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May 16, 2014 6:21 pm

Why we should embrace (and be inspired) by our untidy homes

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It is liberating to admit that the house looks like a train wreck, because that’s just the way it is
An illustration of clutter by James Fryer©James Fryer

I want to lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter.” So said Freddie Mercury in 1977, and he was precisely 37 years ahead of his time. A new era is dawning when we can stop making excuses for putting the mess in domestic, as we all do when the doorbell rings, and embrace our Victorian roots. How about relaxing, instead of the stressful business of inventing lame excuses?

A bit of mess can be inspiring – though you would never guess it from the insistence of 20th-century modernism, which saw order and tidiness as the inevitable expression of the future. The legacy remains in the advice of self-help books such as Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, titles which themselves litter many a coffee table. Accompanying them is the endless stream of lifestyle magazines that showcase limpid light on white interiors, as if to persuade us that all we need is ozone and bleach.

It is liberating to admit that the house looks like a train wreck, because that’s just the way it is. Nobody believes the temporary lapse from the Elle Décor cover shoot anyway. Clearly, most homes are a bit dishevelled because people happen to live in them, and the truly enjoyable moments at home don’t involve a day of conspicuous labour to meet a standard of orderliness: they are the relaxed, informal occasions based around family and friends and the trails they leave. The shackles of 1950s housekeeping must yield to the fact that living patterns have since changed dramatically. Today, we have no front parlour reserved for cabinets of Sunday best crockery, and a back “living” room for pipe smoke and boiled vegetables, as open-plan living is the norm.

Working hours and leisure time were once clearly separated, but seldom any longer. More of us live in apartments and work from home in various degrees, and as urban land value increases, we occupy smaller and smaller spaces. Meanwhile, 21st-century children are cooped up indoors, but own many more toys and books than before, and culinary trends have inspired a kitchen-as-family-room culture. The ethos of the age is creative clutter in confined spaces.

A house manifesting creativity has disorder at its heart. As Carl Jung once put it, “in all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order”.

Freeing a new order from a messy environment is precisely what a painter like Lucian Freud did with chromatic gunge. Gardeners everywhere mix tons of dirt with blood and bonemeal to achieve beauty. Cooking means broken eggs, spilled milk, scattered flour. So, even if we subscribe to order, chaos is its prerequisite, a crucible of potential.

The celebration of mess is at least as old as the Enlightenment age. Alexander Pope found the chaos of variety reassuring:

Not chaos-like together crushed and bruised;

But, as the world, harmoniously confused:

Where order in variety we see;

And where, though all things differ, all agree.

That was more than three centuries ago, and reconciled variety surrounds us much more intensively in the harnessed chaos of the information age. The internet is the biggest, most incomprehensible mess ever, and it is now central to our lives. In 2007 David Weinberger wrote a book titled Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. Its broad theme is that there is no universally accepted way of classifying information, and every system that attempts order merely represents the predispositions of the person making that attempt. “Suppose messiness is not a flaw in our thinking but enables it,” he suggests.

In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order

- Carl Jung

Kathleen Vohs, at the University of Minnesota, recently took up this engaging idea and carried out an experiment to challenge the notion that small acts of urban disorder lead to spiralling criminal damage, as the “broken windows theory” would have it. In a paper published in Psychological Science, she reported that ordered environments do indeed cultivate responsibility: generosity and healthy choices are fostered by a tidy room. So perhaps spatial order is ennobling, something we might expect, since ruling classes and institutions have long represented themselves through classical architecture, with its principles of symmetry and resolved proportions.

However, Vohs and her colleagues also found that chaotic environments have their own effects. When given a task, those who worked in a messy room were much more creative thinkers, and identified with options labelled “new” more than “classic”. Disorder leads to unshackled, innovative thinking. Clutter is the realm of serendipitous interaction. Anyone who enjoys half an hour in a decent bric-a-brac shop could have told you that. And yet – untidily – not all scientists agree.

A 2011 experiment at Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute concluded that: “Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.”

If I didn’t have a dishevelled creative environment where I can make a mess . . . my mind would give way’

- Adrian Teal

That is, at least, an impressive demonstration of how science can clutter language. And it may contain a point, that there must be a limit to the virtues of junk, where it starts to disturb us. Certainly, British television channels gleefully relate that unbounded household clutter can come to dominate your life by following hoarders as they burrow through stacks of ancient newspapers to reach their household appliances.

Adrian Teal, author of The Gin Lane Gazette, is a cartoonist dependent on piles of books and pictures to trigger creative thinking and ideas. He was keen to avoid this scenario, and drew the line under domestic disorder in his home in Northamptonshire when the business of caricature became so intensely cluttered that he had to rent a studio four miles away.

“If I didn’t have a dishevelled creative environment entirely separate from where I live, and where I can make a mess, scribble endlessly, and ransack books for inspiration when I need to, then I think my mind would give way,” he says. “Having that chaos – surrounding yourself with a disorderly abundance that might trigger inspiration – is as essential as being able to shut the door on it at the end of a working day. I find I need that balance. Without it, I’d end up like the Georgian caricaturist James Gillray, and crack up in an attic above the shop.”

Can we strike a balance between harbouring garbage that impedes and oppresses, and encouraging a creative muddle? If we can, the future of our homes might be one in which we cultivate certain types of disorder. Interior design could then become less prescriptive, instead focusing on what we do with our time, which is, after all, our most precious commodity.

As one perceptive individual asked: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” And I’m not one to argue with Einstein.

Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

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