Clutter: The Calm Killer

March 1, 2021

by carolee mccall smith | photos by nathan satran

Imagine you’re coming home after a long day. You’re tired. You walk in the door and collapse onto the couch, and look around the room. You don’t know why but there’s something about your living room that makes you feel anxious. But your house is clean. Sure, there’s a bit of junk mail, keys, and sunglasses on the table, but something is still off. Next to you is a collection of antique figurines (what? your grandma loved them, and so do you). And, of course, a plethora of remote controls for your TV. A bunch of pictures scattered on the wall above the table call out for attention. You feel overwhelmed. 

Okay, maybe you haven’t had that exact experience, but I think you get where I’m going. A lot is going on around you, and it makes your brain feel uneasy. For me, the culprit killing the calm in my environment is clutter.  

Clutter can mean so many things, big or small. Your home should feel like a warm hug, not fingernails on a chalkboard. So, where can you begin sorting through your clutter to regain that sense of calm? 

First, let’s start with the bigger themes: 

  • Grouping:This is the biggest thing you can do to keep all those small things you love from feeling cluttered. This concept holds true for everything from a gallery wall to some candlesticks on a console table. You want to create a sense of unity between the items you’re displaying. I’ve seen gallery frames spaced out evenly across a wall, and they lose all sense of unity and simply become an overwhelming number of pictures vying for your attention. Instead, keep each frame separated by only a few inches, so your brain sees the entire gallery as a single item instead of a bunch of loose pieces. 
  • Layering:An alternative to a traditional gallery wall is using a shelf to lean frames along. When doing this, create depth by layering the frames, so smaller ones sit a little in front of larger frames or canvases. 
  • Staggering height: When you’re layering all those pictures on the shelf, you need to vary the heights of each frame and/or canvas as well.
  • Use odd numbers: That’s it. That’s the tip. I don’t have any scientific backing on why odd numbers feel more pleasing to our brains; they just do.  
  • And repeat: Now think of those same tips using some candlesticks. Group them, and layer them by placing them at different depths. Ever notice how they’re usually sold in varying heights? Stagger them, and finally, they’re also often sold in groups of three, an odd number. 

You can take these tips and use them to keep your finished design from feeling cluttered, but what should you do about those little bits of life that are necessary but cause clutter?  

  • Balance gallery walls with large-scale art:Gallery walls are a fun way to share your favorite memories. But if you get carried away and put them all over, they’ll start to feel overwhelming. Create a sense of balance by hanging a large painting nearby.  
  • Leave some negative space:My son is an artistic soul. He’s always creating new drawings and paintings to hang all over the house. And while I love his art, I have to make sure we don’t cover every open chunk of wall with it. A well-placed painting creates a sense of calm. But a painting on every bit of wall space in the house is visually overwhelming, even when they’re first-grade masterpieces. 
  • Knick knacks: Avoid them where possible. I’m not saying you have to get rid of all of Grandma’s little figurines, but a little goes a long way with them. Use them sparingly. A few small touches from heirlooms have more effect than an entire army of figurines, watching your every move. Ooh, that just creeped me out a little. Maybe they have to go after all.  
  • Remote controls:For some reason, we all have at least three remote controls per TV; one for the TV, one for streaming or a soundbar, and that one that we’re not sure what it does or if it even goes with this TV. Hide them! I keep ours in a cute little box on the mantel. Not only do I always know where they are, but my toddler can also no longer steal them to see what happens if you try to flush them down the toilet. 
  • Create drop zones:A table or bench with drawers near the door is a great place to hide your necessary life clutter. Sunglasses, car keys, whatever gets tossed on the table as soon as you walk through the door can have a home there. Bonus points for adding a basket for shoes. However, if you want an explanation for why your kid manages to get one shoe in the basket but you find the other one on the opposite side of the house after days of searching, I have no tips for you. 

Clutter can sneak up on you in several ways. Sometimes it’s in our décor and sometimes just in our junk. But we often underestimate what that clutter does to our psyche. For me, and for many people I know, clutter stresses us out in an ambiguous way. It might be hard to put your finger on what stresses you out sometimes. If that happens, take a look around your room and see if you’re overwhelmed by all those creepy figurines (sorry, Grandma).  

Originally printed in the March 2021 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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