; ) I'm going back through all your reader questions - they (and you) are hilarious!

  10. The answer to your question lives in my archives. I added a link to today's question that will take you right to it.

  11. I call all those unnecessary items "visual vomit"!


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